Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson - CC via Flickr - Jim Mattis
CAIRO – 16 August 2017: The majority of global population faces restrictions and limitations to their freedom of religion, which leads to instability, human rights abuses and violent extremism, according to the U.S. Department of State’s annual report on International Religious Freedom for 2016.
The report, released on Tuesday, highlights that the world is far from ideal. The report reads, “Religious persecution and intolerance remains far too prevalent. Almost 80 percent of the global population lives with restrictions on or hostilities to limit their freedom of religion.”
Launching the 2016 report, Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson said that “the Trump administration has committed to advancing international religious freedom around the world.” He added that Trump’s administration considers protecting any group that is subject to violent extremism as a human rights priority and that the U.S. will continue to work with regional partners to protect minorities from terrorist attacks and to preserve their cultural heritage. He quoted U.S. President Donald Trump, who said, “People of all faiths, Christians and Muslims and Jewish and Hindu, can follow their hearts and worship according to their conscience.”
Tillerson mentioned that terrorist members of Islamic State (IS), despite the progress in defeating them, continue to deliberatively target religious and ethnic groups through rape, kidnapping, enslavement and killing. Furthermore, he accused IS of committing genocide and ethnic cleansing against Yezidis, Christians, Kurds, Muslims and other minorities in areas where they control or they used to have control.
The secretary of state mentioned the terrorist attacks in Egypt as an example of IS’s crimes, as the terrorist group claimed responsibility for these attacks.
The 2016 International Religious Freedom report referred to oppressive acts by some countries, such as Iran, Turkey, China, Pakistan and Sudan. The report states that 20 individuals were executed in Iran during 2016 on charges that included “waging war against God.” It also says that members of the Baha’i community in Iran are in prison for abiding by their beliefs. Regarding Turkey, the reports accused the Turkish government of discrimination against human rights activists and members of some religious minority groups, including the non-Sunni Muslim Alevi group. The report continues with China, where it accuses the government of torturing , detaining and imprisoning thousands for practicing their religious beliefs, including members of Falun Gong, Uighur Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists.
On Wednesday, China denied the violations of religious freedom reported in the International Religious Report. The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Hua Chunying, said in a press briefing, “All Chinese people of all ethnic groups and all regions are fully entitled to religious belief. The so-called report ignores facts." She added, “We see that the U.S. is not a perfect country either. We urge the US to... manage its own affairs,” according to AFP.
As for Egypt, the report refers to several reform actions, including a new law passed in September facilitating approval of church construction and licensure of churches. It states that by the end of 2016, the government nearly completed restoring all the 78 churches that were attacked by the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013. Before passing the new church law in September, President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi approved the license of three new churches. Furthermore, the government continued to build a state-funded church in honor of 20 Egyptian Copts killed by IS in Libya.
The report also refers to a large reshuffle in high level positions in rural areas as a response from the government to Christians in these areas who said they face discrimination based on their religion. Furthermore, the report mentioned that President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi continues to call on Muslim scholars to renew religious discourse to challenge the ideology of extremists. It also highlights the response from government and religious institutions, which defended the rights of Shia Muslims, continued to reform school curricula, and discussed alternatives to consensus in Islamic jurisprudence.
In October 2016, the grand imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmed el-Tayeb, encouraged qualified Islamic scholars to use their analytical reasoning skills in issuing fatwas appropriate for the modern-day societies in which they live. He also announced that Al-Azhar would establish a “Committee of Fiqh” (jurisprudence) to address some Islamic doctrinal issues, thereby asserting space for renewal of religious discourse.
As for the legal framework in Egypt, the International Religious Freedom report highlights that the Egyptian penal code applies a six-month to five-year imprisonment penalty for acts that use religion to promote extremist thought with the aim of inciting strife; demeaning or denigrating Judaism, Christianity, or Islam; and harming national unity. In addition, the penal code criminalizes discrimination based on religion and stipulates imprisonment and/or a fine of no less than LE 30,000 ($1,700) and no more than LE 50,000 ($2,800) as penalties for discrimination.
According to the law, a minimum of 24 Christians must be elected out of the total 120 members elected as members of any party lists. This law occurred in the first parliamentary elections after the 2014 constitution’s ratification.
Furthermore, the Egyptian government appoints and monitors imams who lead prayers in licensed mosques and pays their salaries. In case of preaching or giving religious lessons without a license from the Ministry of Awqaf (Religious Endowments) or Al-Azhar, the person faces one year imprisonment and/or a fine of up to LE 50,000 ($2,800). Another decree prohibits holding Friday prayers in mosques smaller than 80 square meters (861 square feet). The Ministry of Awqaf sets the guidelines for every Friday sermon to ensure there is no hate speech during the Friday prayers.
The report on Egypt continues by referring that the Ministry of Education (MOE) bans wearing the hijab (headscarf) in primary schools, but allows it in middle and high schools upon written request from a girl’s parent. Cairo University, which falls under the supervision of the Ministry of Higher Education, bans professors in certain fields from wearing the niqab (face veil) during class.
Egypt has the National Council for Human Rights (NCHR), which works to strengthen protection, raise awareness and ensure the observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms, including religious freedom. The council is also charged with monitoring enforcement and application of international agreements pertaining to human rights.
The U.S. State Department’s report also puts light on positive coverage of the Jewish community in the media, including an interview with the president of the Cairo Jewish community, Magda Haroun, at one of Cairo’s remaining synagogues. Haroun spoke about Judaism as a religion and corrected the misconceptions about the Jewish community in Egypt. Furthermore, the report refers to efforts by the Ministry of Antiquities to assess the Egyptian Jewish heritage sites and catalogue their contents.
The report also referred to continuing cooperation between the U.S. Department of State and the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs on joint programs to enhance equality and protection of religious freedom in Egypt.
The annual report on International Religious Freedom is a requirement of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. The 1998 Act was signed by former U.S. President Bill Clintion, and it represents a legislation that upholds religious freedom as a core American value under the Constitution’s First Amendment, as well as a universal human right. The law calls for the government to “Stand for liberty and stand with the persecuted; to use and implement appropriate tools in the U.S. foreign policy apparatus, including diplomatic, political, commercial, charitable, educational and cultural channels; and to promote respect for religious freedom by all governments and peoples.”
Since 1998, the U.S. designated an ambassador for International Religious Freedom at the Department of State, established a commission on International Religious Freedom, and assigned a special advisor on International Religious Freedom within the National Security Council.
According to the law, countries that are severe violators of religious freedom (countries of concern) face punitive sanctions, including signing a binding agreement with the concerned country to end the religious persecution, or to choose one of the following fifteen options: a private or public demarche (political action); a private or public condemnation; delay or cancellation of scientific or cultural exchanges; denial, delay, or cancellation of working, official or state visits; withdrawal, limitation, or suspension of some forms of U.S. aid; direction to public and private international institutions to deny assistance; and sanctions prohibiting the U.S. government from entering into import or export agreements with the designated governments.
Preparing the annual International Religious Freedom report is one of the duties assigned to the Office of International Religious Freedom. The report monitors religious persecution and discrimination worldwide and supplements the most recent Human Rights reports. It is submitted to the Congress annually for review and discussion. The report includes individual country chapters, reflecting the status of religious freedom in each country. The 2016 report includes the status of religious freedom in 199 countries and territories around the world, highlighting the most significant and growing challenges.
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