Saturday, January 21, 2006

Twelve injured in attack on church

The BBC is reporting that at least 12 people were injured when Muslims attacked Copts attempting to convert a house into a church. The incident occurred in Odaysat, near Luxor. At least two policemen were also injured in subsequent clashes.

This marks the second incident of sectarian violence in Egypt in the past four months.

Egypt has a religious freedom problem. Amnesty has expressed concern about harassment of Copts and arrests of Sufis, Bahais and other religious minorities. More extensively, Freedom House, a Washington, D.C., based human rights organization has focused several reports on Egypt. And the recent incidents of sectarian violence is troubling and a possible indication that these feelings are on the rise. In this context, the U.S. Congress in particular has pressed for action in Egypt to protect the Copts.

That being said, Amnesty International has always approached the problems of the Copts as a human rights issue, within the broader context of the human rights abuses in the country. Copts face discrimination: The Egyptian laws restrict their right to build or renovate churches, among other things. When a few years ago numerous Copts were tortured in an out-of-control murder investigation by authorities, the underlying problem wasn't discrimination against Copts, but the fact that torture is systemmatic in Egypt. Some of the reports raising legitimate religious freedom concerns in Egypt have been weakened by too narrowly focusing on those issues. It invites rebuke and alienation in Egypt when the U.S. Congress expresses concern about harassment of Copts, but never about Muslim Brothers or other of the non-violent political Islamists.

In raising human rights concerns, both the U.S. government and NGOs should apply a single standard. We must speak loudly about abuses, but be cautious about giving special preference to any group. Through consistency, we can be more effective politically. By any account, the best way to protect Copts, to end the real abuses they face, is to promote a broad human rights agenda for Egypt.

Click here for a BBC report on rioting that killed three Copts in October.

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