Egypt's Critics Protest Religious Persecution

Critics of the Egyptian government are seizing the opportunity offered by President Hosni Mubarak's visit to Washington to protest religious persecution in Egypt and anti-Semitism in the country's media. Mubarak, the first Arab leader invited to the White House since President Bush took office, was scheduled to meet the U.S. leader on Monday.

The visit follows a recent visit to Egypt by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent body that advises Washington on persecution issues. According to the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram, the visit was widely perceived in Egypt as U.S. meddling in domestic affairs. Nevertheless, members of the country's minority Coptic Christian faith are hoping to push their plight onto the agenda for the talks. Copts living in the United States are being encouraged to telephone the White House comment line and urge that the issue of Coptic Christians' persecution be included in the agenda.

An announcement from exiled Coptic campaigners suggested that callers mention "some of the problems such as lack of protection from attacks, injustice in courts, restrictions on building churches, discrimination in jobs, education and the inequality for the Egyptian Christians in all aspects of every day life."

Persecution of Egypt's 10-12 million Christians is well documented in human rights and religious organizations. One international missions organization listed Egypt as the country with the 10th worst record on religious persecution in 1999.

"The point [of Christian persecution] has been raised in the past more than once with President Clinton," said Dr. Helmy Guirguis of the Coptic Organization of the UK Monday. Although the previous administration had not pursued it in a "genuine way," Guirguis said in a phone interview he believed that the new administration would seek a solution to the problem.

The Coptic community wants "equal status" for Egypt's Christians, he said. Guirguis challenged Mubarak's claim that Christians are equal in Egyptian society. Because of his own stand on human rights, he said, he has been warned not to return to Egypt or he will be arrested at the airport.

Mubarak has been quoted as saying that he would give Washington "a comprehensive perspective on the situation in the region." "We live in the Middle East and have a better knowledge of it than anyone else," he said.

Media malice

Meanwhile the Anti-Defamation League is also hoping to get Mubarak's and Bush's attention during the visit. It published a full-page ad in major U.S. newspapers on Monday calling on Mubarak to halt anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli articles and cartoons in the Egyptian press.

"You have the power, President Mubarak, to stop the anti-Semitic hate in Egypt. Use it," the ad reads. "For decades the Egyptian press has used vicious anti-Semitic stereotypes to portray Jews," it continues. "The Anti-Defamation League has repeatedly asked the Egyptian government, and President Mubarak personally, to take responsibility to stop the anti-Semitic representation of Jews, particularly in political cartoons.

"Nothing has happened. President Mubarak has the stature and ability to change the Egyptian image of Jews. We call on him to stop this hateful media campaign." The ADL presented a report on Anti-Semitic Images in the Egyptian Media to lawmakers and administration officials last week. ADL spokesperson Laura Kam Issacharoff said the organization has met with Mubarak several times in the past. "He says that the Egyptian press is a free one and he has no control over it," Issacharoff said. "But we know that not to be the case." She said the biggest perpetrators were establishment newspapers, whose editors are hired and fired by the government.

Editorials and cartoons in the Egyptian press regularly portray Israelis and Jews as Nazis or Hitler, as individuals manipulating the U.S. government, or as demonic figures determined to destroy the Arab people.

Egypt is one of two Middle Eastern countries that has a peace treaty with Israel - the other is Jordan. In the more than 20 years since the two countries signed their agreement, the anti-Israeli tone of the press has not changed.

The ADL suggested that the United States place $100 million of U.S. aid to Egypt in an escrow account until Mubarak takes a verbal stand on the matter. During his visit, Mubarak hopes to ensure that the $2 billion in annual U.S. economic and military aid to Egypt remains untouched. He is also expected to press Bush to become more involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Julie Stahl, Jerusalem Bureau Chief, Copyright 2001

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Religion Today - April 3, 2001

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