The recent violent attacks against the Copt Christian minority in Egypt and the dismissive reaction of the government may lead to the United States downgrading Egypt's status on religious freedom from the "watch list" to a "country of concern."
A delegation from the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) wound up a fact-finding visit to Egypt Tuesday before it is due to report back to Washington.
The delegation met earlier this week with top Muslim clerics and state-supported human rights groups. But according to the Egyptian daily Al Masry Al Youm
the Coptic Pope Shenouda III refused to meet with the delegation and accused it of "interfering in Egypt's domestic affairs."
An official from the Coptic Church could not be reached for comment.
USCIRF Communications Director Tom Carter told The Media Line that USCIRF could not comment regarding meeting the Coptic leadership "due to the sensitive nature of [the] request."
Last week, US ambassador to Egypt Margaret Scobey met with Pope Shenouda III and discussed the January 6 attack on Copts in Upper Egypt that killed six Copt worshipers celebrating Coptic Orthodox Christmas Eve.
This was the latest in a series of clashes between Muslims and Coptic Christians, who make up about 10% of Egypt's Muslim-majority population of 80 million. The Egyptian government was slow to respond to the attack in the Nagaa Hammadi, initially saying it was a "criminal matter".
It wasn't until late last week that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak finally addressed the matter with a strong statement.
"The criminal act in Nagaa Hammadi has made the hearts of Egyptians bleed, whether Copts or Muslims," Mubarak said in comments carried by the official news agency MENA.
Mubarak called for "the rational preachers, thinkers and media men to shoulder their great responsibility in hampering sedition, ignorance and blind fanaticism and to deter hateful sectarian motives that threaten our social unity."
Civil rights organizations in Egypt have criticized the government over the limp-arm response to violent attacks on its Christian communities. There have been very few prosecutions for these attacks over the years. In the latest case, in which a Muslim policeman was killed in addition to the six Copts, three Muslim men face trial for murder in an emergency security court next month.
The USCIRF delegation was dispatched with a mandate to determine whether Egypt should be removed from its religious freedoms "watch list" and put on its list of "countries of concern". This would put Egypt in league with the world's top persecutors of religious minorities such as neighboring Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Eritrea, as well as Burma, China and North Korea.
Earlier this week, the delegation reportedly met with the Sheikh of Al-Azhar University, Muhammed Sayyid Tantawy, who told them there was no discrimination between Muslims and Christians in Egypt.
"Both have the same rights and duties," Tantawy was quoted as saying in Al Masry Al Youm. "Both pay taxes and are drafted in the army."
Copts are considered equal to Muslims under the Egyptian constitution but must gain presidential permission to build churches and clearance from a governor to renovate them. Also, under Egyptian law, Muslim men may marry Christian women but Muslim women are prohibited from marrying Christian men.
According to the USCIRF serious problems of discrimination, intolerance, and other human rights violations against members of religious minorities like the Copts and Bahais, as well as nonconforming Muslims, remain widespread in Egypt.
There are only a handful of Christians in the upper ranks of the security services and armed forces. There is one Christian governor out of 28, one elected Member of Parliament out of 454 seats, no known university presidents or deans, and very few legislators or judges.