'HORRIFIC ATROCITIES': Egypt, Iraq 'failed' to protect Christians, religious communities
WASHINGTON (BP)--The governments of Iraq and Egypt have failed to protect the freedoms of religious minorities, resulting in "horrific atrocities" against historic Christian communities, a religious freedom advocate testified Jan. 20.
Nina Shea, a member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, appeared before Congress' Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission less than a week after an Egyptian court handed down a death sentence to a man convicted in a January 2010 attack in which six Christians and a Muslim guard were killed in the city of Nag Hamadi.
Shea told noted to congressional panel, "The Oct. 31 violent siege of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church in Baghdad, Iraq, during Sunday mass and the New Year's Day bombing attack against Coptic Christians emerging from a church service in Alexandria, Egypt, sent shock waves around the world."
The "horrific atrocities," Shea said, "did not occur in a vacuum."
"In Egypt, for the past two years, we've seen a dramatic upsurge in attacks against Copts, while in Iraq, churches have been targeted at least since 2004, and while the violence in the country has decreased overall, attacks against the Christians have increased," Shea said.
"This fall, an al-Qaeda group has explicitly linked the Christian communities of Iraq and Egypt in its threats to kill Christians.
"Clearly, the governments of both nations have failed to ensure the right to freedom of religion or belief, especially for religious minorities, including Christian communities which have been in Egypt and Iraq for nearly 2,000 years," Shea said.
On Jan. 16, Mohammed Ahmed Hassanein, also known as Hammam al-Kamouni, received a death sentence on first-degree murder and terror-related charges for the 2010 attack in Nag Hamadi, the Associated Press reported. The State Security Court, whose rulings cannot be appealed, is expected to announce verdicts against other two defendants in the case next month.
The death sentence in the 11-month trial came quickly on the heels of a Jan. 1 suicide bombing in which 21 worshippers were killed at a church in the port city of Alexandria, the AP noted. Egypt's top security official has blamed the Army of Islam in the Gaza Strip for the attack.
Muslim-Christian stress in Egypt was further intensified by a Jan. 11 incident in which an off-duty police officer opened fire on a train in southern Egypt, killing a 71-year-old Christian man and wounding five others, including the man's wife.
Shea told Baptist Press she sees the death sentence as "tokenism."
"There are a number of attacks on Christians not being prosecuted, and the case in which the death sentence was handed down is not finished," Shea said. "There are two other defendants still on trial."
The Jan. 11 attack of this year, Shea noted in her congressional testimony, is yet another evidence of "a longstanding, deeply entrenched pattern of impunity in attacks against Christians."
"There are government measures that discriminate against Christians and allow them to be scapegoated. You regularly see incitements to violence against Christians in government-owned media, including wild conspiracy theories about Christians preparing to take over Egypt. It creates an atmosphere of intimidation and incitement to violence against Christians," Shea said.
Christians make up about 10 percent of Egypt's estimated 80 million population and regularly complain that police ignore discrimination and violence against them. The Associated Press noted the government has tried to calm Christian fears, freeing dozens of Christians detained after November 2010 rioting over construction of a church building in a Cairo suburb and beefing up security outside churches. In a widely publicized celebration in mid-January, President Hosni Mubarak presented one of the nation's highest honors to a famous Christian surgeon, the AP reported.
Mark Kelly is senior writer and assistant editor for Baptist Press.