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Doing the right thing for persecuted Coptic Christians

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Egypt is one of the United States’ strongest allies in a region filled with chaotic states. They have the largest Christian and largest non-Muslim community in the Middle East, but the Egyptian government has turned a blind eye to the severe persecution they experience.

Last year, during a trip to Egypt, I made it a priority to meet with Egyptian Christians to hear stories about their struggle to practice faith in a nation and region where there has been so much institutional and strict persecution of their beliefs. What I learned from Coptic Christians and others is that they are targets of not only terrorist groups, including ISIS, but sadly also by their own Egyptian countrymen as well.

{mosads}On Dec. 22, 2017, just after Friday prayers, dozens of Egyptian Muslims assaulted a Coptic Christian church south of Cairo in an act that started as a demonstration. While “unsanctioned” by the Egyptian government, this church had been holding services for some 15 years. According to reports, the individuals called for the church’s demolition, destroyed some of its contents, and assaulted those worshipping inside. Based on past similar attacks, it’s unlikely that the Egyptian government will hold the perpetrators accountable for their egregious actions. And, this is just the most recent example of the ongoing trend of assaults on Copts, and their churches and property.

These acts are unacceptable. As a Christian, religious freedom is vitally important to me, and I believe staying silent is not good for the future of the United States or Egypt. As Martin Luther King Jr., said, “the time is always right to do what’s right.”

Now is the time for Congress to do the right thing, and for this reason, I introduced H.Res.673, which calls on the Egyptian government to take further steps to end the culture of attacks against Christians with impunity and urges the Egyptian government to take steps so that Copts and other Christians may achieve rightful equality in Egyptian society. The Egyptian people are a proud people with an extraordinary civilization. All Muslims and Christians take their water from the Nile.

My resolution acknowledges the central and historic importance of the U.S.-Egypt partnership in advancing the common interests of both countries as well as Egypt’s regional role as an essential partner in the efforts toward lasting peace between Israel and her neighbors and in the fight against terrorism and violent extremism. The resolution states the necessity for Egypt’s leaders to take steps toward education reform that prioritizes impartial instruction of all religions, and political reform that prioritizes human rights, fundamental freedoms, and the rule of law.

I also urge Egypt’s government to enact serious and legitimate reforms to ensure Coptic Christians have the same rights and opportunities as all other Egyptian citizens. Copts live in constant fear for their future, as they have been targets of societal aggression resulting in loss of life, property and destruction of churches. They face severe discrimination in both public and private employment, including at the senior levels in the intelligence, defense, foreign affairs and other security departments.

Congress provides more than $1.4 billion in U.S. aid to Egypt every year, and $1.3 billion of that goes to military support. I want to continue our assistance to Egypt because I believe that the United States plays a vital role in Egypt’s continued progress in economic and societal growth. But, in my view, if we are to continue supporting them financially, Egypt must improve civil society and be more aggressive in cracking down on the rampant persecution of Copts and other religious minorities.

According to groups like Human Rights Watch and Freedom House, Egypt’s human rights have steadily declined during the four-year rule of Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. However, I am pleased with many of the initial steps that President el-Sisi has taken in support of Christians in Egypt, such as attending multiple Christmas Masses and easing laws that placed restrictions on church building and reconstruction. President el-Sisi has set the right tone at the top levels of his government, and I believe he has a respectful partnership with the leadership of the Copts and other Christians. But that respect and the resulting legal protections must be passed down to all the levels of government and society because the streets, sadly, tell a different story.

President el-Sisi told me directly on two occasions how important counter terrorism is to the Egyptian government. It is the number one concern without any doubt, and I commend the president for his partnership with the United States, and especially with Israel, in the field of counterterrorism. With ISIS carrying out two terrorist attacks in Egypt within a month of each other in November and December that killed Muslims and Christians, the Egyptian government’s concerns about terrorism are legitimate and real.

However, in my view, I do not believe Egypt’s modernization and focus on countering terrorism should come at the cost of sacrificing advances in human rights, education, and religious freedom. I urge swift consideration of my resolution by the House Foreign Affairs Committee and on the floor of the House so we can continue to advance religious freedom and civil society.

Hill represents Arkansas’ 2nd District.


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