Administration May Be Avoiding Sensitive Topics with Mubarak

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:06pm EDT

Jerusalem (CNS) - The two issues of most serious current concern to human rights groups monitoring Egypt are unlikely to be brought up in talks between President Hosni Mubarak and the Clinton administration, according to Washington's senior Middle East diplomat.

The reported persecution of Egypt's Coptic Christian minority and a recent law restricting the activities of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have disturbed human rights groups, as well as some congressmen.

Speaking shortly before joining talks between Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and President Hosni Mubarak on Tuesday, Assistant Secretary for the Near East Martin Indyk told reporters he did not believe either issue would be raised during the meeting, nor in a meeting between Mubarak and President Clinton, scheduled for Thursday.

A human rights campaigner intimately involved in the Coptic question expressed surprise Wednesday about Indyk's comments.

Joseph Assad, research director at Freedom House in Washington DC, told he had heard from a "high-level State Department official" that the issue of the Copts would be among the talking-points prepared in advance for the Clinton-Mubarak meeting.

"Either they didn't want to embarrass Mubarak in public by mentioning this, or there's been a change of plan - someone influenced them to take it off [the agenda]."

Freedom House sent a letter to Clinton Wednesday, urging him to communicate America's deep concern to Mubarak over his government's "involvement in the persecution of that country's Coptic Christians."

"A firm insistence on respect for human rights and democratic institutions by the administration could make an enormous difference in a country like Egypt that receives $2 billion per year in American aid," said the organization's director, Nina Shea.

After its first meeting last week, the newly-appointed 10-member U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom issued a statement voicing concern about the plight of the Copts, and the law restricting NGOs in Egypt.

The Commission was established by the International Religious Freedom Act, passed by Congress last year, which gives the president a number of options to deal with countries violating religious freedom, ranging from diplomatic protests to economic sanctions.

At his press briefing, Indyk appeared to play down the two topics, although he disagreed with a reporter who characterized his remarks as "exonerating the Egyptian government."

Asked about the Copts, Indyk did not comment on the general situation, but instead cited a specific episode late last year, at a place called Al-Kosheh.

"On the Al-Kosheh incident ... it does not appear to be a case of religious persecution - something which is not, I think, commonly understood here in Washington - but rather a case of police mistreatment of Egyptian citizens," he said.

Indyk added that the U.S. had "urged the government of Egypt to pursue a credible investigation."

The incidents concerned involved the alleged subjection by security forces of some 1,200 Christians to rape, torture and "crucifixion rituals" following inter-ethnic clashes in upper Egypt. The reports, by international human rights groups, prompted 29 congressman to write to Mubarak, demanding an end to the repression.

It was largely that negative publicity, say human rights organizations, that prompted the Egyptian government to clamp down on NGOs.

The new law affects all NGOs, but human rights groups that have drawn the government's censure for highlighting alleged abuses are regarded as the primary target.

Six international organizations signed a letter to Mubarak, urging him not to sign the measure into law, but he did so before they could petition him.

But Indyk told reporters the administration had received assurances from the Egyptian social affairs minister "that the new NGO law will not restrict their activities."

He continued: "And I think that there is some benefit in the new law, in terms of giving a legal status to many of these NGOs."

Indyk said the two issues had been discussed "with the Egyptian government in the course of day-to-day business with Egypt, and so I would not expect that they will come up in the discussions with the Secretary of State or with the President."

Indyk's view on both matters appears to contrast those expressed by human rights groups in Egypt and elsewhere.

Both Freedom House and another leading international organizations monitoring religious persecution, Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) in Britain, have painted a bleak picture of the Egyptian Christians' situation.

Freedom House published a comprehensive report earlier this year stating Copts were persecuted both by Islamic extremists and security force members, and that the government restricted their freedom of worship.

It had received reports from Christian women claiming to have been subjected to a campaign of forcible conversion to Islam, involving kidnapping, rape and brainwashing.

CSW notes on its website that in Egypt, "it is against the law to propagate any religion other than Islam and conversion from Islam to Christianity is punishable by imprisonment" - both for the convert and the person accused of evangelizing.

Egypt denies religious persecution or problems exist. The official Al Ahram newspaper said in an editorial Tuesday that Muslims and Christians in Egypt "have stood [as] a model of coexistence for well over a thousand years." It criticized "long-enduring schemes [that] have attempted to present Egypt as a country with a clash of civilization unfolding between Muslims and Christians."

The Egyptian government also reportedly paid for a full-page advert in today's Washington Post, highlighting the role of Copts in Egypt's "melting pot."

Between six and ten million of Egypt's 59 million people are Copts. The community is the largest Christian ethnic group in the Middle East.

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