POMED Notes: “Escalating Violence Against Coptic Women and Girls: Will the New Egypt Be More Dangerous Than the Old?”
The U.S. Helsinki Commission held a hearing yesterday to examine evidence that violence against Egyptian Coptic women is increasing escalating, including kidnappings and forced conversions. Testifying witnesses included Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett, Chair of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom; Ms. Michele Clark, Adjunct Professor at the Elliot School of International Affairs, George Washington University; Dr. Walid Phares, author of “The Coming Revolution: Struggle for Freedom in the Middle East” and Co-Secretary General of the Transatlantic Legislative Group on Counterterrorism; and an Egyptian Copt who experienced an attempted kidnapping and was recently granted asylum in the U.S. Rep. Chris Smith chaired the hearing, and Rep. Robert B. Aderholt was present, as well.
For full event notes, continue reading below or click here for the PDF.
Chairman Smith opened the hearing, saying that “order hangs by a thread” in Egypt. Copts are boycotting the constitutional panel, and there is rampant crime directed at their community, but no prosecutions.
Dr. Katrina said that the biggest problem currently is a culture of violence and impunity, and 2011 was one of the worst years for Copts in recent memory. That year alone saw over 100 Copts killed, with no accompanying convictions. While Al-Azhar sheikhs have expressed support for religious freedom, Copts are not being sufficiently protected, and they need to be, she said. Katrina offered a series of recommendations: for the U.S. to push Egypt to create one unified building law for all citizens and to remove information about religious conversions from Egyptian ID cards; for Egypt to prosecute those who preach hatred; for Egypt to use a portion of U.S. aid to protect Copts; and for the new Egyptian constitution to include protection of freedom of religion, in accord with international legal norms.
Rep. Aderholt asked why the international community is not acting more decisively to address these issues, to which Ms. Clark replied that there is a perception that these are merely allegations made by the Coptic community. In reality, Clark said, there are hundreds of reports of such violence against Copts, from Egyptian lawyers, families of victims, and victims themselves. Abductions and disappearances of Coptic women are increasing, she said, and there is a pattern of young women and women with young children being targeted.
Dr. Phares testified that Salafists are behind many of the abductions, and are inspired by the principles of their ideology to forcibly convert non-Muslims. Police often fail to intervene in such incidents, and sometimes even assist in the kidnappings, he said. Phares urged the U.S. to condition aid on preventing such incidents, and argued that Egypt should designate kidnapping as a terrorist act.
Next, a young Egyptian Coptic woman, who recently gained asylum and who remained anonymous, testified about her experience almost being kidnapped. One evening she was at her mother’s house in Alexandria, from which she left at 7:00 p.m. With her young daughter, she was waiting for a bus when a man suddenly grabbed her, and pulled her to a nearby taxi and tried to force her inside. In the ensuing struggle, the woman’s daughter hit her head on the taxi door and was injured. She screamed, and the man said to bystanders that “this is no one’s concern; she is an enemy of Islam.” A guard from her mother’s building came out and started hitting the man, and finally after all the commotion the man and the taxi driver sped off. The woman testified that women in her community are routinely cursed at in the street, spit on, and have even had acid thrown at them.
Chairman Smith asked the witnesses whether Clinton raised this issue with SCAF, or with anyone else in Egypt. Clark responded that no one from Secretary Posner’s office contacted them to follow up on the reports. Phares added that there have not been any Coptic delegations invited to meet with the U.S. administration. Religious freedom is more than individual freedom, Phares said, and the Coptic community should be recognized collectively, such as the Iraqi Kurds are.
Chairman Smith said that the European parliament has shown more interest in this than the U.S. government. U.S. calls for justice need to come, and come louder, perhaps from our embassy in Egypt. Phares agreed, arguing that the administration needs to change direction and recognize the Copts as a community. The administration should use every available tool, and it should be an open discussion. Make it a public debate if necessary, which would pressure Egypt to act.