Al-Azhar’s Response to the US Report on Religious Freedom 2010

The Islamic Research Academy of Al-Azhar reviewed the US State Department’s 2010 report on religious freedom in Egypt during its assembly meeting and noted blatant fallacies in the report. Some fallacies are a result of a lack of knowledge of Islam’s realities and the real situation of Egyptian minorities, and others are caused by ill intention and a desire to intervene in domestic affairs and violate national sovereignty.

In reaction, the Academy presents the truths that rectify these fallacies. It presents them to the local and international public, to the American bureaus that prepared the report, and to the individuals and groups who supplied the fallacies to the American administration.

1. It is not true that Egypt restricts freedom of belief or practice of religious rites. Construction of places of worship in Egypt is regulated by the law and the construction of a mosque requires nine conditions to be met, which exceed the conditions required for building churches.

The ratio of churches to Christians – many of whom live outside the country – in Egypt is close to that of Muslims to mosques. The churches and monasteries of Egypt are open around the clock, their sermons are not monitored, and the government does not intervene in the appointment of Christian leaders at any level. Meanwhile, all Islamic religious posts are appointed by the government.

The government confiscated Islamic endowments during the period between the 1952 revolution and 1962, and the Islamic Endowments Authority was established whereas Christian endowments remained operational under the authority of the Church and continue to enjoy freedom and financial autonomy until today. The state also contributed to building the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo, which is one of the largest cathedrals of the East.

The Egyptian Ministry of Culture uses state funds to protect Christian and Jewish antiquities in exactly the same manner it protects Islamic antiquities.

2. The fact that the constitution declares that Egypt’s religion is Islam, that the Sacred Law of Islam is its primary source of legislation, and that Arabic is the national language, is an integral part of Egypt‘s Islamic history which has extended for over 14 centuries. It is an expression of the identity of the state, society, and nation. It is the same as secularism’s or liberalism’s expression of identity in other societies. Muslim minorities live in such secular or liberal societies and do not object to their identity. In addition, the constitutions of other Arab and Muslim countries include similar texts and so do Western constitutions that indicate Christianity as the state’s religion. The Greek, Danish, and Spanish constitutions are but a few examples. The peculiar matter is that the religious freedom report does not mention Israeli religious discrimination. Israel has issued laws that stipulate that the state is Jewish and that require anyone who wishes to carry the Israeli citizenship to take the oath of allegiance to the Jewish state. It is of course known that 20% of Israel’s population is made up of Arabs who have been stripped of their legitimate human rights.

This Arab and Muslim identity of Egypt was chosen and ratified by all members of the committee that wrote the Egyptian constitution in 1923, which included Christian and Jewish community leaders. The nation endorsed this choice in all subsequent constitutional amendments during the twentieth century. This is but a free expression of the will of the nation with its different faiths. It is not something imposed on non-Muslims.

Furthermore, Islamic legislation does not impinge the religious particularities of non-Muslim citizens. In fact, the Sacred Law has commanded that non-Muslims be left unbothered and to practice their faith. In addition, Islamic law is not a replacement of Christian law, which gives “to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s”. It is rather a replacement of the colonial legal invasion which the colonizer wanted to impose under the occupation. It is a national law that expresses the identity of Egyptians and the special features of Eastern civilization.

3. The claim that the Egyptian government bans the freedom to preach Christianity is unfounded and inaccurate.
Every monotheist in Egypt enjoys the freedom to present, defend, and invite to his or her faith. What is banned, however, is the evangelization practiced by Western foreign parties through well-known material temptations and which was introduced to our country by the colonialist occupation in the 19th century. Prohibiting evangelization aims to preserve our cultural independence and social security, and to prevent sectarian strife. It is not Islamic fanaticism targeted at Christianity, which is recognized by Islam. Islam respects Christianity and its leading symbols and figures, and it protects its sanctities as is well known.

In fact, the prohibited foreign evangelization has posed a threat for the national Christian churches which have suffered from it a lot. Evangelization does not recognize Islam nor does it recognize Eastern Christian doctrines.

4. Religious fanaticism and discrimination are not the reason that the Sacred Law allows a Muslim man to marry a Christian or Jewish woman but not a Muslim woman to marry a Christian or Jewish man. The reason is that a Muslim recognizes Christianity and Judaism as Abrahamic faiths whereas Christianity and Judaism do not recognize Islam as a monotheistic Abrahamic faith. The Quran states in separate verses that each of the Torah and the Bible contains “guidance and light.” Accordingly, a Muslim man is entrusted with his spouse’s creed, be it Christian or Jewish. He is religiously required to respect her creed and facilitate her rituals. Non-Muslims however do not reciprocate this perspective. A non-Muslim man is not religiously required to respect his Muslim spouse’s faith and therefore there are well-founded fears for her religious freedom and feelings. The issue is one of equivalence between spouses not one of fanaticism or intolerance.

5. The American report requires Egypt to permit marriage between Muslims and followers of non-Abrahamic faiths, which reveals ignorance because there are no such religions in Egypt.

The basis of disagreement with the American report here, and on many of the issues, is not the degree of freedom and rights but the understanding of freedom and rights. The Western human-developed reference, for example, renders homosexuality and same-sex marriages as a human right and freedom, while theological references – be they Jewish, Christian, or Muslim – reject such notion categorically. Hence, the disagreement is about the conception of freedom rather than the degree of freedom.

The peculiar and dangerous notion is the Western attempt to impose its non-religious conceptions of freedoms and rights on the southern nations and civilizations, while the former represents 20% of humanity and the latter 80%. These nations believe that human rights must be regulated by rights of the Divine and the values revealed by the monotheistic Abrahamic faiths.

6. The report’s claim that Islam’s inheritance laws inflict injustice unto women reveals an ignorance of Islam’s philosophy in inheritance. In Islam’s Sacred Law, a female may inherit equally to the male; more than the male; or inherit entirely while the male does not inherit in over thirty different possible scenarios of inheritance. There are only four scenarios (or conditions) under which a female will inherit half as much as the male. These scenarios are ones where the financial burden lays upon the males and not the females.

7. The report’s attitude toward converts from Islam, or to Islam, also reveals an ignorance of the cultural values shared by Easterners of different faiths.

In Eastern societies, religion is not perceived as an individual or personal concern that is altered without problems. It rather expresses a social identity, similar to honor and chastity and perhaps of greater value. Accordingly, abandoning one’s religion or converting it represents a familial and social problem. This is shared by all Easterners, and it is likely that Coptic Egyptians are even stricter about this issue.

The law, in any society, expresses social reality in order to regulate its activities. It would not be able to achieve social peace if considerations were not given to prevailing customs, traditions, and socio-religious values.

8. The report also addressed the issue of women’s hair covering. In
Egypt, the overwhelming majority of people consider their attire to be a matter of personal freedom. If the West finds that women’s freedom in dress should be unrestricted, Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, on the other hand, call for modesty of dress without imposing it. Modesty of dress is a requirement upheld and advocated by religions. Families of rural Egypt as well as families in urban popular neighborhoods, regardless of their faith, commit themselves to the modesty of dress that some refer to as hijab.

9. Al-Azhar University and the Islamic Research Academy do not ban books and publications. To claim that they do is ignorance of reality and an attempt at defamation. Al-Azhar is a state institution that is consulted by the state on matters of faith in the same manner that other institutions are consulted on matters related to their field of expertise. Al-Azhar University and the Islamic Research Academy do not carry the authority to ban any book or artistic product. They only present their advisory opinion. Only the judiciary can ban books or works of art in Egypt. This judiciary upholds the human-developed law that was ratified by the elected legislative assembly, which represents the people regardless of their religions or their schools of thought.

10. Nothing is more indicative of the ignorance and defamation contained in the report than its reference to the Ottoman Hamayouni decree which was never a governing law in Egypt. The country enjoyed independence of legislation since the rule of Muhammad Ali Pasha during the first half of the 19th century, even when Egypt was still an Ottoman state. All laws and regulations governing the activities of Christian sects and church building, and also the regulations governing Islamic religious institutes, are Egyptian legislations existing since the dawn of Egyptian parliamentary life. They did not include the Hamayouni decree, which was a declaration of rights issued as part of the progressive reforms that equated between Muslims and non-Muslims during the rule of Abdul Majid Khan (1822-1861). These reforms secured religious freedoms for non-Muslim minorities in a manner unknown in the West at that time and perhaps not enjoyed by many minorities in the West until today.

11. The report makes a demand to increase Coptic Egyptian members of the National Council for Human Rights. Their percentage in this council is 20% while their percentage of the population is 5.4% as the report notes. So where is the problem?

12. The fact that tuition at Al-Azhar University is limited to Muslim students has nothing to do with discrimination against non-Muslims or religious fanaticism. Curricula at Al-Azhar, including those of practical non-religious disciplines, are Islamic. It would violate the conscience and freedom of faith to impose such tuition on non-Muslims, particularly in early age groups.

13. The limited Coptic participation in parliamentary elections is part of a general condition of passiveness generated by political factors unrelated to discrimination against non-Muslims. It is also partly caused by Coptic Egyptians’ inclination toward economic activities where they represent a weight, influence, and wealth that far exceed their percentage of the population.

14. The report considers the slaughter of Egypt‘s swine population to prevent the spread of H1N1 influenza virus an act of discrimination and oppression against Coptic Egyptians. Such a claim is comedic and pitiful. This is a matter of public health. Pigs have no religion so that their slaughter would be considered discrimination against Christians.

15. The report’s content of suspicious communication and unacceptable intervention in Egypt‘s domestic affairs with Christians, Baha’is, Shiites, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Qur’anis, and even Nubians is a clear testimony to America’s policies in seeking a disintegration of Egypt’s national, social, and cultural fabric. This complies with America’s announced plan of “creative chaos” which aims to transform society into sects that are easily penetrated.

Finally, the Islamic Research Academy poses these questions:

  • Should not the monitoring of human rights conditions and annual reports be an affair undertaken by international bodies such as the UN’s Human Rights Council?
  • Why does the US administration overtake the role of international bodies in this field?

It is strange that the suspect becomes the judge; that the criminal becomes the referee; and that the bearer of false witness dresses in the garment of justice and issues verdicts against nations and peoples.

The US’s self-claim for the role of judge who monopolizes moral judgment of nations is unacceptable and must be rejected by all people.

This is the opinion of the Islamic Research Academy and its comment on the US State Department’s Egypt chapter of the International Religious Freedom Report 2010.


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