Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Summary paragraph: Lethal violence connected with religion continued. A gang of armed terrorists carrying an ISIS flag attacked a Sufi mosque in Northern Sinai during Friday prayers, killing 311 persons, including 27 children. ISIS claimed responsibility for multiple other attacks, including suicide bombings against two churches during Palm Sunday services, attacks against passengers on a bus carrying Christian pilgrims, and a spate of attacks on individual Christians in northern Sinai and elsewhere. An assailant killed a Coptic Orthodox priest in Cairo and injured another; a court sentenced the assailant to death for murder. According to press reports, three noncommissioned officers and a security guard allegedly tortured and killed a Christian police conscript. His family reported in a videotaped interview that he was “tortured and killed for his faith.” Families, employers, neighbors, local police, and national security officials subjected former Muslims, including those who became atheists as well as those who converted to other faiths, to violence, threats, and abuse. The construction of churches continued to meet societal resistance, including acts of violence and destruction of property in some cases. Reports of abductions targeting Christians, religious discrimination, and defamatory speech against Jews, Christians, and Shia Muslims continued.
On November 24, at least 25 armed assailants attacked the Sufi mosque of Al-Rawda village in North Sinai during Friday prayers, killing 311 persons, including 27 children, and injuring at least 122, according to press reports. According to a statement by government officials, the assailants opened fire at the worshippers from the mosque’s windows using automatic machine guns. The assailants then took up ambush positions and opened fire at ambulances arriving at the scene. The attackers raised the ISIS flag, according to government officials and eyewitnesses quoted in press accounts, although by year’s end no group had claimed responsibility. ISIS previously had denounced Sufis as apostates from Islam and threatened to kill them, mentioning Sufis in the town of Rawda specifically. The military launched air strikes against the gunmen’s vehicles during the attack, according to a statement by the military spokesman, and subsequently destroyed a number of terrorist hideouts.
On April 9, twin suicide bombings at Coptic Orthodox churches killed 45 people during Palm Sunday services. One struck St. Mark’s Cathedral, the seat of the Coptic Orthodox Bishop of Alexandria, where Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II was leading the service. The attacker detonated a bomb at the gate of the church compound after being refused entry by security. The other attack occurred in the city of Tanta in the Nile delta, where a suicide bomber detonated himself among the front pews of the church. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks and warned Muslims to avoid Christian gatherings in Egypt. The government referred 48 persons to a military court for suspected involvement in these and the December 2016 attack against a Coptic Orthodox church in Cairo, as well as on suspicion of membership in ISIS terrorist cells. President al-Sisi also declared a state of emergency on April 9 after the Palm Sunday attacks and instructed all churches to cancel all activities other than regular church services for a period of three months.
On May 26, gunmen dressed in military fatigues and posing as security officers waved down a bus carrying Christian pilgrims on a highway in Minya Province and ordered the passengers to exit the bus, according to survivors of the attack. After separating the men from the women and children, they ordered the men to recite the shahada (the Islamic creed: “There is no god but God and Mohammad is the messenger of God”) and thus become Muslims. When the men refused, the gunmen opened fire, killing 28. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack.
On December 29, an ISIS gunman opened fire as congregants exited after services at Mar Mina Church in Helwan killing seven, including a Muslim police officer who was stationed outside the church, and injuring five, according to press reports. He also attacked a nearby shop, killing two other Christians. According to a statement by the Ministry of Interior, the attacker was wearing a suicide vest and attempted to enter the church, but was prevented by police.
Terrorists affiliated with ISIS carried out a series of attacks against Christians in northern Sinai after having issued videos and other public statements calling on pious Muslims to kill them. On January 30, masked assailants shot Coptic Christian Wael Milad in his shop, according to press reports. Eyewitnesses told media outlets that on February 11 an attacker shot Christian veterinarian Bahgat William in the head, neck, and stomach as he was leaving his clinic. Attackers killed Adel Showky on the same day in al-Arish’s Samaran neighborhood, according to press reports. On February 16, two assailants on a motorbike gunned down Coptic Christian schoolteacher Gamal Tawfiq as he was walking through a crowded marketplace between his home and school, according to press reports. On February 22, the corpses of two local Christians, Saad Hanna and his son Medhat, were found on the roadside in al-Arish. Saad’s body showed gunshot wounds; Medhat’s showed signs of having been burned alive, according to press reports. Following these attacks and additional threats, hundreds of Christians fled Sinai during the first several months of the year for other parts of Egypt, according to press and church sources. According to an international NGO, several families told human rights activists they wanted to return to their homes, but were skeptical that this would be possible. Subsequently on May 6, gunmen shot and killed Nabeel Saber Ayoub, a Copt who had fled al-Arish with his family but returned briefly to complete school paperwork for his son and to check on his house and barber shop, according to press reports.
Violent attacks against individual Christians were not limited to northern Sinai; however, it was uncertain in some cases if there was a religious motivation. In Cairo on January 16, Ishak Younan was discovered in his apartment with his throat slit. According to press, there was no sign of struggle and his wallet still contained cash. Police arrested two suspects. On January 14, an attacker stabbed Christian physician Bassam Zaki in the neck, chest, and back in his apartment in Dayrout City. On January 6, Eastern Orthodox Christmas Eve, a killer slit the throats and killed a Christian couple, Gamal Fadlallah, and his wife Nadia Amin, in their beds in the village of Tokh-Dalka in Menoufia Province. On January 3, an assailant slit the throat of Christian shop owner Youssef Lamei while the victim was sitting outside of his store in Alexandria. The assailant confessed that he had killed the shopkeeper for selling alcohol after having previously warned him that this was against Islam. On March 9, a court ordered the death sentence for the attacker; an appeal remained pending at year’s end.
On December 22, Muslim residents in Atfih, a suburb of Cairo, gathered after Friday prayer and attacked Al-Amir Tadros Church, destroying its contents, calling for the church to be demolished, and wounding three Christians after a rumor circulated that Christians intended to install a bell, according to press reports and other sources. Police dispersed the mob and arrested 15 of the attackers on charges of illegal assembly, thuggery, vandalism, assault, and using religion to stir sectarian strife. Police also arrested the 62-year-old former owner of the church building on charges of construction without a permit, according to press reports. A local rights activist reported that the church had been operating for 15 years and that church authorities had requested it be licensed in keeping with the 2016 Church Construction Law. At year’s end, all suspects remained in custody.
On July 19, Christian police conscript Josef Reda Helmy was tortured and killed at Mubarak Training Camp in Cairo, according to press reports. His family said that Helmy was killed because of Christian symbols tattooed on his arm. A military prosecutor held three noncommissioned officers and one security guard for 15 days in connection with the case. The four defendants said they had acted under the order of Officer Mohammed Tork who, as of year’s end, had not been charged.
On October 12, Semaan Shehata, a Coptic Orthodox priest from Beni Suef, was stabbed to death in the Cairo suburb El-Salaam City, and a cross was carved on his forehead. Authorities arrested Ahmed El-Sonbaty; on November 15, a court sentenced him to death for murder, according to media reports. At year’s end, the case was scheduled to be appealed. Sheikh Samir Hashish, a Muslim cleric, stated that according to longstanding Islamic jurisprudence, the blood of the kuffar was not equal to that of Muslims; therefore, the death penalty should not be imposed on the Muslim who killed the priest. Coptic Orthodox religious leaders appealed to the government to change “the culture of a nation poisoned by extremism,” media reported. During a television interview, Father Saleeb Abdel Shahid, Shehata’s father-in-law, said that these conditions for Christians could not continue, adding that priests needed to feel safe in their own country. The assailant reportedly also injured a second priest, Benjamin Moftah, during the same attack.
Societal abuses against former Muslims continued. In May a young man in Cairo committed suicide after his family locked him inside the house for more than two years for being an atheist, according to sources. In July a 20-year-old Cairo resident was forced to flee when his brother threatened to kill him after learning that he had converted from Islam to Christianity, according to sources familiar with the case. In March a young woman living in Cairo was threatened by her brother and uncle who said they would kill her for her conversion from Islam to Christianity, according to sources familiar with the case. Another young woman from northern Egypt reportedly spent three months in jail under false charges filed by her family when they discovered she had converted to Christianity, according to sources familiar with the case. Another reportedly fled and lived in hiding after her family sent her to a psychiatric ward for being “confused about religion.” Christian couples from Muslim backgrounds reported that if their children revealed to teachers, classmates, or relatives that a religion other than Islam was being practiced in the home, this could put the entire family at risk. One such couple reported that, because of this risk, they did not plan to have children.
In April Muslims in Kom al-Loufi village in Minya Province attacked the Christian community after services celebrating Holy Thursday which had been held in a Christian-owned home with the verbal approval of police, according to press reports, since the church remained closed by authorities. The assailants set fire to three Christian-owned homes and injured four persons. Police arrested 15 individuals. Subsequently Muslim residents gathered a second time and threw rocks at Christian-owned homes, in spite of the presence of security forces, according to press reports, leading to another 15 arrests. On April 21, Christian residents issued a statement that police had failed to keep a promise to allow them to use their church or, alternatively, to build a new church on land they had purchased on the outskirts of town; that pressure from extremists was impeding their access to churches in neighboring villages; and in spite of the recent arrests and presence of security, Muslim residents continued to prevent them from gathering for prayer. They demanded that the legal and constitutional rights of Christians be protected and that the perpetrators of the attacks be brought to justice, and called on President al-Sisi to intervene. In December Christian families withdrew charges against 23 suspects in a 2016 case in which assailants had attacked Christians and Christian-owned properties in the same village. Some human rights activists stated that the Christian families withdrew their complaints in fear of a backlash if the suspects were sentenced; others reported that they did so after the local Muslim community and security agencies entered into a verbal agreement to allow them to build a church on the outskirts of town.
Police responded swiftly to reports of sectarian violence on March 24 in the village of al-Mohayadet, near Luxor, when Muslims from four villages converged on a gated compound containing five Christian-owned homes, according to press reports. The crowd demanded the release of an 18-year-old woman, saying she had converted to Islam and married a 19-year-old Muslim who was unable to provide documentation of the marriage. The woman’s family had fled with their daughter ten days earlier, according to a source familiar with the case, saying the man had tried to attack their daughter. Police used tear gas to disburse the crowd; four police and seven protesters were injured in the clashes.
In contrast to preceding years, the Coptic Orthodox Church refused to participate in government-sponsored “customary reconciliation” as a substitute to the rule of law to address attacks on Christians and their churches. Human rights groups and Christians said that practice constituted an encroachment on the principles of nondiscrimination and citizenship, and effectively precluded recourse to the judicial system in most cases, as victims were regularly pressured to retract their statements and deny facts, leading to the dropping of charges. “Reconciliation” sessions had been held under the auspices of the Egyptian Family House, a body consisting of Muslim and Christian clerics.
In some cases intimidation in the name of “reconciliation” continued, however. For example, Souad Thabet, an elderly Coptic woman, and other Coptic witnesses to an attack she and other Copts suffered, retracted their testimonies under pressure and threats by local residents, sources reported. In 2016, 300 Muslim residents of the village of El-Karm in Minya Province set fire to several Christian owned homes and stripped Thabet naked after a rumor spread that her son was having an affair with a married Muslim woman. The case remained pending at the end of the year; however, government officials report a lack of evidence after the woman and witnesses retracted their testimony. Thabet’s son and the woman with whom he allegedly had an affair were each sentenced to two years in prison for adultery.
While kidnappers targeted both Muslims and Christians during the year, sources reported cases of police failing to assist Christian parents in recovering their minor daughters who had been kidnapped by or eloped with Muslim men. In one case, a girl’s parents identified the perpetrator and provided police with his address but police still took no action, according to an individual familiar with the case. One father agreed to prosecutors’ request to drop charges against a Muslim man in order to recover his 14-year-old daughter, according to a source familiar with the case. One activist stated that Christian parents often dropped charges because the court had the authority to place an underage girl in an orphanage pending investigation, which could last until the daughter’s 18th birthday. World Watch Monitor published an interview with a man who said he was a former Muslim who had convinced a series of Christian girls to elope with him. According to the article, he said he had received money for each girl from “Salafist networks” whose aim was “to strengthen Islam and weaken Christianity.” An activist who tracks abduction and elopement cases reported several cases of minor Christian girls eloping with Muslim men during the year.
On May 3, Director of Ibn Taymiyyah Academy for Theological and Epistemological Research Mohamed Soliman filed a lawsuit against the country’s theater troupe, accusing them of denigrating Islam in a play about a man from seventh century Mecca who rejected Islam. The sketch ended with the lead actor saying, “Today, wine and women. And tomorrow, we kill Muhammad, peace be upon him.” A group of actors answered, “Peace be upon him.”
On December 25, the president of Cairo University announced the appointment of a Christian as dean. Regular discrimination in private hiring continued, however, including in professional sports, according to human rights groups and religious communities. Discrimination also occurred against Muslims. In late November a Christian landlord told his tenants that their roommate had to vacate the premises by the end of the month after seeing his national identity card listing him as Muslim, according to sources. Sources also reported widespread religious discrimination in the workplace against persons officially designated as Muslim who declined invitations to participate in communal Islamic prayers or who broke the Ramadan fast.
Islamic groups continued to use discriminatory speech against Christians, and terrorists called for Christians to be killed. For example, on February 20, terrorists affiliated with ISIS released a 20-minute video claiming responsibility for the December 2016 attack on Saints Peter and Paul Church in Cairo, calling for the killing of Christians, saying they were the “favorite prey” of the mujahideen, and adding that Copts were “warriors of the Crusaders.”
In response to ISIS’ statement listing names of Muslim clerics whom they accused of apostasy from Islam and calling on pious Muslims to kill them, Al-Azhar’s Observatory, established in 2015 to monitor extremist rhetoric, issued a statement on February 21 criticizing the group for equating the blood of Muslim clerics with the blood of non-Muslims.
After the Palm Sunday church bombings in Alexandria and Tanta, Muslim preacher Wagdi Ghoneim, a Salafi imam living in exile in Qatar, broadcast a video stating that Coptic Christians “deserved” what they got, saying the bombing was punishment for Christians’ support for President al-Sisi, one of a series of videos he produced calling for the killing of Coptic Christians, condemning al-Sisi as an apostate from Islam, and calling for the overthrow of the government. A court sentenced Ghoneim to death in absentia on April 30 for “creating a terrorist cell.”
Reports of societal anti-Semitism and incitement to commit violence against Jews continued, particularly by Muslim clerics.
On March 27, Sheikh Abd Al-Wahhab Al-Maligi, a Muslim cleric, appeared on Al-Seha wa Al-Jamal TV defending female genital mutilation and said that Jews had been the first to criticize the practice because they did “not want Islam or the Muslims to be pure, developed, and civilized.” He pointed to the debunked Protocols of the Elders of Zion as support for his argument.
On July 20, Al-Azhar University professor of Islamic law Ahmed Karima appeared on Palestinian television calling for armed jihad against the “Zionist gang” who were “raised on aggression, theft, and plundering,” and encouraged armed jihad against Jews.
In videotaped sermons on August 4 and August 11, Muslim cleric Sayed Ahmed Ali cited a hadith (tradition) quoting the Prophet Muhammad saying, “Judgment Day will not come until the Muslims fight the Jews. The Muslims will kill them, and the Jews will hide behind trees and rocks, but the trees and rocks will call: ‘Oh, Muslim, oh servant of Allah, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him!’” Sayed subsequently cried out, “Oh, Allah, bring us that day of battle with the Jews! Bring us that day of battle with the Jews!”
Following the President’s announcement recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, some newspapers published anti-Semitic editorial cartoons suggesting Jewish and Israeli domination of U.S. policies and politics. Copies of anti-Semitic literature, including translations of Mein Kampf, were widely available for purchase.
Anti-Shia rhetoric continued as well. On February 11, cleric Muhammad Al-Zoghbi called Shia Muslims “criminal rafidites,” (a slur for Shia, meaning “rejectionists”) for killing Sunnis in Iraq and Syria in an interview televised on Al-Rahma TV. “I tell you, these are filthy people! They are nothing like the Sunnis,” he said after recounting a story he said he had heard about Ayatollah Khomeini allegedly having sex with a five-year-old girl and later justifying the act as permitted in Islam.
Sunni cleric Sameh Abdel Hameed Hamouda called on the government to demolish the Al-Hussein mosque in Cairo, the shrine believed by many to contain the head of Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Imam Al-Hussein, a revered figure for Shia Muslims. Sameh accused Shia of lying about the presence of the relic in an effort to “exploit this mosque to spread Shiism and invade Egypt with their heresies and deviations,” adding, “ignorant people come to this shrine to practice all types of polytheism and heresies.”
In December lawyer and frequent talk show guest Nabih al-Wahsh called for women to be raped if they did not comply with traditional Islamic standards of modesty. The National Security Emergency Misdemeanor Court subsequently sentenced him to three years in jail on charges of threatening public order and security, as well as incitement to harm citizens.
During a televised talk show, the president of a Coptic human rights organization, Naguib Gabriel, called in and described Jehovah’s Witnesses as Zionists and called on all of the country’s Christians not to invite Jehovah’s Witnesses into their homes.