(CNSNews.com) – Ahead of President Obama’s trip to the Middle East and his address to “the Islamic world,” advocates for religious freedom are urging him to speak out for embattled Christians and others persecuted for their faith – especially in the two Arab countries the president is scheduled to visit.
Obama is due to spend a day in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, before flying to Egypt to deliver the speech Thursday at the University of Cairo.
The two predominantly Sunni countries have longstanding political, economic and military ties with the United States and are also considered leaders in the Arab world. Their Islamic credentials are significant too: Egypt’s Al-Azhar University, which is co-hosting the Obama speech, is viewed as the highest seat of Sunni learning; Saudi Arabia is the birthplace of Islam and home to Mecca and Medina, the religion’s most revered sites.
But Egypt and Saudi Arabia are also consistently criticized for their human rights records, particularly abuses of religious freedom.
President Hosni Mubarak, 81, has been in power for 28 years, and is currently serving his fifth consecutive six-year term, following a 2005 voting exercise which the State Department said was “marred by low voter turnout and charges of fraud.”
Saudi King Abdullah, 84, ascended to the oil-rich kingdom’s throne in 2005, the latest monarch in a Wahhabi dynasty that has dominated most of the Arabian peninsula for centuries.
Mark Lippert, Obama’s deputy national security advisor, told a pre-trip briefing that Obama would not hesitate to bring up “tough” issues such as those relating to civil society and democracy.
The president himself, asked in a National Public Radio interview about the decision to deliver the speech “in a country with an undemocratic government,” replied, “We can’t force these approaches.”
“What we can do is stand up for human rights,” Obama continued. “We can stand up for democracy. But I think it’s a mistake for us to somehow suggest that we’re not going to deal with countries around the world in the absence of their meeting all our criteria for democracy.”
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an expert panel set up under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, considers Saudi Arabia one of the world’s most egregious violators – a country where freedom of religion does not exist, even on paper.
Rights groups and the U.S. government say authorities deny religious freedom to non-Muslims as well as to Muslims who do not adhere to the state’s Wahhabi interpretation of Sunni Islam.
Non-Muslim worshippers, including members of tiny Christian, Hindu and Buddhist communities, risk arrest, imprisonment, torture and deportation if found engaging in religious activity.
The 1998 legislation provides for violators to be designated “countries of particular concern” (CPCs) and for the U.S. to take measures, including sanctions, against governments that engage in or tolerate serious abuses.
The commission for several years recommended that Saudi Arabia be added to the CPC list. The Bush administration eventually did so in 2004, but even then repeatedly waived sanctions, citing a Saudi willingness to engage in discussions on the issue.
Egypt is not designated a CPC, although the USCIRF has put it on a watch lit of countries it monitors closely because of the nature and extent of violations.
Egypt’s Copts, an Orthodox Christian minority dating back to the early church – and predating the Islamic conquests of the 7th century – face multiple forms of discrimination, both officially-instigated and at the hands of Islamists.
Obama’s two Arab destinations this week are among a number of Muslim countries criticized for religious freedom violations, including maltreatment of minorities, non-conforming Muslims, and of converts from Islam, considered “apostates.”
Fourteen of the 24 countries the USCIRF considers as having the worst records on religious freedom are Islamic or mostly Islamic – Afghanistan, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
(The others are Belarus, Burma, China, Cuba, Eritrea, Laos, North Korea, Russia, Venezuela and Vietnam.)
In letters to Obama ahead of his Mideast visit, USCIRF chairwoman Felice Gaer asked him to raise the issue both in his meetings with Mubarak and Abdullah, but also in his speech, “as this fundamental human right is severely limited in many countries with Muslim majority populations.”
Gaer said the U.S. government’s stance actually strengthens the argument that “our country is not at ‘war’ with Islam” – because part of its focus is on severe violations targeting individual Muslims.
The Saudi government pledged in recent years to institute reforms, she said. But a visit by commission members in 2007 had concluded that the pledges had not been met, and “unfortunately, this remains the case in 2009.”
Restrictions on religious freedom in Egypt, Gaer said, “have encouraged extremist elements in Egyptian society and undermined the growth of civil society.”
‘Treat Christians the way the West treats Muslims’
The commission was also concerned about the leading role played by Egypt in the campaign at the United Nations to counter what Islamic states call the “defamation” of Islam.
“The flawed ‘defamation’ concept is an attempt to export blasphemy laws to the international level and we urge you to communicate U.S. concerns about this initiative,’ she said.
Other advocacy groups also expressed the hope that Obama would bring up religious freedom during his trip.
“When it comes to human rights and the treatment of minority Christians, Egypt has an extremely poor track record,” said Christian Freedom International president Jim Jacobson. He hoped Obama would use the visit “as an opportunity to speak out for persecuted, minority Christians in Egypt.”
Jacobson said it was not enough for Americans to extend their hands in friendship to the Muslim world.
“Muslim nations must reciprocate. And that means treating Christians the same way Islamic governments demand that Western nations treat Muslims.”
Open Doors USA president Carl Moeller noted that while Christians in Muslim countries may convert to Islam, in some places “those who convert from Islam to Christianity likely face isolation, interrogation, arrest, torture, kidnapping and even death for their faith in Jesus Christ.”
Moeller urged Obama to raise the issue in his address. “Islamic governments should allow people to practice their faith of choice, without retaliation.”
Open Doors’ latest list of the world’s worst persecutors of Christians is topped by North Korea, followed by six Muslim countries. In order of severity of oppression they are Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan, Somalia, Maldives and Yemen.
Hadi Al-Mutaif, a member of the Ismaili branch of Shia Islam, was condemned to death for apostasy in 1994 for a remark he made as a teenager that was considered blasphemous. He is now serving a life sentence in the south-western city of Najran, much of the time in solitary confinement, and has reportedly attempted suicide.
The USCIRF, which has repeatedly raised his case, says 17 other Ismailis are in prison in Najran serving terms ranging from seven to 14 years.
Fr. Mattaos Wahba, a Coptic priest in Geza, was arrested last year, charged and found guilty of helping a young Muslim woman obtain an ID card falsely declaring her religion as Christianity. In October he was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment.
According to the organization Christian Copts of California, Wahba had in good faith agreed to conduct a wedding ceremony for a Christian couple. He had been unaware that the bride had earlier converted from Islam and that – after suffering harassment, detention and deprivation of rights – she had been offered the use of an ID card issued to a Christian woman who had died.
The newly-married couple left Egypt. Last April, the woman told an Arabic television program that the priest had played no part in her getting an ID card.
“The Egyptian government does not give Muslims who convert to Christianity a legal alternative to get these papers,” she said. “Had I been a Christian who wanted to convert to Islam, I would have had all the help I needed. But, because I am leaving Islam they put hurdles in my way.”
Two Iranian Christians who converted from Islam, Maryam Rostampour, 27, and Marzieh Amirizadeh, 30, were arrested by Iranian security officers on March 5 after their apartment was searched and Bibles were found. According to Christian Solidarity Worldwide they are still being held without charge.
Last February, a revision to Iran’s penal code was drafted making apostasy, specifically conversion from Islam, punishable by death. The State Department says that death sentences for apostasy have previously been issued under shari’a law, although it says there have been no confirmed reports of execution for the offense in recent years.
“The [Iranian] government does not respect the right of Muslim citizens to change or renounce their religious faith. A child born to a Muslim father automatically is considered a Muslim,” it says. “Proselytizing of Muslims by non-Muslims is illegal.”