U.S. Urged to Step Up Religious Freedom Efforts in Egypt

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has named, for the first time, Egypt as a country of particular concern (CPC) in its list of 14 countries considered the world's worst violators of religious freedom and has urged the United States to more actively promote religious freedom.

The report, released Thursday, called out Egypt for "systemic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom." Those violations include the January 2011 extremist bombing of a Coptic Christian church that killed 23 and wounded 100.

"In the case of Egypt, instances of severe religious freedom violations engaged in or tolerated by the government have increased dramatically since the release of last year's report, with violence, including murder, escalating against Coptic Christians and other religious minorities," summed USCIRF Chair Leonard Leo in a statement.

USCIRF, an independent, bipartisan federal body that monitors violations of religious freedom abroad and makes recommendations to the U.S. president, revealed that since the Egyptian uprising that led to President Mubarak's resignation in February, religious violence continues unabated. There also has been no government intervention to bring those responsible to justice, the commission stated.

The report faulted the Egyptian government for failing to protect religious minorities from attacks, repeal decrees against minority faiths and remove religious affiliation from identity documents.

The report also faulted a seemingly slow-moving U.S. administration which, despite warnings, allowed its CPC designations to expire.

The most recent list, compiled by then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, consists of Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan – six fewer countries than the USCIRF list which is updated annually.

"The Obama administration continues to rely on the prior administration's designations," said Leo.

The Obama administration also dragged its feet in nominating and filling the position of ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, USCIRF criticized.

The position was created by law in 1998 to monitor global religious persecution, recommend and implement policies, and advise the U.S. State Department and the administration.

The administration finally nominated Dr. Suzan Johnson Cook, founder and president of the Wisdom Worldwide Center and former senior pastor of Bronx Christian Fellowship Baptist Church, to the ambassadorship in February. Cook was confirmed by the U.S. Senate April 14.

The report calls on President Barack Obama and State Secretary Hilary Rodham Clinton to create an updated CPC list that includes Egypt. It also urges the administration to take active, involved steps to ensure that the emerging government in Egypt specifically embraces freedom of religion.

In the 2009 report, USCIRF criticized Obama for the frequent use of "freedom of worship" in speeches, including his Cairo addresses. That phraseology, the commission said, does not completely affirm a commitment to the "broad protection of the freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief in all its manifestations" as does the phrase "freedom of religion."

USCIRF recognized Obama for emphasizing religious freedom during his 2011 talks with Chinese President Hu Jintao. But it is now urging the president to work actively to bring religious freedom to the forefront of U.S. foreign policy.

Active steps in Egypt include the U.S. government directing a portion of its existing military assistance to provide heightened protection for religious minorities including the Coptic Christians, increasing economic assistance for organization to provide democracy and governance training, and pressing the transitional government in Egypt to undertake immediate reforms to improve religious freedom.

Additionally, the report recommends that the newly appointed ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom be a "principal adviser" to both the president and the secretary of state.

Other USCIRF countries of concern include China, Iraq and Pakistan, which it states is "rife with attacks against minority religious communities."

On March 2, Pakistani Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti was assassinated. Bhatti, a Catholic, was the only Christian member of the foreign ministry and was an outspoken advocate for religious freedom.

USCIRF featured pictures of Bhatti's funeral on the cover its 2011 report and dedicated the content to his memory.

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