In the next issue of Religion & Liberty, we are featuring an interview with Nina Shea. The issue focuses on religious persecution with special attention on the ten year anniversary of the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. A feature article for this issue written by Mark Tooley is also forthcoming. Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington D.C. In regards to Shea, the portion of the interview below is exclusively for readers of the Powerblog. In this portion of the interview Shea discusses Egyptian Copts, Sudan, President Barack Obama’s record on religious freedom and Iranian dissidents. Below is a short bio of Shea:
Nina Shea has served as an international human-rights lawyer for over twenty years. She joined the Hudson Institute as a senior fellow in November 2006, where she directs the Center for Religious Freedom. For the ten years prior to joining Hudson, She worked at Freedom House, where she directed the Center for Religious Freedom, which she had founded in 1986.
Since 1999, Shea has served as a Commissioner on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent federal agency. She has been appointed as a U.S. delegate to the United Nation’s main human rights body by both Republican and Democratic administrations. She recently spoke with Religion & Liberty’s managing editor Ray Nothstine.
Coptic Christians in Egypt, one of the most ancient Christian communities, are undergoing terrible persecution. What is being done to help them and raise awareness of their plight?
With some ten million Copts, Egypt has the largest Christian minority, in fact the largest non-Muslim minority, of all the countries in the Middle East. Therefore, the fate of the Coptic Church is very important to the experience of religious pluralism as well to Christianity. There are very few Muslim Middle Eastern countries where native non-Muslim minorities, of any religion, remain in any significant numbers. Non-Muslims have drained out of the Maghreb region in Northern Africa for the most part. There are some small communities and some underground churches here and there but it is a long way from being the vibrant Christian center it was in the age of Augustine.
There are no Christian nationals in the Gulf. In Saudi Arabia, there are no churches permitted, whatsoever. There are millions of foreign Christian migrants in Saudi Arabia, but they have no rights, they’re not allowed to publicly express their faith and they are jailed or deported if they are caught privately praying in community. Christians are rapidly disappearing from Iraq, Turkey and Iran as well. So Egypt is extremely important and the Copts are facing a tremendous problem with the rise of political Islam, a revitalized fundamentalist interpretation of Islam that seeks its enforcement by the state. The Copts are not permitted to build or even repair churches.
Bishop Thomas, a very dynamic Orthodox Coptic Bishop, who gave a talk at my Hudson office, spoke about the fact that the project to Arabize and Islamicize Egypt, which was not originally Arabic or Islamic, is ongoing. “Copts” means Egypt in Greek. Before the Arab invasion everyone in Egypt was Coptic. The government won’t allow the study of the indigenous Coptic languages in the public schools there. It will allow the study of German or French or English, but not Coptic. In schools, the government buries the history and culture of the Copts. There is a fueling of hatred against the Copts in the media and mosques, in both cases mostly controlled or funded by the government. This has led to violent mob attacks on Christian monasteries, villages and churches. For example, six Coptic Orthodox Christians were murdered and nine injured in a drive by shooting as they were leaving Christmas Eve Mass in January in the town of Nag Hammadi. These kinds of attacks can be triggered by rumors of blasphemy, or some other perceived transgression by a Christian, somewhere. Typically, there is no justice served in these cases; the murderers who are identified are allowed to go free. The government allows this as a steam valve, for Muslims to vent frustration against the Copts instead of the government, itself. These programs are aimed at driving more and more Copts out of the country, so that the Christian presence there will whittle down to statistical insignificance.
After Bishop Thomas gave the talk at Hudson, as if in a demonstration of what he was saying, the Egyptian government media twisted his words to say something completely different. It reported that he was urging Arabic to be abolished. Were this to be true – and it wasn’t – it would have been dismissed as a preposterous joke in Washington, after all Arabic is an international language and has been firmly entrenched in Egypt for 13 centuries. But in Egypt, it was considered blasphemy — this false rumor created a furious uproar. It generated over two hundred articles in the national media threatening him. There were fatwas against his life. At two consecutive Friday services, the cleric of the mosque next to his church threatened to cut off the Bishops’ legs. He could not return to Egypt for many months. This was a very frightening and firsthand view of the tinderbox culture –one that represses freedoms of religion and expression — that is cultivated by the Egyptian government. The United States gives Egypt about $2 billion dollars a year in foreign aid. We don’t leverage it at all to help the Christians and our ambassadors there have not been effective in helping them.
You are commissioner on the US Commission on International Religious Freedom; in what areas has the Obama Administration done commendable work? Are there areas where they could do more, especially in the Middle East?
I’m trying hard to think of any area where the Obama Administration has done commendable work on religious freedom or human rights. As I answer this over a year into the administration, it still has not appointed an Ambassador for International Religious Freedom, though it has appointed dozens of other envoys. This week it appointed one to an organization that advocates religious persecution — the Organization of Islamic Conference, a religious organization dedicated to opposing Israel and spreading a law to criminally punish apostasy from Islam. Regarding the Religious Freedom Commission, there’s been a seat vacant for a year now, too; it’s a presidential appointment. I see that there has been a tradeoff of human rights for other issues – security, trade or global warming. The Christian groups and Muslim liberals in the Middle East have been abandoned. Iranian dissidents have been abandoned by him. Egyptian, Iraqi and Sudanese Christians feel abandoned by him.
There has especially been an abandonment of the Muslims of Darfur in western Sudan. Darfur was a major issue before President Obama came into office. There was a strong movement to save Darfur with bi-weekly, full-page ads in The New York Times and The Washington Post and with George Clooney and other Hollywood stars going to Darfur. Those voices have fallen silent and I really don’t understand it. I think that people like Samantha Power who went into the administration on a Sudan platform and who had a Harvard career built on stopping genocide, should see that policies are adopted that immediately end the genocide in Darfur and ensure free and fair elections take place throughout Sudan this spring, or resign. I recently met with her and she told me that the administration has sent its special envoy to Sudan many times, trying to negotiate with Khartoum and offer Gen. Omar-al Bashir incentives or “cookies and smiley faces,” as our envoy called them.
When he was a presidential candidate, Barak Obama wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post, stating: “[W]hen the history of this tragedy is written, nobody will remember how many times officials visited the region or how much humanitarian aid was delivered. They will only remember the death toll.” Well, hundreds of thousands of people of Darfur are still suffering in refugee camps where women are raped, where there’s terrible abuse and the spread of deadly diseases, where people can’t lead their lives and flourish.
We are witnessing a growing dissident movement in Iran, one of the most repressive countries on earth, what can the current Washington Administration do to assist those concerned about human rights and political and religious freedoms?
The President and Secretary of State can start using the bully pulpit to give moral support to them and to the cause of freedom. It can elucidate the ideological differences between the regime there and what the dissidents are protesting and it hasn’t done that. It should be supporting and encouraging private groups to help by providing electronic communications equipment and training. It should be doing more to publicize the Iranian struggle to give legitimacy to the dissidents.
President Ahmadinejad went to Columbia University about two years ago while visiting the United Nations. There he was asked a question about Iran’s practice of executing homosexuals. Instead of admitting to this abominable practice, he was ashamed and made the astonishing claim that homosexuality doesn’t exist in Iran. That moment really crystallized the fact that even the mere exposing of atrocities makes a difference — it delegitimizes these leaders. That’s why Ahmadinejad lied that day at Columbia. He did not dare admit their cruel policy because he knew it would tarnish his regime. Even as he rejects Western human rights notions, he accepts that the appearance of upholding human rights strengthens the image of a regime. I think the more that can be done to publicize the Iranian struggle and the Iranian human rights situation, the better. And, it is imperative that the administration defend freedoms of religion and expression at the United Nations, where they are under assault by proposals to prohibit “defamation of religions” and religious hate speech.