The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom criticized on Tuesday the decision of an Egyptian state security court to acquit two men charged with the murder of six Coptic Christians.
Last month, a state security court sentenced Mohamed Ahmed Hussein to death for his part in the January 2010 shooting outside a church in the town of Naga Hammadi during which six Coptic Christians and the church’s Muslim security guard were killed.
Two other men were accused of helping Hussein commit the killings. On Sunday, the court ratified the sentence against Hussein but acquitted the suspected accomplices.
Leonard Leo, USCIRF chair, expressed his disappointment over the decision.
“It took over a year [to bring the men to trial], and the Egyptian state security court committed serious breaches of due process and fairness in the case of the killings of six Christians and one Muslim in Naga Hammadi,” he said.
Leo went on to express concern over efforts to bring the perpetrators of a horrific bomb attack on a church in Alexandria to justice. At least 23 people were killed and nearly 100 injured when a bomb went off just a few minutes into New Year’s Day as the congregation was leaving the church after mass.
Leo called for a proper investigation into the attack and the prosecution of perpetrators of sectarian killings.
He said: “A new Egyptian government must, in the regular criminal courts, prosecute perpetrators for sectarian killings in the country, and the government should complete a thorough investigation and vigorously prosecute and bring to justice those responsible for the New Year’s Eve bombing in Alexandria.
“Incomplete justice does very little address the perpetual cycle of violence targeting religious minorities that has remained unchecked by the government in Egypt.”
Although Christians in Egypt have a long history of harassment and discrimination, the last few years have seen an escalation of violent attacks by Islamic militants. According to U.K.-based Christian Solidarity Worldwide, there were 53 incidents of discrimination or violence against Egypt’s Christians between 2008 and 2010.
Leo called upon the Egyptian authorities to scale up security around churches.
He said: “The government also should ensure that Christian and other non-Muslim places of worship receive heightened security, particularly in the current climate where religious minorities are increasingly vulnerable to extremist attacks, including threats to eradicate Christians from the region.”
USCIRF made several other recommendations to the Egyptian government, asking that it pass a unified law on the building and maintaining of places of worship – currently an extremely complex process for Christians – and that it remove religious affiliation from identity documents.
Egypt is one of a few countries in the world that still requires citizens to state their religious affiliation on their identity cards. The religious affiliation that appears on the ID card determines the public activities a citizen can take part in, including the religious education classes a child is able to take in school. Human rights groups say this reinforces discrimination because Muslim converts to Christianity are not allowed to change their religious affiliation on their ID cards, meaning that they must continue to live publicly as Muslims.