Egypt systematically oppresses Christians and minority Muslim sects, according to a congressional commission that placed a key U.S. ally in the Arab world on a blacklist of nations that routinely abuse religious liberties.
Egypt, for the first time, was designated a “country of particular concern” for the “systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom,” the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said in its annual report released Thursday.
The independent, bipartisan commission also noted that President Obama has failed to add any country it cited for religious intolerance to a separate blacklist maintained by the State Department.
Countries on the State Department list face some level of economic sanctions.
“There is a problem with the failure to cite countries, and then a failure to take action when countries are cited,” commission Chairman Leonard Leo told The Washington Times.
The commission reported on 28 countries with severe religious strife, citing 14 as the most serious abusers. The commission included 11 on a lower-level “watch list” of nations with lesser degrees of religious persecution and three others where conditions are closely monitored.
Some countries were cited for official persecution of religious minorities or a failure to prosecute suspects arrested for religiously motivated crimes. The commission blamed blasphemy laws in some Muslim countries for religious violence.
Egypt, which receives about $1.5 billion a year in U.S. aid, was the only country moved from the watch list to the blacklist of countries of “particular concern” in this year’s report.
The commission noted that attacks on religious minorities, especially against Orthodox Christians, called Copts, “remained high,” even after the anti-government uprisings that toppled authoritarian President Hosni Mubarak in February. Egypt’s Christians make up 10 percent of the population of 82 million.
“In the case of Egypt, instances of severe religious freedom violations engaged in or tolerated by the government have increased dramatically … with violence, including murder, escalating against Coptic Christians and other religious minorities,” Mr. Leo said.
Egypt’s failure to prosecute suspects accused of religious crimes continued under the military government that replaced Mr. Mubarak, he added.
“A climate of impunity … has been on a low boil for some time,” he told The Times. “The problem is basically that, for a while now, the Egyptian government has not responded to acts of sectarian violence.”
In February, an Egyptian court acquitted two of three defendants charged in a Christmas Eve drive-by shooting that left six Coptics dead. One Muslim policeman also was killed in the attack.
On Jan. 1, a suicide bomber struck outside a church in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria as worshippers emerged from a New Year’s Eve Mass. Twenty-three people were killed and scores wounded.
Since Mr. Mubarak was forced from office on Feb. 11, “military and security forces reportedly have used excessive force and live ammunition targeting Christian places of worship and Christian demonstrators,” the commission said.
It also criticized the Egyptian government for not doing enough to combat anti-Semitism in the government-controlled media.
The commission cited a “climate of impunity” in cases of religious violence in Pakistan, a key U.S. ally in the war on terrorism.
It blamed Pakistan’s blasphemy law, which outlaws criticism of Islam, for violating “religious freedom directly” and indirectly “energizing extremists who threaten the freedoms of all Pakistanis.”
Extremists this year killed two prominent Pakistani critics of the law, Punjab Gov. Salmaan Taseer, a Muslim, and Minorities Affairs Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian.
The commission report is dedicated to the memory of Mr. Bhatti.
“The assassination of Mr. Bhatti and Gov. Taseer were emblematic of the kind of culture of intolerance that exists in Pakistan,” Mr. Leo said.
Imran Gardezi, a spokesman for the Pakistani Embassy in Washington, said the rights of minorities are protected under Pakistan’s Constitution.
He said Pakistan is faced with a “huge challenge” of extremism and that the situation “is being exploited by obscurantists who are misinterpreting the teachings of Islam.”
In China, Mr. Leo cited “state-sponsored aggression” as the commission’s key concern. Chinese persecution of Christians, Uighur Muslims and Buddhists increased over the past year.
Violence against minorities in Iraq has driven some religious communities to the brink of extinction. A mass exodus of Christians reduced the community by more than half. Other religious minorities have fallen by more than 80 percent because of emigration.
The State Department list includes Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan. Saudi Arabia is the only country with an “indefinite waiver” of any U.S. sanction for its religious practices.
The commission’s list includes those same nations plus Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Turkmenistan and Vietnam, as well as Egypt. The commission cites Bangladesh, Kazakhstan and Morocco as countries that are “closely monitored.”
The nine-member commission, created 1998, is appointed by the president and the Republican and Democratic congressional leaders. It reports to the White House, the State Department and Congress.