Friday, January 21, 2011

Christian Minorities Under Attack – Iraq and Egypt

Christian Minorities Under Attack – Iraq and Egypt

Thursday, January 20, 2011

10 AM

Room 2359 of the Rayburn House Office Building

This hearing will take place at 10 AM on 1/20/2011, in Room 2359 of the Rayburn House Office Building.
The Hearing is open to members of Congress, congressional staff, the media and the interested public.

Date Thursday, January 20, 2011 Time 10 AM Location Room 2359 of the Rayburn House Office Building Background Please join the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission for a hearing on the increased sectarian violence in Iraq and Egypt. Last October, at least 70 people were killed during a siege on Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad making it the worst massacre of Iraqi Christians since 2003. The Islamic State of Iraq, an al-Qaeda affiliate, claimed the attacks were in response to actions by the Coptic Church in Cairo. Less than two months later, extremists bombed the homes of more than a dozen Christian families throughout Baghdad. On New Year’s Eve in Alexandria, Egypt, at least 21 people were killed by a suicide bomber while leaving a Coptic Church following a worship service. It was the worst violence against the country’s Christian minority in a decade. Witness List Panel I:
• The Honorable Anna Eshoo, Member of Congress

Panel II:
• The Honorable Tamara Cofman Wittes, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Near East Affairs, U.S. Department of State

Panel III:
• Nina Shea, Commissioner, U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom
• Sister Rita, Order of Preachers
• Michele Dunne, Senior Associate, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
• Dina Guirguis, Keston Family Research Fellow, Washington Institute for Near East Policy

The POMED Wire

POMED Notes: “Christian Minorities Under Attack - Iraq and Egypt”
January 23rd, 2011 by Alec

The House Committee on Foreign Affairs through the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission hosted a hearing on discrimination and violence against Christians in Egypt and Iraq. Co-Chairman of the Commission Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-VA) led the hearing with comments and appearances from Executive Members of the Commission Rep. Chris Smith of (R-NJ), Rep. Joe Pitts (R-PA), Rep. Trent Franks (AZ) as well as Rep. Rush D. Holt, Jr. (D-NJ). Testifying before the Commission were Tamara Cofman-Wittes, deputy assistant secretary for Near Eastern Affairs at the US State Department, Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (D-CA), Michele Dunne, senior associate in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Dina Guirguis, Keston Family Research Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Nina Shea, senior fellow and director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom and Commissioner of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), and Sister Rita (pseudonym), an Iraqi Catholic nun.

To read full notes continue below, or click here for pdf. For full testimony, click here.

Congressman Frank Wolf began the hearing with criticism of the Obama administrations reaction to the recent attacks on Christian targets in Egypt and Iraq. He stated that the administration had not properly acknowledged that the violence was directed specifically at Christians rather than a more general act of violence. Characterizing the New Year’s bombing of the Saints Church in Alexandria, Egypt as, “the worse attack on Copts in 10 years,” Wolf lamented the dwindling numbers of Christians in the Middle East citing their historical and biblical significance. The trends of emigration in order to escape persecution are a danger to pluralism in the Middle East and the U.S. has a moral obligation to speak out on behalf of people oppressed for their faith.

Congressman Chris Smith continued noting the deteriorating human rights situation in Iraq and said that violence against Christians there was a concerted effort by Islamists to cleanse the country of their presence. He also maintained that the Egyptian government was unwilling to protect the rights of Coptic Christians. Congressman Trent Franks spoke to how language about religious freedom in the Iraqi Constitution had been “watered down” and asked how the US could continue to fund Iraq and Egypt when religious persecution is rife in these countries.

Tamara Cofman-Wittes reiterated to the commission that the Obama administration condemns these attacks on Christians as terrorist attacks and has called for the perpetrators of such acts to be brought to justice. She noted that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has called on Christians and Muslims to unite and has increased police presence at Christian houses of worship. She stated the importance of there being a “transparent process” for the Egyptian government to prosecute the offenders and that the U.S. has offered Egypt assistance in helping to achieve this. Wittes continued that the U.S. is in close contact with senior leaders of both the Coptic community and the Egyptian Government. She highlighted the problems Copts have in obtaining building permits for Churches and reiterated the administration’s support for a “unified places of worship law.” The U.S. is also working with Egyptian civil society groups like the Andalus Institute which uses educational programs to foster a common Egyptian identity amongst Muslims and Christians, she noted. On Iraq Ms. Wittes stated the U.S. has worked with the Iraqi Government to provide extra security for religious minorities. She stated that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has pledged to rebuild the church destroyed in the October 31st bombing.

Congressman Wolf responded to Wittes’ testimony by criticizing the U.S. Embassy in Cairo stating that there does not seem to be commitment from the diplomatic staff in the country to advance human rights and democracy issues within Egypt. He then asked if the FBI has asked to be involved in the investigation in Egypt. Wittes stated that according to her knowledge the FBI had not made any such request but the U.S. has offered any assistance needed to the Egyptian Government. Wolf then spoke about the possibility of the Obama administration appointing a special representative or attaché to the embassies in Cairo and Baghdad to specifically handle human rights issues. He also mentioned the possibility of appointing Special Envoys to handle these issues and asked Wittes what she thought of the suggestion. She replied that she thought it was a good suggestion and that she would discuss it with her superiors as the decision to appoint such representatives was “above her pay grade,” although she mentioned that the administration’s nominee for Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom had not been confirmed in time which caused the nomination to lapse.

Congresswoman Anna G. Eshoo spoke to the commission about her family’s own history as Christians who fled the Middle East and pointed out that before the U.S. invasion of Iraq the Christian population of Iraq stood at 1.4 million. The chaos that followed the fall of Saddam allowed Islamic extremists to systematically terrorize the community and drive them out of the country. As of today, less than one third of the community remains. Eshoo stated that the plight of Iraqi Christians, as well as other minorities, has been routinely ignored and criticized the lack of transparency in Congressional funding for protection and development efforts for Iraqi religious minorities. The Government Accountability Office is currently conducting an audit of the funds she said. The Congresswoman also called for the Obama administration to develop a comprehensive strategy for assisting Iraqi minority groups including, “a streamlined mechanism for asylum-seekers to immigrate to the U.S.” When asked by Congressman Franks about her opinion on appointing Special Envoys to deal with religious freedom and human rights issues in the Middle East, Eshoo said it would be welcome but warned against the tendency for envoys to “get lost in the bureaucratic shuffle” and that the administration would need to have a clear policy in place for any envoys. She also said it would an “eloquent statement” on behalf the U.S. to demonstrate its seriousness on the issue.

Congressman Rush D. Holt, Jr. briefly remarked that the question of promoting religious freedom is not a matter of adhering to our own American values but a matter of universal values. Congressman Joe Pitts stated that churches in the West have an obligation to speak out on behalf of Christians facing persecution in the Middle East.

Nina Shea testified to the commission that the bombings in Egypt and Iraq were not isolated incidents but represented an attempt to cleanse the region of Christians. She criticized the Obama administration for treating the incidents as individual and unrelated acts despite clear threats from al-Qaeda related groups linking the two communities in their efforts to mount attacks against them. Shea stated that the Egyptian government has routinely failed to punish the perpetrators of violent crimes against Christians instead opting for “reconciliation sessions.” The government controlled media and mosques consistently incite violence against Christians she said. On Iraq, Shea stated that minorities do not receive adequate protection from the state. Sunni extremists began a campaign of cleansing in 2004 and that even after the October 31st bombing attacks against Christians have continued. She stated that USCIRF recommends that Iraq be designated a “CPC” or “country of particular concern.” Egypt will undergo a thorough review by USCIRF to determine if the situation there warrants CPC status as well. Such designation, under the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, would require the President to take specific actions against either country which may include sanctions, travel bans on selected officials, and limitations on foreign aid and assistance.

Sister Rita, an Iraqi Catholic nun using a pseudonym to protect her identity, testified from behind a partition to her first-hand account of the violence against Christians in Iraq. She said that fear of attacks has kept young Christians from attending university and has decreased their economic opportunities. She further stated that the U.S. has a moral obligation to fix the damage that resulted from the invasion and continue to help resettle Iraqi refugees by expediting their asylum requests.

Dina Guirgis testified that the Coptic population of Egypt stands at ten to fifteen percent of the total population of 83 million and represent the largest Christian minority in the Middle East. Egypt is currently ranked 5th worst on religious freedom by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and is consistently ranked by Freedom House as “Not Free.” The country further ranks 111th on transparency indicators demonstrating the “critically high” level of corruption in the country. Guirgis further noted that Egypt has institutionalized discrimination against Christians in contradiction to the Egyptian Constitution. The state routinely ignores the rule of law and its institutions are largely absent when sectarian violence breaks out instead preferring forced “reconciliation sessions,” which Guirgis pointed out requires victims of violence to sign release forms abdicating their rights to pursue criminal prosecution against the perpetrators as well as property damage claims against the state. The government also has discriminatory laws in place requiring Copts to seek a presidential decree to build a church although Muslims require no such permission to build mosques.

Copts are routinely excluded from leadership positions in the military and government and have extremely limited representation in the Egyptian parliament. In response to a question from the commission, she noted that the few Copts who do make it to leadership positions are thoroughly vetted by the Mubarak regime and consistently act contrary to the interests of the community. She also noted that Coptic history is ignored in the school curriculum which effectively erases Egypt’s Coptic heritage and conversions to Christianity are punishable by jail time. In response to another question from the commission, Guirgis noted that even when conversions from Islam are allowed, those converts must be listed on their ID cards as “formerly Muslim” which makes it easier for the government to increase discrimination.

Michele Dunne began her testimony by stating that she believes that the Egyptian Government “does not bear direct responsibility” for the bombing but has mishandled sectarian problems and violence in Egyptian society. She claimed that the Egyptian government does not actively persecute Christians but allows a “prejudicial legal framework” to exist which is exploited by government officials and individuals to discriminate against Christians. She reiterated upon some of the points made by Dina Guirguis discussing the mandatory listing of religion on national ID cards which allows private citizens to discriminate against Christians. She also discussed how Christians are “invisible” at the top ranks of the military and security forces. Dunne also highlighted the failure of the Egyptian Government to bring perpetrators of violence against Christians to justice citing the Naga Hammadi shootings noting that the trials of the accused perpetrators have dragged on for more than a year. She also briefly discussed the case of al-Kosh, a village in Upper Egypt where 21 Christians were killed in sectarian violence in 2000. As of today, no one has been convicted for those crimes she stated.

Dunne concluded her testimony drawing a link between sectarian violence and a “broader pattern” of human rights abuses by the Egyptian Government against all Egyptians. In response to Congressman Wolf’s question on a Special Envoy, Dunne stated that U.S. Embassy in Cairo is often muted on issues of human rights out of concern for their own safety in the country as they are ultimately “guests” of the government. Egypt is sensitive to what its government calls “outside influence” and that any Special Envoy must demonstrate clearly that his or her instructions come directly from Washington and not the embassy. She also noted that the Obama administration was quite slow in developing an approach to human rights issues in general. Dunne joined both Dina Guirgis and Nina Shea in agreeing with Congressman Smith on the possibility of conditioning aid to Egypt on its progress on human rights issues.


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