Simmering tensions between Islamists and Coptic Christians exploded at the weekend, with four Christians shot dead near Cairo on Saturday, and violence erupted after their funeral at the Coptic St. Mark’s Cathedral a day later.
Police fired teargas inside the church grounds, and ongoing clashes continued into Monday. At least another three people have been killed, including one Christian and one Muslim.
In the coming weeks the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) will publish its 14th annual report and, as it does each year, it will recommend which nations should be designated “countries of particular concern” (CPCs) for egregious religious freedom abuses.
Under the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), which created the commission, CPCs are subject to U.S. sanctions or other measures intended to encourage governments to improve.
Each year USCIRF makes its recommendations as part of a comprehensive assessment of the situation around the world, and some months later the State Department, in its own annual report, is required by the IRFA to announce its designation decisions.
The process has frequently exposed differences between the executive branch and the statutory advisory body, with the former rejecting many of the latter’s recommendations – eight out of 16 in 2012.
Egypt, a major recipient of U.S. financial assistance, was on a USCIRF watch list for years before the commission in 2011 first recommended that it be designated a CPC, citing a dramatic increase in violence targeting Copts and other religious minorities.
The recommendation was repeated in 2012, with USCIRF reporting that the interim post-Mubarak government “continues to engage in and tolerate systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of freedom of religious freedom.”
The State Department did not heed the advice in 2011 or 2012.
Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), a longtime advocate for religious minorities who introduced the IRFA in 1998, has for two years promoted legislation to establish a special envoy to promote religious freedom in the Middle East and South-Central Asia. It passed in the House with strong bipartisan support in mid-2011 (drawing criticism at the time from Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood) but stalled in the U.S. Senate last year.
Wolf recalled Monday that during a recent visit to Egypt he observed “a perception that the U.S. is either disengaged or simply uninterested in advocating for this [religious freedom] and other basic human rights.”
“In the absence of leadership on the part of the Obama administration,” Wolf said, he remained committed to seeing the special envoy legislation become law.
“Coptic Christians and others like them deserve as much.”
Pakistan, Vietnam get a pass
Pakistan, another key beneficiary of U.S. funding, has been in USCIRF’s crosshairs every year since 2002, but both the Obama administration and its predecessor disregarded its annual CPC recommendation.
Pakistan’s Christian minority continues to face harassment and worse at the hands of Muslims riled by allegations of “blasphemy.” Less than a month ago more than 150 Christians’ homes and stores in Lahore were looted and torched by an angry mob.
The government condemns such violence when it occurs but apart from sporadic arrests has not confronted radical groups that incite it – and refused to repeal controversial blasphemy laws under which Christians have been disproportionately targeted.
Vietnam, too, has been identified by the commission as deserving CPC status every year since 2001. The Bush administration duly designated Hanoi in 2004 and 2005, but in 2006 overruled USCIRF and removed it from the list, citing significant improvements. It also awarded Vietnam permanent normal trade relations in late 2006, paving the way for it to join the World Trade Organization.
Since then the State Department has declined each year to restore CPC designation, even as diplomatic and economic ties with Vietnam continue to deepen.
Yet the communist authorities are accused of ongoing abuses, such as the sentencing last January of 14 Catholic and other reform activists to prison terms ranging from three to 13 years.
Vietnam’s human rights record, and “particularly the deeply troubling violations of religious and ethnic rights,” will be the subject of a House Foreign Relations subcommittee hearing on Thursday.
What about Turkey?
For religious freedom advocates and foreign policy observers, Turkey will be of particular interest in the upcoming USCIRF report.
Last year the commission, for the first time, recommended that Turkey be designated a CPC, citing “the Turkish government’s systematic and egregious limitations on the freedom of religion or belief that affect all religious communities in Turkey, and particularly threaten the country’s non-Muslim religious minorities.”
USCIRF commissioners, unpaid experts who are appointed by Republican and Democratic congressional leaders and the administration, were divided five against four over the recommendation, and the State Department tried to reverse it, without success.
A recent Government Accountability Office report on IRFA implementation used the episode of an example of strains between the State Department and USCIRF, indicating that Turkey’s designation had required the administration to smooth over tensions in relations with Ankara.
The GAO report prompted USCIRF Chair Katrina Lantos Swett to concede that the commission’s role “sometimes poses a challenge for the State Department,” but also point out that its “mandate is neither to conduct diplomacy nor balance religious freedom against other U.S. national interests.”
Since the 2012 report was published, the commission’s makeup has changed significantly, with the new composition making it less likely that the Turkey CPC recommendation will be repeated this year.
Only two of the commissioners who were onboard at the time of the Turkey decision remain, and William Shaw and Azizah al Hibri, both Obama appointees, were among the four-strong minority that opposed Turkey’s CPC designation.
Meanwhile the departed commissioners include an outspoken critic of Turkey, Elizabeth Prodromou, director of international affairs at the Hellenic American Leadership Council.