Press conference on religious persecution of Christian minorities draws diverse panel
On Friday, March 12, representatives of human rights organizations and advocates for religious freedom came together for a press conference at The National Press Club in Washington, DC. Sponsored by Voice of the Copts, the press conference focused on the continued and largely unchecked persecution of Egypt’s Christians, or Copts, as well as accounts of similar religious persecution in Pakistan.
Incidentally, that same day, the United States Commission on International and Religious Freedom (USCIRF), released a report detailing the unprosecuted violence against Egypt’s Copts.
“Since 2002, Egypt has been on the USCIRF ‘Watch List’ as a country with serious religious freedom violations, including widespread problems of discrimination, intolerance, and other human rights violations against members of religious minorities.”
Friday’s press conference dealt with two of major instances of persecution facing Copts today; first, the case of Mohamed Hegazy, an Egyptian Muslim who converted to Christianity and unsuccessfully sought official recognition of his conversion from the Egyptian government. The second key issue was the Christmas Eve killings of six Coptic Christians this past January, which was also a key focus of USCIRF’s report.
Ashraf Edwards, attorney for Hegazy, was scheduled to be Friday’s keynote speaker. Edwards recently filed an appeal to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief on behalf of Hegazy and was expected to explain Hegazy’s case, which is the first of its kind, during the press conference.
Dr. Ashraf Ramelah, President of Voice of the Copts, explained that Edwards was prevented from attending the press conference because his visa application was stalled by American officials, even though the application was filed timely and properly. Ramelah relayed that Edwards specifically told him that an American official, after uncovering the reason for and date of his visit to the US, questioned whether Edwards “really wanted to speak to Americans” about this matter and then purposely granted his visa for the day after the press conference. Ramelah indicated that he plans to write an open letter to United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, calling for an investigation into this matter.
Following Ramelah’s opening remarks, Jeffrey Imm, Founder of Responsible for Equality And Liberty (R.E.A.L.) spoke about the ongoing persecution of Egypt’s Christians. He likened the plight of Copts with America’s Civil Rights movement, explaining that the answer to Egypt’s strife cannot come solely from the Coptic minority, but through a joint effort supported by members of the Muslim majority.
“Today, I urge Egyptian Muslims, on behalf of the oppressed Egyptian Copts…to choose wisely for their future, their children’s future, and their nation’s future. Choose to end the oppression of Copts in Egypt and the bondage of all Egyptians from codes that defy our shared universal human rights.”
Jordan Sekulow and Shaheryar S. Gill of the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) remarked on the importance of religious freedom.
Gill, an ACLJ attorney, assisted with the recent petition filed with the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief on behalf of Hegazy. He explained, “Egypt’s own law provides that you can change your religion, but only to Muslim.” Gill urged all Americans that “it is time to open our eyes and ears to these issues.”
Faith McDonnell, the Director of Religious Liberty Programs at The Institute of Religion and Democracy, spoke on the ways religious persecution leads to the oppression of women and provided examples of how women are oppressed under Sharia law. McDonnell called for “a stop to the plight of women and girls in the Arab world.”
The final speaker, Dr. Nazir Bhatti, President of The Pakistan Christian Congress, condemned the recent Christmas Eve massacre of Coptic Christians and spoke passionately about the latest instances of religious persecution against Pakistani Christians.
“The rising Islamic extremism in Islamic countries has created a feeling of insecurity among religious minorities. 2009 was the year of persecution of Christians in Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Nigeria, Malaysia and Pakistan.”
Dr. Bhatti went on to explain his outrage concerning the recent, alleged cover-up of the rape, torture, and murder of Shazia Bashir, a young Christian girl in Lahore, Pakistan. The prime suspect is prominent Muslim attorney and politician, Mohammad Naeem Choudry, who employed Bashir as a maid. Bhatti called the treatment of this case a “mockery to justice” especially when considering that two weeks later, a Lahore judge sentenced a Christian couple to 25 years of imprisonment for “touching the Quran with unwashed hands.”
Each of the speakers echoed a recurring message: that the plight of persecuted religious minorities in the Islamic world must be brought to attention of the American public. For more detailed information about last Friday’s press conference, or the plight of Christian minorities, please contact the author at The Human Rights Blog.