The constitution describes freedom of belief as “absolute” and specifies Islam as the state religion. It also enshrines the principles of sharia as the primary source of legislation, which local lawyers stated creates potential legal ambiguities with regard to the freedom of belief guaranteed in the constitution. The constitution only provides adherents of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism the right to practice their religion freely and to build houses of worship. The government continued not to recognize and restrict Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, and Bahais. According to multiple sources, authorities continued to detain and physically mistreat former Muslims. Irrespective of religion, authorities also did not apply equal protection to all citizens and sometimes closed churches, in violation of the law, according to multiple sources. Courts charged citizens, including Muslim clerics, with “denigration of religions.” Christians reported discrimination by authorities, especially in rural areas. The government completed rebuilding 78 churches and other church-owned properties which had been destroyed or damaged in mob violence in 2013 and repaired Saints Peter and Paul Church in Cairo after a December 2016 suicide bombing that killed 29 people. It also issued an unprecedented civil marriage license to a Bahai couple with no religious affiliation designated on their national identity card. The government continued its efforts to preserve the nation’s Jewish heritage, including starting work to renovate and protect a historic synagogue in Alexandria. There were incidents of official anti-Semitism and public anti-Semitic statements by Al-Azhar, the country’s primary institution for spreading Islam and defending Islamic doctrine. According to religious leaders, educators, and families, the Ministry of Education made progress in removing language from school textbooks that it said could engender hate toward non-Muslims or promote the view that Islam was superior to other religions. The government-supported Islamic institutions Al-Azhar and Dar al-Ifta, the country’s fatwa issuing authority, continued to debate reforms to Islamic jurisprudence which mandates the death penalty for apostasy from Islam.
Societal violence connected with religion, including terrorist attacks, continued. An attack against a Sufi mosque in Rawda village in northern Sinai by armed gunmen carrying the ISIS flag killed 311 persons, 27 of whom were children, followed warnings not to celebrate the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday, according to press reports, and ISIS’s published threats against Sufis in December 2016. ISIS claimed responsibility for multiple attacks, including suicide bombings at two churches during Palm Sunday services that killed 45 people, the killing of 28 passengers on a bus carrying Christian pilgrims to a desert monastery, and numerous killings of Christians in northern Sinai and elsewhere. Muslims opposed to church construction or renovation, even when legally authorized, continued to commit violence against churches and Christian-owned properties in various locales. Victims of sectarian violence continued to be pressured to drop charges in the spirit of “reconciliation” – a practice which human rights groups and Christians said regularly failed to hold the perpetrators accountable or provide justice to victims and their families. Muslims who openly left Islam were subjected to violence, threats, and abuse. Christians continued to face societal discrimination in their daily lives. Reports of incitement to violence against Jews and other anti-Semitic remarks, as well as defamatory speech against other minority religious groups, continued during the year.
U.S. representatives at multiple levels, including the Ambassador and Charge d’Affaires, visiting delegations from Washington, and embassy and consulate general officials met with government officials to underscore the importance of religious freedom and equal protection of all citizens before the law. In meetings with high-level officials at the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Education, Justice, Awqaf (Islamic Endowments), and Interior, embassy officers and visiting U.S. officials emphasized the U.S. commitment to religious freedom and raised a number of cases, including attacks on Christians, recognition of Bahais and Jehovah’s Witnesses, the rights of Shia Muslims to perform religious rituals publicly, and the discrimination and religious freedom violations resulting from official religious designations on national identity and other official documents. In December the embassy hosted a digital video conference with the State Department Special Advisor for Religious Minorities in the Middle East, North Africa, and South and Central Asia for a discussion about religious freedom in the country. The embassy also promoted religious freedom on social media throughout the year. Embassy and consulate general officers regularly engaged with human rights advocates, religious leaders, and community members on questions of religious freedom, for example, on the rights of all citizens to choose their religion, build houses of worship, and practice their religious rituals, as well as the government’s responsibility to prosecute perpetrators of sectarian attacks. President Trump condemned the lethal attacks on the Rawda mosque in north Sinai and on the Mar Mina Coptic Orthodox Church in Helwan, south of Cairo, and phoned President al-Sisi on both occasions, offering condolences and reiterating, “The United States will continue to stand with Egypt in the face of terrorism.”