ISSUE - Hints of Pluralism Appear in Eqyptian Religious Debates







Separation of Religion or Belief & State




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Issue: Hints of Pluralism Begin to Appear in Egyptian Religious Debates. 


For: United Nations, Governments, Religions or Beliefs, Academia, NGOs, Media, Civil Society


Review: Memo from Cairo: Hints of Pluralism Begin to Appear in Egyptian Religious Debates, by Michael Slackman, New York Times, Monday August 31, 2009.


This article points to greater tolerance for diversity of religion or belief in Egypt. It brings to mind the challenge the UN Human Rights Council has to achieve consensus between two world views on issues relating to international human rights standards on freedom of religion or belief (See Attachment: Right to Freedom of Religion or Belief Adopted Without Consensus).


While recognizing the religious and cultural sensitivity these issues engender, it is time for the UN Human Rights Council to establish a Open-ended Working Group for a UN Convention on Freedom of Religion or Belief, deferred since 1968 by its predecessor the UN Human Rights Commission, and to strengthen the Special Procedures mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief. 


The Egypt Universal Periodic Review will be held by the UN Human Rights Council in early 2010. It will not be adopted and posted until late 2010. The Tandem Project Follow-up with specific recommendations for Egypt will be made once it is adopted and posted on the OHCHR website under Human Rights in the World. The importance of Egypt is highlighted by the length (twenty pages) of the 2008 U.S. State Department Report on International Religious Freedom on Egypt (Excerpts below, full report in the Attachment). 




The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) is a unique process launched by the UN Human Rights Council in 2008 to review the human rights obligations and responsibilities of all UN Member States by 2011. Click for the Introduction to the Universal Periodic Review and Current News:


Egypt signed the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights on 4 August 1967 and ratified the Covenant on 14 January 1982.


The primary human rights instruments on international law and freedom of religion or belief are:


Article 18 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the 1981 Declaration on the Elimination of all Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief.


General Comment 22 on Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights:


The 1981 UN Declaration:




The Tandem Project Follow-up is an updated adaptation of The Tandem Project 1986 Community Strategies that propose, at local levels, concrete action steps to implement Article 18 and the 1981 UN Declaration on Freedom of Religion or Belief: 


 (1) Develop model local-national-international integrated approaches to human rights and freedom of religion or belief, appropriate to the constitutions, legal systems and cultures of each country, (2) Use International Human Rights Standards on Freedom of Religion or Belief as a platform for inclusive and genuine dialogue, (3) Apply these standards on freedom of religion or belief in education curricula, “teaching children, from the very beginning, that their own religion is one out of many and it is a personal choice for everyone to adhere to the religion or belief by which he or she feels most inspired, or to adhere to no religion or belief at all.”  


Example: Universal Periodic Review & Freedom of Religion or Belief






CAIRO — Writing in his weekly newspaper column, Gamal al-Banna said recently that God had created humans as fallible and therefore destined to sin. So even a scantily clad belly dancer, or for that matter a nude dancer, should not automatically be condemned as immoral, but should be judged by weighing that person’s sins against her good deeds.

This view is provocative in Egypt’s conservative society, where many argue that such thinking goes against the hard and fast rules of divine law. Within two hours of the article’s posting last week on the Web site of Al Masry al Youm, readers had left more than 30 comments — none supporting his position.

“So a woman can dance at night and pray in the morning; this is duplicity and ignorance,” wrote a reader who identified himself as Hany. “Fear God and do not preach impiety.”

Still, Mr. Banna was pleased because at least his ideas were being circulated. Mr. Banna, who is 88 years old and is the brother of Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, has been preaching liberal Islamic views for decades.

But only now, he said, does he have the chance to be heard widely. It is not that a majority agrees with him; it is not that the tide is shifting to a more moderate interpretative view of religion; it is just that the rise of relatively independent media — like privately owned newspapers, satellite television channels and the Internet — has given him access to a broader audience.

And there is another reason: The most radical and least flexible thinkers no longer intimidate everyone with differing views into silence.

“Everything has its time,” Mr. Banna said, seated in his dusty office crammed with bookshelves that stretch from floor to ceiling.

It is a testament to how little public debate there has been over the value of pluralism, or more specifically of the role of religion in society, that so many see the mere chance to provoke as progress. But now, more than any time in many years, there are people willing to risk challenging conventional thinking, said writers, academics and religious thinkers like Mr. Banna.

“There is a relative development, enough to at least be able to present a different opinion that confronts the oppressive religious current which prevails in politics and on the street, and which has made the state try to outbid the religious groups,” said Gamal Asaad, a former member of Parliament and a Coptic intellectual.

It is difficult to say exactly why this is happening. Some of those who have begun to speak up say they are acting in spite of — and not with the encouragement of — the Egyptian government. Political analysts said that the government still tried to compete with the Muslim Brotherhood, a banned but tolerated Islamic movement, to present itself as the guardian of conservative Muslim values.

Several factors have changed the public debate and erased some of the fear associated with challenging conventional orthodoxy, political analysts, academics and social activists said. These include a disillusionment and growing rejection of the more radical Islamic ideology associated with Al Qaeda, they said. At the same time, President Obama’s outreach to the Muslim world has quieted the accusation that the United States is at war with Islam, making it easier for liberal Muslims to promote more Western secular ideas, Egyptian political analysts said.

“It is not a strategic or transformational change, but it is a relative change,” said Mr. Asaad, who emphasized that the dynamic was for Christians as well as Muslims in Egypt. “And the civil forces can unite to capitalize on this atmosphere and invest in it to raise it to become a more general atmosphere.”

Two events this summer highlighted the new willingness of a minority to confront the majority — and the overwhelming response by a still conservative community.

In June, a writers’ committee affiliated with the Ministry of Culture gave a prestigious award to Sayyid al-Qimni, a sharp critic of Islamic fundamentalism who in 2005 stopped writing, disavowed his own work and moved after receiving death threats for his writing.

Muhammad Salmawy, a committee member and president of the Egyptian Writers’ Union, said he thought Mr. Qimni had been honored in part because “he represents the secular direction and discusses religion on an objective basis and is against the religious current.”

What happened next followed a predictable path, but then veered. Islamic fundamentalists like Sheik Youssef al-Badri asked the government to revoke the award and moved to file a lawsuit against Mr. Qimni and the government.

“Salman Rushdie was less of a disaster than Sayyid al-Qimni,” said Mr. Badri in a television appearance on O TV, an independent Egyptian satellite channel. “Salman Rushdie, everyone attacked him because he destroyed Islam overtly. But Sayyid al-Qimni is attacking Islam and destroying it tactfully, tastefully and politely.”

But this time Mr. Qimni did not go into hiding. He appeared on the television show, sitting beside Sheik Badri as he defended himself.

A second development involved a religious minority, Bahais, who face discrimination in Egypt, where the only legally recognized faiths are Islam, Judaism and Christianity. Nine years ago the state stopped issuing identification records to Bahais unless they agreed to characterize themselves as members of one of the three recognized faiths. The documents are essential for access to all government services.

An independent group, The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, won a court order on behalf of the Bahais that forced the government to issue records leaving the religious identification blank. The first cards were issued this month. While the decision was aimed specifically at solving the problem faced by the Bahai community, the case tapped into the evolving debate, said the group’s executive director, Hossam Bahgat.

“It is an unprecedented move to recognize that one can be Egyptian and not adhere to one of these three religions,” Mr. Bahgat said. Still, he remains less than optimistic; most of the public reaction to the Bahais’ legal victory was negative, Mr. Bahgat said.

“It is known that you are apostates,” read one of many comments posted on Al Youm Al Sabei, an online newspaper.

But there has been at least a hint of diversity and debate in response to Mr. Banna’s remarks on belly dancers. Hours after they were posted, some readers began, however tentatively, to come to his defense. “Take it easy on the man,” an anonymous post said. “He did not issue a religious edict saying belly dancing is condoned. But he is saying that a person’s deeds will be weighed out because God is just. Is anything wrong with that?”

Mona el-Naggar contributed reporting.





Excerpts: From full report:


1. Egypt – Religious Demography


The country has an area of 370,308 square miles and a population of 79 million, of whom almost 90 percent are Sunni Muslims. Shi'a Muslims constitute less than 1 percent of the population. Estimates of the percentage of Christians ranged from 8 to 12 percent, (6 to 10 million), the majority of whom belonged to the Coptic Orthodox Church. The country's Jewish community numbers 200, mostly senior citizens.


Other Christian communities include the Armenian Apostolic, Catholic (Armenian, Chaldean, Greek, Melkite, Roman, and Syrian Catholic), Maronite, and Orthodox (Greek and Syrian) churches which range in size from several thousand to hundreds of thousands. An evangelical Protestant community, established in the middle of the 19th century, included 16 Protestant denominations (Presbyterian, Episcopal (Anglican), Baptist, Brethren, Open Brethren, Revival of Holiness (Nahdat al-Qadaasa), Faith (Al-Eyman), Church of God, Christian Model Church (Al-Mithaal Al-Masihi), Apostolic, Grace (An-Ni'ma), Pentecostal, Apostolic Grace, Church of Christ, Gospel Missionary (Al-Kiraaza bil Ingil), and the Message Church of Holland (Ar-Risaala)). There are also followers of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which was granted legal status in the 1960s. There are 800 to 1200 Jehovah's Witnesses and small numbers of Mormons but the Government does not recognize either group. The number of Baha'is is estimated at 2,000 persons.


2. Egypt – Legal/Policy Framework


The Constitution, under Article 46, provides for freedom of belief and the practice of religious rites; however, the Government restricts these rights in practice. Islam is the official state religion, and Shari'a is the primary source of legislation.


The Government does not recognize conversions of Muslims to Christianity or other religions, and resistance to such conversions by local officials--through refusal to legally recognize conversions--constitutes a prohibition in practice. January 2008 rulings by the Cairo Administrative Court stated that freedom to convert does not extend to Muslim citizens. This was under appeal at the end of the reporting period. It also ruled that constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion do not apply to Baha'is. Conversion is not illegal under civil law, but, in practice the Government does not recognize conversions of Muslim-born citizens to other religions. However, in January 2008 the Supreme Administrative Court ruled that the Ministry of Interior (MOI) must issue identity documents indicating the conversion back to Christianity of some Christian-born converts to Islam.


While there is no legal ban on proselytizing Muslims, the Government restricts such efforts. Neither the Constitution nor the Civil and Penal Codes prohibit proselytizing, but police have harassed those accused of proselytizing on charges of ridiculing or insulting heavenly religions or inciting sectarian strife.


3. Egypt – Restrictions on Religious Freedom


On May 31, 2008, police located within 1 mile of the Abu Fana Monastery in Upper Egypt reportedly took 3 hours to respond to a request for help when a monk's cell at the monastery was under attack. The armed assault resulted in the death of one Muslim Bedouin villager, multiple injuries, including gunshot wounds, to monks, the kidnapping and abuse of several monks, and looting and damages estimated at more than 1,000,000 Egyptian pounds. Three monks abducted from the monastery were reportedly rescued by security services (see Societal Abuses and Discrimination).


On January 29, 2008, the Cairo Administrative Court, a court of first impression, ruled that the administrative agency of the Civil Status Department was not bound to examine the request of Muhammad Ahmad Abduh Higazy to have his new religion, Christianity, recorded on his national identity card as so doing would conflict with public order. In its ruling, the court wrote that Muslims are forbidden from converting away from Islam based on principles of Islamic law, and because such conversion would constitute a disparagement of the official state religion and an enticement for other Muslims to convert. The court asserted its duty to protect public order from the crime of apostasy from Islam and to protect public morals, especially if the apostate petitions the administration to condone his misdeed and his corrupt caprice. In August 2007 Mohamed Ahmed Higazy and his wife Zeinab had publicly announced that they had converted to Christianity and wished to be legally recognized as such. The ruling maintained a government policy not to provide a legal means for converts from Islam to Christianity to amend their civil records to reflect their new religious status. Higazy's attorney appealed the case in March 2008, and it remained under appeal at the end of the reporting period.


The Government continued to deny civil documents, including identity cards, birth certificates, and marriage licenses, to members of the Baha'i community. However, on January 29, 2008, the Cairo Administrative Court ruled that the MOI must issue identification documents to Baha'is, with the religious affiliation space filled with a dash. While the ruling was not applied to other Baha'is, members of the Baha'i community reported anecdotally that the ruling was assisting them in obtaining some civil documents (see Introduction and Legal/Policy Framework).

4. Egypt – Societal Abuses and Discrimination


Although Christians and Muslims share a common culture and live as neighbors throughout the country, violent sectarian attacks on Copts continued to occur during the reporting period, as they have in previous years.


On May 31, 2008, in the province of al-Minya, a large group of Muslim Bedouins with automatic firearms assaulted monks and laborers on land bordering the Abu Fana Monastery, which monks were been cultivating. In the attack one Muslim died, three to seven Christians were wounded, and several monks were abducted and abused. Ownership of the agricultural lands is disputed. Al Jazeera quoted an eye witness who stated that some of the 60 to 70 assailants destroyed an outer wall that was under construction, while others destroyed property and set fire to a monk's chapel, which reportedly burned Bibles, altars, and Christian symbols. Multiple reports, including a June 20, 2008 statement by the Holy Synod Committees of the Coptic Orthodox Church, asserted that three monks were taken hostage and tortured, beaten, and told to spit on the cross, and that the kidnappers attempted to force them to convert to Islam upon pain of death before being rescued by local police. Coptic Pope Shenouda III stated, "This is the first time they kidnap and torture monks. The issue is becoming critical," according to Sawt al-Muhajir. Pope Shenouda stated that the attack indicated an "absence of security." The provincial governor publicly pledged to the Pope that he would take action to calm sectarian tensions in his province and assured him the stolen items, valued at $188,000, would be returned. No charges against perpetrators were filed, although at the end of the reporting period, 13 of the attackers remained in custody. Two monks were reportedly detained for 2 days. There was also an attack on the monks in January 2008.


On February 9, 2008, Muslim citizens set fire to Christian-owned shops in the village of Armant in Upper Egypt after reports surfaced of a love affair between a Muslim woman and a Coptic Christian man. Security forces deployed in the town closed shops under a security decree and detained eight Muslims and one Copt, all of whom were subsequently released.


5. Egypt – U.S. Government Policy


Religious freedom is an important part of the bilateral dialogue. The right of religious freedom has been raised with senior government officials by all levels of the U.S. Government, including by visiting members of Congress, the Secretary of State, the Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs, the Ambassador, and other State Department and embassy officials.


The Embassy maintains formal contacts with the Office of Human Rights at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Embassy also regularly discusses religious freedom matters with other government officials, including governors and members of Parliament. The Ambassador has made public statements supporting religious freedom, interfaith understanding, and efforts toward harmony and equality among citizens of all religious groups. Specifically, the Embassy and other State Department officials raised concerns with the Government about ongoing discrimination faced by Christians in building and maintaining church properties despite Decree 291 of 2005, official discrimination against Baha'is, and the Government's treatment of Muslim citizens who wish to convert.

Source: US State Department 2008 International Religious Freedom Report; Egypt. Click to open the full report:

Links to State Department sites are welcomed. Unless a copyright is indicated, information on the State Department’s main website is in the public domain and may be copied and distributed without permission. Citation of the U.S. State Department as source of the information is appreciated.


Documents Attached:


Hints of Pluralism Begin to Appear in Egyptian Religious Debates

Right to Freedom of Religion or Belief Adopted Without Consensus


United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, at the Alliance of Civilizations Madrid Forum said; “never in our lifetime has there been a more desperate need for constructive and committed dialogue, among individuals, among communities, among cultures, among and between nations.”


Genuine dialogue on human rights and freedom of religion or belief calls for respectful discourse, discussion of taboos and clarity by persons of diverse beliefs. Inclusive dialogue includes people of theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs, as well as the right not to profess any religion or belief. The warning signs are clear, unless there is genuine dialogue ranging from religious fundamentalism to secular dogmatism; conflicts in the future will probably be even more deadly.


In 1968 the UN deferred work on an International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Religious Intolerance because of its complexity and sensitivity. Violence, suffering and discrimination based on religion or belief in many parts of the world is greater than ever. It is time for a UN Working Group to draft what they deferred in 1968, a comprehensive core international human rights treaty-a United Nations Convention on Freedom of Religion or Belief. United Nations History – Freedom of Religion or Belief


The challenge to religions or beliefs at all levels is awareness, understanding and acceptance of international human rights standards on freedom of religion or belief. Leaders, teachers and followers of all religions or beliefs, with governments, are keys to test the viability of inclusive and genuine dialogue in response to the UN Secretary General’s urgent call for constructive and committed dialogue.  


The Tandem Project title, Separation of Religion or Belief and State (SOROBAS), reflects the far-reaching scope of UN General Comment 22 on Article 18, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Human Rights Committee (CCPR/C/21/Rev.1/Add.4). The General Comment on Article 18 is a guide to international human rights law for peaceful cooperation, respectful competition and resolution of conflicts:


Surely one of the best hopes for humankind is to embrace a culture in which religions and other beliefs accept one another, in which wars and violence are not tolerated in the name of an exclusive right to truth, in which children are raised to solve conflicts with mediation, compassion and understanding.


The Tandem Project is a non-governmental organization (NGO) founded in 1986 to build understanding, tolerance and respect for diversity, and to prevent discrimination in matters relating to freedom of religion or belief. The Tandem Project has sponsored multiple conferences, curricula, reference materials and programs on Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights – Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion - and 1981 United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief.


The Tandem Project is a UN NGO in Special Consultative Status with the

Economic and Social Council of the United Nations