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