Summary paragraph: Local officials sometimes did not apply equal protection to all citizens. Judges often cited sharia when ruling to restrict religious freedom, particularly for persons born to at least one Muslim parent. Authorities continued to deny individuals the right to change their official religious designation from Muslim to another religion and sometimes arrested those who had left Islam, according to multiple sources. Local authorities closed some churches because of threats of which church leaders said they were unaware, and others in response to attacks by Muslim neighbors. Local authorities also closed churches on the grounds that they were unlicensed, despite provisions in the law guaranteeing Christians the right to use the buildings for worship pending licensure. Two such churches were subsequently reopened. Government officials sometimes failed to protect minority victims of sectarian violence from intimidation by perpetrators demanding that the victims drop charges in a spirit of “reconciliation” rather than pursue justice through the court system. The government continued to prosecute individuals, including religious leaders, on charges of denigration of religions. The government also restricted the ability of citizens to carry out worship, marriage, educational, and other life activities of their choice. Dar al-Ifta and Al-Azhar undertook efforts to re-examine centuries-old Islamic jurisprudence mandating the death penalty for those who leave Islam. The Ministry of Education removed some language from school textbooks that was perceived as promoting hate and the superiority of Islam above all other religious beliefs and developed an all-new curriculum for a 12-year rollout beginning in fall 2018. Al-Azhar University admitted its first non-Muslim student. For the first time, the government issued a civil marriage license to a Bahai couple. A court ruling permitted a Christian family to divide an inheritance according to Christian practices.
On August 21, National Security Service (NSS) officials arrested two atheists after their manager at La Poire, a pastry shop in New Cairo, notified authorities of a private message passed between the two that was critical of religion. The officials beat the two arrestees, according to sources familiar with the case, and then told inmates to beat them further.
On December 23, NSS officers arrested a 29-year-old man on charges of denigration of religions for allegedly administering a Facebook page entitled “Al Mulhedeen” (“The Atheists”) with more than 34,000 followers, according to press reports. The page, which allegedly questioned some Quranic verses and promoted the “Big Bang” theory of the origin of the universe, was no longer available after the arrest. North Giza Court subsequently ordered the man detained for 15 days pending investigation. Discussions about the rise of atheism in society continued through year’s end, both in parliament and in Islamic institutions, according to press reports.
In July a man who allegedly had converted from Islam to Christianity was brought to police by family members who said that he was an apostate from Islam and thereby guilty of denigration of religions, according to sources familiar with the case. Police reportedly interrogated him for four hours, then released him and told him to “disappear.” The man immediately relocated to a different residence. Some months later, a representative of the NSS summoned him to NSS headquarters where they detained and interrogated him for several nights before releasing him, according to sources.
In August police arrested and interrogated a man whom they alleged had converted from Islam to Christianity. Police released him, reportedly telling him he was too old to withstand the treatment they ordinarily would give to apostates from Islam, according to sources.
In December NSS officers informed family members of two former Muslims’ conversions to other faiths but did not make arrests. According to a source familiar with the case, this put at least one of the converts at risk; upon learning from the NSS about the conversion, a member of the convert’s family reportedly threatened to kill him if news of his conversion negatively affected the family member’s government job.
Courts continued to apply the penal code to prosecute those charged with denigrating Islam. On February 27, a court sentenced Muslim preacher Mohamed Abdullah Al Nasr, popularly known as Sheikh Mizo, to five years in prison and a fine of 10,000 EGP ($560) for denigration of religions based on comments he made on social media questioning literal interpretations of Islamic texts and expressing doubt about the authenticity of others. An appeals court reduced the sentence to two years in prison and a fine of 1,000 EGP ($56); subsequently the government waived the remainder of his sentence after he was included in a routine annual pardon. At year’s end, he was due for imminent release.
There were reports of government actions targeting the Muslim Brotherhood, which the government had designated as a terrorist organization, and individuals associated with the group.
Authorities arrested and charged Bassem Abdel Malak Fahem with denigration of religions when, after terrorists attacked a bus and killed 28 Coptic Christian pilgrims in May, he posted pictures of well-known Islamic clerics on Facebook and accused them of inciting violence against Christians. Authorities arrested Abdel Malak in September, and they acquitted and released him in early November.
Also in May authorities charged former Under Secretary of the Ministry of Awqaf Sheikh Salem Abdul Galeel with denigration of religions and undermining national unity after he appeared on his television program explaining verses from the Quran which described Jews and Christians as “kuffar” (infidels). Galeel told his audience that it was a disservice to Jews and Christians to assure them that they would go to paradise because the Quran was clear that they were kuffar and therefore would go to hell. Abdul Galeel also said Jewish and Christian scriptures had been corrupted. The television station canceled Galeel’s show and the Ministry of Awqaf banned him from preaching in mosques. Subsequently, the ministry demoted and banned from preaching Sheikh Abdullah Roshdy, an Al-Azhar scholar employed with the ministry, after he defended Abdul Galeel’s position. Other Muslim clerics called for respectful debate of intellectual and doctrinal issues, rather than criminal charges. A court released Galeel on bail; subsequently the complainant dropped the case, according to press reports.
On June 16, authorities charged Coptic Orthodox priest Makary Younan with denigration of religions, discrimination against a specific group, disturbing peace and order in the country, exploiting religion to spread thoughts that aim to stir strife and insult divine religions, and harming national unity and social coherence after he stated in a sermon that, according to both Islamic and non-Islamic historical sources, the country had a Christian majority until it was defeated by a Muslim army. A court released Makary on bail; subsequently the complainant dropped the case, according to press reports. On May 16, authorities arrested three Christians in El-Zawya El-Hamra for trying to stop local authorities from carrying out a demolition order against a Coptic Church-owned building based on an anonymous complaint that it was being used as a church, according to press reports. Authorities halted demolition when Church leaders, who had been using the building for a charity clinic and other social services for local residents, presented ownership papers and stated that they intended to include the site on the list to be presented to the government for licensure in accordance with the Church Construction Law. Authorities subsequently released the three Christians.
Religious freedom and human rights activists said that government officials, courts, and prosecutors sometimes did not extend procedural safeguards and rights of due process to members of minority faiths, including by closing churches in violation of the law on church construction. According to a report by one human rights organization, there were at least 19 cases of assault or sectarian tensions relating to church buildings and the holding of church services during the year, most of which were led by security officials on the grounds the buildings being used were unlicensed. These actions led to the closure of at least eight active churches during the year, the report said. According to press reports, more than 60 churches remained closed at year’s end.
On March 5, security forces closed a church in Ezbet El-Nakhl village in Minya, telling members of the community that closing the church was a security precaution against an attack by Islamic extremists, according to news outlets. Subsequently, Minya Province Security Chief Faisal Dweidar denied that there was a threat to the church and stated that it was closed for lack of proper licensing, the same news outlet reported.
In July security forces closed a church in the town of Kidwan, Minya Province, citing alleged complaints by local residents that the church was not licensed, according to press reports. A local bishop told the press that the 1,300 Christians of Kidwan had no other place to pray and denied that Muslim neighbors had complained about the church. He further stated that at least 15 churches in the surrounding towns remained closed and some 70 towns remained without a church despite having applied for building licenses. After Christians in Kidwan appealed to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the church reopened on September 10.
On August 20, security forces closed Virgin Mary Church, located in what was once a private home in the town of Ezbat al-Forn, also in Minya Province. A senior police officer told the press that security forces had intervened to disperse a clash between the town’s Muslim and Christian residents regarding some Muslims’ objections to Christians conducting worship services in the building. Christians denied that there had been clashes and conducted worship services in the street the same day and during the next two days without incident. Christians of Ezbat al-Forn appealed to President Sisi; subsequently their church also reopened on September 10.
Authorities in Minya Province closed four churches in October and assailants attacked three others there, according to media reports. Local residents reportedly pressured Christians to agree that the churches would remain closed until permits could be obtained and that no one would be held accountable for the attacks.
On October 15, Christians reopened the Church of the Virgin in the town of Sheikh Alaa in Minya Province, which had been closed by officials after it was attacked by local Muslim residents in 2015; however, security officials closed the church again on the same day due to security concerns for worshippers after local residents harassed some of them, according to a statement by the local bishop. In his statement, the bishop explained that officials did not take action to reopen the church after the first attack and routinely responded to harassment of worshippers by closing down churches.
On October 22, security officials closed a church in the town of al-Qushairy in Minya Province after four Christians were injured by people throwing stones, according to the local bishop’s statement. The authorities issued arrest warrants for 11 suspects in connection with the attacks, according to the local governor. The bishop, however, reported that since agreement had been reached between the parties, no charges were filed against the perpetrators, but the church remained closed.
Also on October 22, security officials closed Abu Sayfen Church in the town of al-Karm in Minya Province over reports of a planned attack against the church; however, the local bishop stated that there had been no complaints about the church. The governor of Minya Province subsequently affirmed that there had been no attack and no arrest warrants had been issued. On October 27, security officials closed Mar Gerges Church (Saint George) in Ezbet Zakaria, also in Minya Province, after a Christian woman was injured in an attack on the church. The attack occurred the same day that local residents were pressuring Christians to agree, in the name of “reconciliation,” that the churches would remain closed, media reported. According to the local governor, 15 suspects were arrested for the attack.
The governor of Minya affirmed in an October 29 statement to the press that security officials were closing churches because they were “unlicensed houses” which lacked authorization required to perform religious rites, in spite of a provision in the law guaranteeing Christians the right to continue using unlicensed churches pending regularization of their status. He also announced on or about November 29 that he had granted permits for 21 churches to be restored, expanded, or rebuilt. World Watch Monitor, an organization that reports on Christians under pressure for their faith, said some of the applications for those permits were reportedly submitted more than 20 years ago.
On September 26, pursuant to the law, church leaders submitted to government authorities lists of more than 3,700 unlicensed churches and other church-affiliated properties for which they desired legal recognition. According to sources, a government administrator connected with the committee to review applications for licenses rejected at least 27 of these churches on the grounds that they had been inactive for more than five years, in compliance with the law. The sources stated, however, that the reason for their inactivity was that authorities had closed them.
In September the Supreme Council for Media Regulation (SCMR) banned Dr. Sabri Abdel Raouf, Al-Azhar professor of comparative Islamic jurisprudence, from television and radio after he responded to a request for a fatwa on necrophilia by stating that, although any normal human being would find the practice repugnant, nothing in Islamic doctrine specifically prohibited “farewell intercourse” with the corpse of one’s recently-deceased wife. Al-Azhar University president Dr. Mohammed Al Mahrasawi referred Raouf for investigation and possible disciplinary actions, stating, “speaking of these types of fatwas should be limited in order to protect Al-Azhar and Islam.”
Al Mahrasawi also referred Dr. Suad Saleh, Al-Azhar professor of Islamic studies and former dean of the Women’s College, for investigation and possible disciplinary action after she appeared on television and responded to Raouf’s fatwa. Subsequently on October 17, the outcome document of a conference on fatwas hosted by Dar al-Ifta recommended adopting legislation to regulate the issuance of fatwas.
On November 15, Chairman of the SCMR Makram Mohammed Ahmed announced in a press conference at SCMR headquarters that all media outlets would be prohibited from featuring any mufti (a Muslim scholar specifically qualified to issue a fatwa) except 50 named individuals approved by Al-Azhar and Dar al-Ifta. Observers said that there were hundreds of muftis in the country authorized to issue fatwas. “Freedom of expression in religious issues is not included in religious advisory activity,” Ahmed stated.
In December the Administrative Control Authority referred Samir Hashish, a Muslim scholar affiliated with Al-Azhar’s Islamic Research Complex, to court on charges of inciting sectarianism after videos circulated online of the preacher presenting what he said was longstanding doctrinal evidence that, while Islam sanctioned the death penalty for murder, it did not sanction the death penalty for a Muslim who had killed a non-Muslim because the blood of a non-Muslim was not equal to that of a Muslim.
Television host Islam El-Beheiry, who received a presidential pardon in 2016 after he was jailed for “defaming religious symbols” by criticizing traditional Islamic teachings and texts, including some which called for violence, produced and broadcast 25 television episodes during the year and continued to host a radio program entitled Free Islam. On October 29, an administrative court banned Beheiry’s previous show, Ma’a Islam, from all satellite channels, pursuant to a 2015 lawsuit filed by Sheikh Ahmed El-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, which accused the show of violating the law on denigration of religions. The order did not ban Beheiry’s other ongoing programming.
The government did not prevent Bahais, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses from worshiping privately in small numbers. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, the government engaged in surveillance and frequent home visits during which members were interrogated and sometimes threatened. The NSS also summoned members to their offices for interrogations. The government continued to ban the importation and sale of Bahai and Jehovah’s Witnesses literature and to authorize customs officials to confiscate their personally owned religious materials. In July NSS officers stopped two Jehovah’s Witnesses in Beni Suef, confiscating religious materials from the two individuals as well as from two other Jehovah’s Witnesses who arrived later.
On July 27, authorities issued a civil marriage license to a Bahai couple with no religious designation listed who had sued for that right, thus enabling them to change their marital status on national identity cards and other documentation. With the exception of that couple, national identity cards continued to list married Bahais as “single,” which some Bahai women with children said invoked a sense of embarrassment and public shame, in addition to creating difficulties obtaining proper documentation and services for their children. At year’s end, standardized procedures for issuing civil marriage licenses to couples with no religious affiliation designated had not been developed.
The government closed the tomb of Imam Al-Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, located inside Al-Hussein Mosque in Old Cairo, during the three-day commemoration of Ashura, which was described in multiple news reports as an attempt to discourage Shia Muslim gatherings. The main area of the mosque remained open; only the room containing the shrine was closed.
On January 24, President Sisi, addressing the country’s high divorce rate and its impact on families, called for an amendment of divorce laws. He called for an end to verbal divorce and suggested that divorce should come into effect only after being documented by authorized marriage officiants. Two weeks later, Al-Azhar rejected the proposed amendment as “contradicting sharia” and suggested, “those who deal lightly with divorce fatwas … had better divert their efforts to serve the people and solve their problems in real life.” Subsequently, the government dropped the proposed change.
After an ISIS-affiliated suicide bomber killed 29 people in a December 2016 attack against Saints Peter and Paul Church in Cairo, the army repaired the damage in time for Coptic Orthodox Christmas on January 7, as ordered by President Sisi.
In response to this and other terrorist attacks, the government stationed security officers outside of churches. Some officers lost their lives defending churches, including seven who were killed in April when a terrorist detonated his suicide vest outside a metal detector after being refused entry into the church where, had he been granted entry, reports said he would have killed many more. Another security officer was killed defending Mar Mina Church in Helwan in a December terrorist attack which killed at least nine people. At the same time, according to sources, in some cases officers only checked national identity cards and denied entry to churches to anyone officially designated as Muslim, allegedly on the order of the Ministry of Interior. Sources said this diminished the opportunity for converts from Islam to attend church services, both by barring them entry and by requiring them to take the added risk of revealing themselves to security officers as likely converts.
In September the government announced the completion of the rebuilding, primarily at government expense, of 78 church properties throughout the country that had been damaged or destroyed by Muslim Brotherhood supporters in 2013. Construction progressed on a state-funded church in al-Our village in Minya Province in honor of 20 Copts beheaded by an ISIS affiliate in Libya.
The Ministry of Awqaf launched a program training female Muslim preachers (250 according to the most recent information), some of whom were deployed alongside Christian nuns to different communities as part of an interfaith dialogue campaign, according to ministry officials.
In response to President al-Sisi’s continuing calls for Islamic scholars to renew religious discourse and challenge the ideology of extremists, the Ministry of Education issued new textbooks for use in public and private schools. While most passages perceived as promoting hate and the superiority of one religion over all others had been removed, some passages continued to draw complaints from religious leaders, educators, and families. For example, some textbooks mandated for Arabic language class, a secular subject required for students of all religious backgrounds, contained multiple Quranic verses, generally preceded by “God the Most High says … ” Some lessons in these textbooks teach Islam; for example, a fifth-grade Arabic language textbook read, “peace will not be achieved on earth except by following God’s regime as contained in the Quran and Sunna (example) of Muhammad,” and “not following the rules of God will lead to great punishment.” Parents and educators also expressed concerns about history textbooks; however, Ministry of Education representatives stated that history curricula were being updated as well. Sources reported difficulties obtaining Al-Azhar approval for proposed updates to the curriculum used in public and private schools. Al-Azhar approval is required for all curriculum changes in all the country’s schools.
Al-Azhar also announced that it was updating classroom textbooks for use in its own K-12 school system; however, sources said that teachers continued to rely primarily on historical doctrinal texts for religious studies rather than prepared textbooks. In addition, the committee overseeing curriculum development continued to reject much of the proposed new content, according to a member of the committee who was quoted in press reports. In some cases, the content being rejected was identical to statements Al-Azhar itself had published on its website, according to press reports.
The Ministry of Education also developed a new curriculum for a rollout beginning with incoming kindergarten and first grade students in the fall of 2018 with the next year’s curriculum to be added each year. According to ministry sources, respect for human rights and religious tolerance was woven into the new curriculum. The ministry also continued to update the existing curriculum, which it expected would take 12 years to phase out completely.
All 27 of the country’s governors, appointed by the president, were Muslim. As of the end of the year, the cabinet contained one Christian, the minister of immigration and expatriate affairs. Christians remained underrepresented in the military and security services. Christians admitted at the entry level seldom were promoted into the upper ranks of government entities, according to sources.
Children of families who self-identified as Christians but legally identified as Muslims were required to attend religion classes for Muslim students, as a matter of policy. In addition, such children could not be admitted to a Christian orphanage or live with Christian foster parents. In March authorities forcibly removed a three-year-old orphan from the home of a Christian family who had taken him in from the street, according to an individual familiar with the case. Authorities placed him in an orphanage for Muslim children, stating that under sharia any child in a Muslim-majority land whose religion is unknown is presumed Muslim, even if non-Muslims live in the land, and that Muslim children were not permitted to be raised by non-Muslims. Children designated as Muslim also had no recourse to choose their religion when they reached legal age. This restricted their ability to marry; for example, young women legally designated as Muslim but self-identifying as Christian were not permitted to marry Christian men.
According to the academic community, no Christians served as presidents of the country’s 25 public universities. On December 25, Cairo University announced the appointment of a Christian dean. In September Al-Azhar University, a publicly funded institution with both religious and nonreligious programs of study, accepted its first non-Muslim student into its Department of Dentistry. The government barred non-Muslims from employment in public university training programs for Arabic language teachers, stating as its reason that the curriculum involved study of the Quran.
Reports of anti-Semitism continued, including in public statements by government-supported Al-Azhar. In a May 5 interview with television station Channel 1, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar said it was the Jews who had started the animosity with the Muslims “by rejecting the message of the Prophet Muhammad.” He stated the Jews of Medina and other towns in the Arabian Peninsula “took actual measures to thwart, kill, and bury the Islamic call in its infancy,” and, after 1,400 years, Muslims “still suffer from Zionist-Jewish interference in the affairs of the Muslims.”
A member of parliament, in arguing against requiring Muslim women to wear the niqab, told press that it was of Jewish origin, and chairman of the parliament’s Human Rights Committee Alaa Abed said that a Human Rights Watch report on torture in the country’s jails was funded by “the Zionist Lobby.”
The government generally permitted foreign religious workers in the country on condition they not proselytize to Muslims; however, some religious workers were denied visas or refused entry upon arrival without explanation, according to sources. According to community representatives, non-Muslim minorities and foreign religious workers generally refrained from proselytizing to Muslims to avoid risking legal penalties and extralegal repercussions from authorities and members of the local community.
The government continued its efforts to digitize historical records of births, marriages, deaths, and other community records of the greatly diminished Jewish community whose membership in the 1950s exceeded 75,000 people. The Ministry of Antiquities, charged with preserving the country’s heritage, continued to assess Jewish heritage sites and to catalogue their contents and to fund and oversee restoration of the large Nebi Daniel Synagogue in Alexandria. Most of the country’s other synagogues, as well as a millennium-old Jewish cemetery in Cairo, continued to deteriorate from decades of disuse and neglect.
In February the Council of Protestant Churches submitted a request to the government to permit both adoption and equal inheritance as part of the package of personal status laws applied to its members.