More than the Muslim world watches Obama

Much is being made of President Barack Obama’s upcoming address to the Muslim world in Cairo on Thursday. The White House has made clear that Obama wants to assure Muslims around the world that Americans share common goals and want to work together to achieve them. But religious minorities in Egypt including Coptic Orthodox Christians and Bahá'ís want assurances too.

"The Coptic Community wants Obama to recognize that the Egyptian Government practices grave violations against religious freedom, and that the quest for religious freedom is not just a noble cause, but it is also an issue of national security for the United States," said Cameel Halim, chairman of the Coptic Assembly of America based in Wilmette.

Halim and others addressed members of Congress on similar issues last month in anticipation of a visit from Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. That visit was postponed after the death of Mubarak’s grandson.

Numbering 10 million, Copts are the Orthodox Christians of Egypt and comprise approximately 12% of Egypt’s population. They have lived in Egypt since Christianity was introduced there in 42 C.E. They are the largest religious minority in Egypt.

Bahá’í numbers are much smaller (between 500 and 2,000), likely due in part to the Egyptian presidential decree issued in 1960 banning anything connected to the Bahá’í faith but private worship.

While Bahá’í leaders say they have no formal expectations for Obama’s speech, they do hope his speech reaches out to the wide spectrum of Egyptian citizens.

"We hope it will also reiterate the position the U.S. has on internationally recognized human rights standards," said Kit Bigelow, director of external affairs for the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the U.S.

Indeed, in a White House briefing earlier today, speechwriter Ben Rhodes outlined some of the key points Obama plans to address, including the threat posed by violent extremism and America’s response; the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan and developing partnerships with Afghans and Pakistanis; the hopeful transition to Iraqi responsibility for Iraq; and the passions stirred by the Israeli-Palestinian issue and how to solve it.

"Then there’s a broader set of issues that have also been — or presented both causes for tension in the past but partnership in the future that have to do with areas such as democracy, human rights, and related issues to that," Rhodes said. "And so I think you’ll see a forthright discussion in those areas."

To illustrate the oppression of Copts, Halim points to the recent slaughter of pigs by the Egyptian government allegedly to control the spread of swine flu. Because Muslim dietary rules exclude pork, Coptic Christians run Egypt’s pork industry. Halim also notes the absence of Coptic representatives in the Egyptian parliament and the government’s failure to prosecute perpetrators of crimes against Copts. He added that it takes longer to obtain a permit to build a church in Egypt than it does to build a mosque.

He agrees that the U.S. needs a fresh start and open channels of communication with the Muslim world if they intend to end oppressive dictatorships and achieve democracy together. However, he said, the U.S. must demand that Muslim nations strive to protect religious minorities as a fundamental step in that quest for democracy.

"We want Obama to specifically address the Copts in his speech and assure them that the United States will not abandon its principles of equality and freedom established by our Founding Fathers at the birth of this country," Halim said. "These precious principles will not be exchanged in order to gain Egypt as the premiere political ally in the region."

To illustrate oppression of Bahá’ís, Bigelow pointed to their difficulty securing government documents. Until recently, only individuals who espoused Judaism, Christianity or Islam could acquire birth certificates or drivers’ licenses.

"The government specified an individual had to tell the truth about their religious affiliation," Bigelow said. "It put the Bahá’ís in an impossible bind."

Bigelow echoed the Copts’ excitement about Obama’s outreach to Muslims.

"Theologically, we believe in the divine origin of Islam," Bigelow said. "From a Bahá’í context, for a President of the United States to be addressing the Muslim world is a very exciting development and one we welcome. As the world shrinks, we need to find a number of ways to reach out to each other."

Some evangelical missionary groups also are calling on Obama to address the plight of Christians who convert from Islam.

"Speaking on behalf of persecuted Christians around the world, I encourage President Obama to address the issue of freedom of religion and other basic human rights in the Muslim World," said Carl Moeller, president and CEO of Open Doors, a missionary group that delivers Bibles and trains Christians leaders to preach in the Middle East. "Islamic governments should allow people to practice their faith, without retaliation."

What do you think? What is the most important priority for Obama to address in his speech to the Muslim world?

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