The constitution specifies Islam as the state religion and the principles of sharia as the primary source of legislation. The constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion and makes incitement to hate a crime. It describes freedom of belief as absolute; however, it limits the freedom to practice religious rituals and establish places of worship to adherents of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. The constitution prohibits the exercise of political activity or the formation of political parties on the basis of religion.
While neither the constitution nor the civil or penal codes prohibit apostasy from Islam or efforts to proselytize Muslims, and the law states individuals may change their religion, the government does not recognize conversion from Islam for those born Muslim. The government does recognize conversion from Islam for individuals who were not born Muslim but later converted to Islam, according to an MOI decree pursuant to a court order. In those cases in which Muslims not born Muslim convert from Islam, their minor children, and in some cases adult children who were minors when their parents converted, automatically remain classified as Muslims.
In keeping with sharia, non-Muslim men must convert to Islam to marry Muslim women, although Christian or Jewish women need not convert to marry Muslim men. A non-Muslim woman who converts to Islam must divorce her husband if he is not Muslim and is unwilling to convert. Under the law, a divorced mother is entitled to custody of a child until the age of 10 in the case of a son and until the age of 12 in the case of a daughter.
According to the penal code, using religion to promote extremist thought with the aim of inciting strife, demeaning or denigrating Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, and harming national unity carries penalties ranging from six months’ to five years’ imprisonment.
Christian, Muslim, and Jewish denominations may request official recognition from the government, which gives a denomination the right to be governed by its canonical laws, practice religious rituals, establish houses of worship, and import religious literature. To obtain official recognition, a religious group must submit a request to the Ministry of Interior (MOI) Religious Affairs Department. The department then determines whether the group poses a threat to national unity or social peace. As part of this determination, the department consults leading religious institutions, including the Coptic Orthodox Church and Al-Azhar, the nation’s premier institution of Islamic education. The president then reviews and decides on the registration application.
The law does not recognize the Bahai Faith or its religious laws and bans Bahai institutions and community activities. Although the government lists “Christian” on the identity cards of Jehovah’s Witnesses, a presidential decree bans all Jehovah’s Witnesses’ activities. The law does not stipulate any penalties for banned religious groups or their members who engage in religious practices, but these groups are barred from rights granted to recognized groups, such as having their own houses of worship or other property, holding bank accounts, or importing religious literature.
The government appoints and monitors imams who lead prayers in licensed mosques and pays their salaries. According to law, penalties for preaching or giving religious lessons without a license from the Ministry of Awqaf (Religious Endowments) or Al-Azhar include a prison term of up to one year and/or a fine of up to 50,000 Egyptian pounds (EGP) ($2,800). The penalty doubles for repeat offenders. Ministry of Awqaf inspectors also have judicial authority to arrest imams violating this law. A decree prevents unlicensed imams from preaching in any mosque, prohibits holding Friday prayers in mosques smaller than 80 square meters (861 square feet), bans unlicensed mosques from holding Friday prayer services (other prayer services are permitted), and pays bonuses to imams who deliver Friday sermons consistent with Ministry of Awqaf guidelines. Any imam who fails to follow the guidelines loses the bonus and can be subject to disciplinary measures, including potentially losing his preaching license. The ministry also issues prewritten sermons, but use of them by imams is voluntary.
The Ministry of Education (MOE) bans wearing the hijab in primary schools, but allows it in middle and high schools upon written request from a girl’s parent. Cairo University, which falls under the supervision of the Ministry of Higher Education, bans professors in certain fields from wearing the niqab during class.
The prime minister has authority to stop the circulation of books that “denigrate religions.” Ministries may obtain court orders to ban or confiscate books and works of art. The cabinet may ban works it deems offensive to public morals, detrimental to religion, or likely to cause a breach of the peace. The Islamic Research Center of Al-Azhar has the legal authority to censor and confiscate any publications dealing with the Quran and the authoritative Islamic traditions (hadith), and to confiscate publications, tapes, speeches, and artistic materials deemed inconsistent with Islamic law.
A law enacted at the end of September delegates authority to approve requests for church building and renovation permits to governors, rather than the president as was required previously. The governor is to respond within four months; any refusal must include a written justification. The new law also includes provisions to legalize existing unlicensed churches and rescinds preconditions established in the 1930s. It stipulates that, in the event a request to license an existing building used as a church is refused, the use of the building to conduct church services and rites may not be prevented. Under the new law, the size of new churches depends on a government determination of the “number and need” of Christians in the area. New churches must also meet land registration and building codes not required for mosques.
Under a separate law governing the construction of mosques, the Ministry of Awqaf approves permits to build mosques. The law does not stipulate any government role in reviewing the number or size of mosques based on its assessment of the number of Muslims in the area, but there is a provision regarding the minimum distance between mosques. The law does not require Ministry of Awqaf approval for mosque renovations.
In public schools, Muslim students are required to take courses on “principles of Islam,” and Christian students are required to take courses on “principles of Christianity” in all grades. Students who are neither Muslim nor Christian must choose one or the other course; they may not opt out or change from one to the other.
The constitution states that Al-Azhar is “the main authority in theology and Islamic affairs.” The constitution stipulates that the canonical laws of Jews and Christians form the basis of legislation governing their personal status, religious affairs, and selection of spiritual leaders.
The penal code criminalizes discrimination based on religion and defines it as including “any action, or lack of action, that leads to discrimination between people or against a sect due to … religion, or belief.” The law stipulates imprisonment and/or a fine of no less than 30,000 EGP ($1,700) and no more than 50,000 EGP ($2,800) as penalties of discrimination. If the perpetrator is a public servant, the law states that the imprisonment should be no less than three months, and the fine no less than 50,000 EGP ($2,800) and no more than 100,000 EGP ($5,600).
The government recognizes only the marriages of Christians, Jews, and Muslims with documentation from a cleric. Since the state does not recognize Bahai marriage, married Bahais are denied the legal rights of married couples of other religious beliefs, including those pertaining to inheritance, divorce, and sponsoring a foreign spouse’s permanent residence.
In matters of family law, when spouses are members of the same religious denomination, courts apply that denomination’s canonical laws. In cases where one spouse is Muslim and the other a member of a different religion, both are Christians but adhere to different denominations, or the individuals are not clearly a part of a religious group, the courts apply sharia. In accordance with sharia, the law forbids adoptions for all. In matters of inheritance, the courts generally apply sharia unless a will instructs otherwise.
The law requires the government to specify religion on national identity cards, with the only options being Islam, Christianity, or Judaism. According to an MOI decree pursuant to a court order, the government may enter a “dash” in place of religion for Bahais.
According to the law, a minimum of 24 Christians must be elected out of the total 120 members elected as members of party lists in the first parliamentary elections after the constitution’s 2014 ratification.
The National Council for Human Rights (NCHR), whose members are appointed by parliament, is charged with strengthening protections, raising awareness, and ensuring the observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms, including religious freedom. It is also charged with monitoring enforcement and application of international agreements pertaining to human rights. The council’s mandate includes investigating reports of alleged violations of religious freedom.
The constitution mandates the state to eliminate all forms of discrimination through an independent commission to be established by parliament. By year’s end, the government had not yet established such a commission.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights but declared in a reservation that it became a party considering that the provisions of sharia do not conflict with the covenant.
In spite of numerous speeches by President Sisi underscoring that all Egyptians were equal citizens under the law, numerous 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. For example, prison authorities at the local level delayed a court-ordered release of a noted convert from Islam to Christianity, according to international human rights groups and the press. According to sources in the Christian community, security and police officials sometimes failed to respond in a timely manner to attacks on Christians and their homes, businesses, and places of worship, especially in Upper Egypt. The government frequently failed to investigate or prosecute such attacks, relying instead on the controversial practice of “customary reconciliation” sessions whereby both sides in a dispute negotiated a settlement brokered by religious or other community leaders. Although there were reports that police rescued Christian victims of kidnappings, police action was not always prompt, activists said.
On June 16, Grand Imam of Al Azhar Ahmed el-Tayeb appeared on multiple television channels stating that all four Sunni schools of jurisprudence agreed that an apostate “should be pressed upon to recant…or be killed,” and calling apostasy from Islam “high treason.” He also presented evidence from Islamic doctrinal sources, however, to defend the view that ex-Muslims who posed no threat to society should be left alone.
Subsequently, at an October conference on fatwa issuance for imams serving in Muslim expatriate communities, the grand imam encouraged qualified Islamic scholars to use their analytical reasoning skills in issuing fatwas appropriate for the modern-day societies in which they live, and not allow fear of going against centuries-old jurisprudence to cause their fatwas to “stagnate.” Subsequently he announced that Al Azhar would establish a “Committee of Fiqh” (jurisprudence) which would engage in ijtihad (analytical reasoning) to address some Islamic doctrinal issues, thereby asserting space for renewal of religious discourse, although the scope remained limited.
In July Mohamed Hegazy, known as Bishoy Armia Boulous after his conversion from Islam to Christianity, was released after spending over 18 months in detention, beyond the six-month legal limit for those charged with misdemeanors, pending investigation for “denigrating Islam.” On June 26, a court ordered Boulous/Hegazy’s release on bail. Authorities subsequently stated they had lost the court order, required him to produce additional documentation, and “transferred him from prison to prison across Egypt under the orders of the Ministry of the Interior” without informing his attorney, according to Morning Star News, a news service that reports on persecution of Christians. Ultimately, Boulous/Hegazy recorded a video testifying that he was reconverting from Christianity to Islam and was released on bail on July 23. His legal case remained pending at year’s end.
Local authorities frequently encouraged participation in “customary reconciliation” sessions to address incidents of sectarian violence, saying such sessions prevented further violence by quickly defusing tensions. According to the authorities, the intent was for the parties to agree on measures to stop the conflict, which might include punishment of the perpetrators by expulsion from the village, compensation for the affected parties, or a penalty clause for the future breaching of any agreement. Beginning in 2014, the Coptic Orthodox Church refused to participate in customary reconciliation as a substitute for the rule of law, only approving its use as an immediate measure to stop bloodshed and deescalate tensions. Human rights groups and members of the Coptic community said that such sessions regularly led to outcomes unfavorable to minority parties 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. One human rights NGO said “customary reconciliation” constituted an encroachment on the judicial system and on the principles of nondiscrimination and citizenship.
Courts continued to apply the penal code to prosecute those charged with denigrating Judaism, Christianity, or Islam. Government prosecutors investigated criminal complaints filed by private citizens on such charges, leading to prosecution of at least 13 individuals, including two convictions pending from 2015 and six convictions from cases in 2016. Citizens charged under the penal code included Muslim reformers, Christian children, a social media tweeter, an atheist, and a Salafi television preacher.
On January 26, Al-Khalifa Misdemeanor Court convicted writer Fatima Naoot in absentia and sentenced her to three years in prison and a fine of 20,000 EGP ($1,100) for denigrating Islam by describing the Islamic ritual of sacrificing cows or sheep during Eid al-Adha as a “massacre,” in a tweet on her personal account in December 2014. On November 24, the Sayeda Zeinab Appellate Misdemeanor Court affirmed Naoot’s conviction of denigration of religion but reduced her sentence to a suspended six months’ imprisonment.
On February 23, Edko Misdemeanor court upheld Mostafa Abdel-Naby’s three-year prison sentence for denigrating religion for declaring his atheism and insulting Allah on Facebook in 2014.
On February 25, Bani Mazar Juvenile Misdemeanor Court sentenced four Christian males ages 16 to 17 to five years’ imprisonment for “denigrating Islam” after they appeared in a half-minute-long video clip in which they allegedly mocked Islamic prayer and made silly gestures. Villagers had discovered the video on a phone allegedly belonging to their teacher, Gad Youssef Younan, whom the same court had convicted in December 2015 for capturing the youths’ actions on video. According to international press reports, the youths fled the country.
On May 25, El-Gamaliya Misdemeanor court sentenced El-Sayed Youssef Ahmed El-Naggar to one year in prison and a fine of 1,000 EGP ($55) for denigrating Islam after he burned a volume of Al-Bukhari, a ninth century compilation of sayings and deeds (hadith) attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, in front of Al Azhar as a protest of such books for “espousing extremist thought,” according to a local human rights organization. On September 21, El-Gamaliya Appellate Misdemeanor Court confirmed the sentence.
On May 28, First October 6 Misdemeanor Court acquitted Salafist television preacher Mohamed Hassan of denigrating Islam when he recounted a story from early Islamic sources that Khadija, one of the Prophet Muhammad’s wives, had deliberately plied her father with wine and extracted his approval of the marriage when he was drunk.
In July the Court of Cassation (appellate court) rejected an appeal by Islam El-Beheiry of his one-year prison sentence for “defaming religious symbols.” He received a presidential pardon in late November. Prosecutors had pressed charges against the TV host after a lawyer filed a complaint accusing him of denigrating Islam through his critique of Islamic texts with links to violence, including certain hadith, on his show Ma’a Islam (With Islam). This case, based on the blasphemy law, was widely regarded in the press as undercutting President Sisi’s ongoing calls for Islamic scholars to “renew religious discourse” and “combat the ideology of extremists.”
In the wake of these and other convictions for denigration of religions, a coalition of 13 human rights organizations, four political parties, and a number of lawyers, journalists, and public figures issued a statement condemning the rulings for “supporting terrorism” by “suffocating every opinion exposing the roots of terrorism in our heritage and ideas.” Signatories included the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, the Arab Network for Human Rights Information, and the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies.
The government did not prevent members of unregistered religious groups, such as Bahais, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, from worshiping privately in small numbers. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, the government sometimes engaged in surveillance of their homes, questioned them about their activities, and continued to confiscate personally owned religious materials from them at airports. The government continued to ban the importation and sale of Bahai and Jehovah’s Witnesses literature.
The government closed the tomb of Imam Al-Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, located in Al-Hussein Mosque in Old Cairo, during the three-day commemoration of Ashura in October, for what it said were security reasons. The mosque remained open.
By year’s end, the government had nearly completed rebuilding and restoring 78 churches and other Christian sites damaged or destroyed by mob violence after the 2013 forcible dispersal of Muslim Brotherhood-led sit-ins in Cairo and Giza, according to Christian leaders. President Sisi announced that two sites remained in need of painting, which was expected to be completed within two months. While still defense minister, Sisi had vowed to have the military rebuild the churches immediately after they were attacked in 2013. He apologized to attendants at the Christmas Eve service at St. Mark Coptic Orthodox Cathedral on January 6 that the government had not been able to complete rebuilding them in 2015 and promised to try to complete the work in 2016.
President Sisi approved the licenses of three new churches during the first eight months of the year, until the new law transferred this authority to governors.
After a string of violent sectarian incidents in Minya, the government replaced the governor and chief of security there as part of a larger reshuffle. According to press reports, Copts regarded the move as a positive step toward improving security in the region. When the new governor visited the Coptic Orthodox Bishop of Minya on his first day in office on September 9, the governor stated that Minya’s sectarian problems should be resolved by upholding the law, according to press reports. The bishop called for the rule of law, justice, and equality, and said the governor’s appointment “promised a new era of peace and security,” according to press reports. The Bishop of Minya repeated in several statements to the media that he would no longer agree to deal with sectarian incidents through customary reconciliation. According to a study published July 27 in Watani, the country’s Coptic-run weekly, 65 percent of violent attacks against Copts took place in Minya.
Efforts to revise textbooks were ongoing, according to government and religious officials, in a response to President Sisi’s continuing calls for Islamic scholars to renew religious discourse and challenge the ideology of extremists.
All 27 of Egypt’s governors, appointed by the president, were Muslim.
Children legally identified as Muslims but who self-identified as Christians and who lived in Christian homes 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 and had no recourse to choose their religion when they reached legal age.
Two public middle schools in Zaqaziq, Sharqia Governorate, designated the hijab as part of its mandatory uniform for female students. After complaints from parents, the Ministry of Education issued an administrative decision on October 23 prohibiting schools from mandating the hijab and referred the principal of one of the schools for internal investigation, according to the local woman’s rights group New Women Foundation.
According to members of academia, no Christians served as presidents of the country’s 25 public universities and few Christians occupied dean or vice dean positions in the public university system. Only Muslims could study at Al-Azhar University, a publicly funded institution. The government barred non-Muslims from employment in public university training programs for Arabic language teachers, because the curriculum involved study of the Quran.
On October 11, after a Christian applicant to a postgraduate program at Cairo University complained that his rejection likely was due to his religion, Cairo University President Dr. Gaber Nassar issued an official directive to remove any indication of a student’s religion on any application, certificate, or document issued by the university. A university investigation had determined that none of nine Christian applicants to the program in question had been accepted. Nassar subsequently ordered that the nine Christian students be accepted into the program and issued a directive to remove the question of religion from application forms. In December the Religious Committee of the House of Representatives rejected the university’s directive, describing it as “unnecessary,” and recommended that Nassar annul it. Nassar rejected the recommendation, stating that university application forms were not under the purview of parliament.
The Ministry of Education withdrew its appointment of Mervat Abo Sefein as Director of Beni Mazar Secondary Girls’ School, Minya, after students chanted that they would not accept a Christian director, according to human rights organization Tahir Institute. The ministry then appointed Abo Sefein as Director of the Boys’ Technical School of Beni Mazar but rescinded the appointment after students protested it. The ministry stated it had reversed the decision based on complaints from “earlier in Abo Sefein’s career,” according to media outlet Youm7.
In January Al Azhar canceled a competition entitled “The Spread of Shia Islam in the Sunni Community: Reasons, Dangers, and How to Confront It.” According to press reports, the cancellation was due to the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar’s desire to promote unity and fraternity among Muslims.
The government generally failed to take action against or condemn anti-Semitic comments that appeared in government-owned and private media. State-owned and private media used anti-Semitic rhetoric, including by academics, cultural figures, and clerics, and published cartoons and commentary demonizing Jews and Israel.
In May and June the government-owned newspaper Al Ahram published a five-week series of articles accusing Jews of “plotting to enslave the world,” “claiming that their religion is the only religion,” “inventing atheism,” “leading countries to religious and political extremism,” and staging an “economic takeover of the world.” Most of these allegations of “evil” referenced the long-debunked Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
Positive coverage of the country’s Jewish community appeared in government-owned media as well. On May 30, state television aired an interview with the president of the Cairo Jewish community during which she spoke about Judaism as a religion and corrected what she said were misconceptions about the Jewish community in the country. The interview took place in one of Cairo’s remaining synagogues.
The government generally permitted foreign religious workers in the country on condition they not proselytize to Muslims. 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.
During the year, government officials took custody of historical records of births, marriages, deaths, and other community records of the greatly diminished Jewish community whose membership at one time exceeded 75,000 people. Officials stated that they were taking the records in order to preserve them, according to members of the community. The Ministry of Antiquities, which is charged with preserving Egyptian heritage, began to assess Egyptian Jewish heritage sites and to catalogue their contents; however, important Jewish religious and historical sites, including a grand synagogue in Alexandria and a millennium-old Jewish cemetery in Cairo, continued to deteriorate from decades of disuse. The newspaper The Arab Weekly estimated there were 19 synagogues in the country, a few in good condition, the others in very poor condition.
Dar Al Ifta, the official government institute for issuing fatwas and Islamic legal research, issued a fatwa in June stating, “Openly violating the fast during Ramadan does not fall under personal freedom but, rather, is a kind of chaos and assault on the sanctity of Islam.” According to Mada Masr, a news website, social media users regarded the statement as an attack on personal freedom, with some seeing it as potentially inciting violence against individuals who publicly eat during Ramadan. Despite the fatwa, restaurants remained open during Ramadan in parts of Cairo, and there were no reports of harassment of those eating during the day.
Construction continued on a state-funded church in honor of 20 Egyptian Copts beheaded by an ISIS affiliate in Libya.