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Wednesday, March 21, 2001 |

U.S. Panel's Visit Riles Egyptians

Rights: Muslims and Coptic Christians say tensions between them are an internal matter, not the domain of the religious freedom commission.

By MICHAEL SLACKMAN, Times Staff Writer

CAIRO--Tensions between Egypt's Coptic Christians and its Islamic community have simmered for centuries, at times flaring into persecution and violence. Yet the two sides were in near agreement Tuesday in their anger about a visit by members of a U.S. commission investigating religious freedom worldwide.
The arrival here of three members of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom set off anti-American sentiment and charges that the West is meddling in internal Egyptian affairs. Members of the Coptic community expressed the added concern that the panel's visit would only make their lives more difficult by antagonizing their Muslim neighbors.
"I believe if there are problems--and there are problems--those are Egyptian problems that can be solved within the Egyptian family," said Mounir Fakhry Abdel Nour, a Copt and an opposition leader in parliament. "Yes, we live in a world where the U.S. is the mega-power, the only power on this planet, but I am not sure the U.S. should [be] or is the judge of the moral standards and ethics in this world."
The Muslim Brotherhood, a banned Islamic organization whose influence and appeal became more pronounced after recent elections, called for a boycott of all commission meetings.
"America is giving herself the right to perform investigations that will lead to imposing sanctions," charged Mamoun Hodaiby, vice president of the group, which has 17 lawmakers--officially independents--in the 454-seat parliament. "It is a threat against Egypt."
The depth of hostility is not merely a reflection of local politics; it also underscores frustration throughout the Arab world with U.S. support for Israel in the Jewish state's violent conflict with the Palestinians.
"It is not ideological," Tahseen Bashir, a former ambassador and longtime government official, said of the anti-American anger. "The Arab people see every night the numbers killed and maimed, and that raises the issue, 'Why are you partners with America when it supports Israel?' "
The testy public reaction apparently caught commission members by surprise on their first visit to Egypt. They refused to answer any questions from the local media but promised through a spokesman to think about a response. Officials at the U.S. Embassy tried to distance themselves from the rancor, declining to comment while pointing out that the commission, which advises Congress and President Bush, is independent and also planning to visit Israel during its trip.
About 10% of Egypt's 65 million residents are Copts. Though most blend seamlessly into daily life, they are forced to confront the difficulties associated with not practicing the state-supported religion, such as needing permission to build churches.
Worse, there have been at least four episodes since 1972 in which Christians were killed during what human rights groups defined as sectarian fighting. Last year, 20 Christians and a Muslim were killed in sectarian fighting in the southern town of El Kusheh.
Even Christians who said they see the need for outside intervention argued Tuesday that focusing exclusively on conflicts between Christians and Muslims would not benefit their cause.
"If any foreign body would like to help us, it would not be by raising the Coptic issue, it would be by pushing for more democracy for all Egyptians and more respect for human rights," said Youssef Sidhom, chief editor of Watani, a weekly Coptic newspaper. "Attacking the Coptic issue in itself will harm our situation here."
The nine-member advisory commission was created in 1998 when then-President Clinton signed the International Religious Freedom Act into law. Among those in Egypt on Tuesday were Dr. Laila al Marayati, a founding member and past president of the Muslim Women's League, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit organization, and Firuz Kazemzadeh of Alta Loma, Calif., affiliated with the U.S. National Spiritual Assembly of Bahais.

©Copyright 2001, Los Angles Times

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