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FAAE Committee Report

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GOVERNMENT RESPONSE TO THE TENTH REPORT OF THE STANDING COMMITTEE ON FOREIGN AFFAIRS AND INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT ENTITLED “SECURING THE HUMAN RIGHTS OF COPTIC CHRISTIANS IN EGYPT AFTER THE ARAB SPRING:  A VIEW FROM CANADA’S PARLIAMENT”

The Government of Canada has carefully considered the Tenth Report of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development (the report).

The Government would like to thank the members of the Committee for the opportunity to participate in the hearings, as well as the opportunity to respond to the recommendations contained in the report.  The Government would also like to thank the Committee for its efforts in preparing the report and welcomes the continuing interest of the Committee in the issues of human rights and religious freedom in Egypt.

As indicated in the report, the political and social situation in Egypt continues to evolve following the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak, as it had done through the 18 month study diligently undertaken by the Subcommittee on International Human Rights.  Since the report was presented to the House of Commons on May 24, 2013, the political and social situation in Egypt has continued to evolve.  Leading up to the one-year anniversary of his inauguration, then President Mohammed Morsi faced mass demonstrations protesting his administration of the country.  Millions of people took to the streets to voice their discontent with what they claim was a failure on the part of the Morsi Administration to include other political and social groups in the formation and development of Egypt’s nascent democracy, something he had promised to do throughout his election campaign.  Repression of the Copts had increased under the Muslim Brotherhood-led government, raising concern within the Coptic community.  Following two days of protests, Egypt’s military, with the backing of a broad spectrum of Egyptian political, community and religious leaders, moved in to remove Morsi from power, and the head of Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court took over as interim President.  The interim government of Egypt is currently implementing a roadmap for transition to democracy, and at the time this response was drafted, supporters of both the former President, and the interim Government, continued to take to the streets to demonstrate, with reports of violence.  Following the interim government’s clearing of two major protest camps in Cairo on August 14, Islamists attacked scores of churches, as well as homes and businesses owned by Christians, killing or injuring several people. Roman Catholic nuns were paraded through the streets of Bani Suef after Islamists torched their Franciscan school, until a Muslim woman offered them refuge.

Relevant changes to the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development also took place after the beginning of the Committee’s study in November 2011.  On February 19, 2013, the Prime Minister announced the establishment of the Office of Religious Freedom.  Under the leadership of Dr. Andrew Bennett, Canada's first Ambassador for Religious Freedom, the mandate of the Office is to promote freedom of religion or belief as a core human right, encourage protection of religious communities, and promote Canadian values of pluralism around the world.  Promoting freedom of religion is a priority for the Government of Canada, and this new office offers a new mechanism to advance that goal.  Through the efforts of the Office of Religious Freedom and our network of missions abroad, Canada will increase its work with international partners to promote and protect freedom of religion or belief through dedicated activities and initiatives.

Instances of sectarian violence have affected all sectors of Egyptian society, including Coptic Orthodox Christians, Shi’a Muslims, as well as smaller religious communities such as Baha’i and Jehovah’s Witnesses, Anglicans, Baptists, Roman Catholics and others.  The promotion of religious freedom and diversity, viewed in the context of respect for human rights, is a key pillar of Canada’s foreign policy.  On numerous occasions, the Government of Canada has voiced its concerns regarding religious freedom in Egypt, through official statements in Canada, at multilateral fora, and with Egyptian officials and religious leaders. 

The Prime Minister, Minister Baird and his predecessor Minister Cannon have made several public statements relating to religious freedoms and the situation facing Coptic Orthodox Christians in Egypt.  The Prime Minister and the Minister of Foreign Affairs have also shown the Government’s commitment to protecting religious freedom through the establishment of the Office of Religious Freedom.  On January 2, 2010, Minister Cannon condemned an attack on a Coptic church in Egypt.  Minister Baird issued a statement on October 10, 2011, urging Egyptians to build a society in which religious communities can live and prosper together, and condemned violence against Copts in Egypt in his address to the UN General Assembly on September 26, 2011.  In his January 23, 2012 address to the U.K.’s Royal Commonwealth Society, Minister Baird noted gruesome attacks against Coptic Christians.  The Prime Minister condemned violence against Coptic Christians in Egypt in a May 9, 2011 statement and in his addresses marking Eastern Christian celebrations of Christmas in 2011 and 2012.  The Prime Minister issued a March 17, 2012 statement on the death of His Holiness Pope Shenouda III of Alexandria, praising him as an “exemplary promoter of religious tolerance and understanding” and, in his February 19, 2013 remarks on the establishment of the Office of Religious Freedom pledged that Canada is not and will not be silent in the face of violence against people of faith, specifically referring to Coptic Christians in Egypt.  On July 11, 2013, Canada’s Ambassador for Religious Freedom, Dr. Andrew Bennett, condemned the shooting death of Coptic Christian priest Mina Aboud Sharween, and he and Minister Baird jointly issued a statement  on August 15, 2013, expressing concern  over the unacceptable attacks on Coptic Orthodox and Anglican churches and Baptist and Roman Catholic institutions in Egypt.  Minister Baird has further expressed solidarity with Egyptian Copts by meeting with leaders of the Coptic Christian church in Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal in August 2013.  In addition, as part of official visits by the then Minister of Citizenship and Immigration and then Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, who attended the enthronement of His Holiness Pope Tawadros II of the Coptic Orthodox Church, meetings were held with the wider church community and representatives from the Muslim and Anglican community in Egypt.  Since the official launch of the Office of Religious Freedom, the Ambassador for Religious Freedom has regularly consulted the Coptic Orthodox community in Canada and attended the enthronement of Canada’s first Coptic Orthodox Bishop on April 6, 2013, in Mississauga. 

Below is the Government's response to the specific recommendations made by the Committee.

Recommendation 1

That the Government of Canada, at every appropriate opportunity, call upon the Government of Egypt to:

  • Place a high priority on preventing discrimination and ensuring the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion for all;
  • Review, amend or abolish all laws that are in any way discriminatory, including on the basis of religion or sex;
  • Incorporate Coptic history and culture into the education curriculum and ensure that Copts have the opportunity to contribute to the cultural life of the country;
  • End the discrimination against Christians in government job appointments and promotions;
  • Undertake thorough, effective, independent, and impartial investigations into the Maspero Square incident of October 9, 2011 and the violence at St. Mark’s Cathedral on April 7, 2013, with a view to bringing to justice all those who may have committed crimes;
  • Ensure that perpetrators of violence, including those in the security forces, are held accountable for any crimes they have committed.

The Government of Canada notes these recommendations, and will take them under advisement.  Canada’s foreign policy objectives place a high importance on respect for democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.  Over the past year, officials from the Embassy in Egypt have delivered this message consistently to Egyptian officials at all levels.  In March of 2013, Canada and Egypt re-launched bilateral consultations that covered a wide range of issues, including human rights, religious freedom, and women’s rights.  The positive contribution of Coptic Orthodox Christians to Canadian society was discussed at the meeting, and the Egyptian Government acknowledged the importance of expatriate diaspora such as Coptic Orthodox Christians.  Likewise, Canadian diplomats working in the appropriate multilateral fora make regular interventions to advance freedom of religion, and to curtail discrimination.  Canada’s recently established Office of Religious Freedom has been actively engaged in promoting the rights of religious communities, including the Coptic Orthodox community in Egypt, to practice their faith in safety and security.  For example, Canada’s Ambassador for Religious Freedom met with the Egyptian Ambassador to Canada to raise Canada’s concerns regarding threats to the Coptic Orthodox community in Egypt and discussed the importance of promoting diversity and social cohesion in support of nation-building.  Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird also raised these matters with the Egyptian Ambassador on August 20, 2013.

Canada’s engagement on issues relating to religious freedom can also be noted through public statements on the subject.  Prior to the removal of then President Mohammed Morsi, the Minister of Foreign Affairs issued a statement on April 8, 2013, condemning a violent attack on St. Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo, and highlighting the Government of Egypt’s commitment to protecting religious communities.  In the context of violence associated with Egypt’s ongoing democratic transition, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Ambassador for Religious Freedom issued a joint statement on August 15, 2013, condemning acts of violence targeting religious communities, and calling on the Egyptian Government to protect religious sites and worshippers.    

Many of the specific issues detailed in the above recommendation already form an integral part of Canada’s engagement in Egypt.  With respect to preventing discrimination and advancing human rights generally, the Embassy of Canada in Egypt has, through local programming, offered training courses specific to reporting human rights abuses, media ethics, and has worked closely with women’s groups to increase advocacy capacity among female lawyers and activists in Egypt.

Recommendation 2

That the Government of Canada continue to monitor closely the treatment of the Coptic minority in Egypt and continue to raise issues of religious freedom and discrimination in all appropriate forums, including bilateral and multilateral human rights dialogues.

The Government of Canada agrees with this recommendation.  Our officials maintain communication with the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt and its representatives in Canada, as well as Coptic Orthodox and human rights activists and organizations both in Egypt and in Canada to better understand and promote the security of Coptic Orthodox Christians.  To this end, and underlining Canada’s support for the Coptic Orthodox community to freely express their faith, Canada’s Ambassador for Religious Freedom spoke at the Fourth Annual Coptic Solidarity Conference held June 20-21, 2013 in Washington, D.C.

Recommendation 3

That the Government of Canada, through its Embassy and government offices in Egypt, continue to develop relationships with key religious leaders, and where appropriate and in consultation with such leaders, undertake diplomatic and other visits to areas where the human rights of religious minorities are allegedly being infringed.

The Government of Canada agrees with this recommendation.  The Embassy of Canada in Egypt and other officials maintain regular relations with key religious institutions in Egypt, including the Coptic Orthodox Church, the Al Azhar Mosque, the Anglican Church, the Office of the Grand Mufti, and the Roman Catholic Church.  High level visits from Canadian officials include such meetings as a matter of course and whenever possible.  Unfortunately, areas known for sectarian violence in Egypt sometimes suffer from a general security vacuum; therefore any visits to such areas will be carefully coordinated with a view to safety and security.  When appropriate, Canadian diplomats have visited areas known for sectarian violence and engaged with those affected to better understand the situation there. 

Recommendation 4

That the Government of Canada continue to be consistent in condemning all serious incidents of sectarian violence in Egypt and continue to press for effective, independent and impartial investigations, with appropriate consequences for perpetrators and adequate remedies for victims, when such attacks occur.

The Government of Canada agrees with this recommendation.  Through high-level statements, and through the Office of Religious Freedom, the Government of Canada consistently and regularly condemns violence and threats against religious communities, including the Coptic Orthodox community.  Following violent attacks on St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo in April 2013, the Minister of Foreign Affairs made a strong statement condemning the violence.  At every opportunity, through statements and speeches, Ambassador Bennett has called for the promotion of diversity and pluralism to ensure inclusive development which respects the rights of all citizens to manifest their faith free from the threat of violence.  When incidents occur, the Government of Canada immediately calls for responsible authorities to exercise the full measure of the law to bring those responsible to justice in a transparent and effective manner. 

This approach was reflected recently in Ambassador Bennett’s July 11, 2013 statement that condemned the shooting death of Coptic Christian priest Mina Aboud Sharween near El Arish in Egypt’s Northern Sinai.  The Government of Canada will continue to condemn violent extremism in all its forms and to urge all parties in Egypt to remain calm, avoid violence and engage in meaningful political dialogue.

Recommendation 5

That the Government of Canada continue to call upon the Government of Egypt to ensure the safety of peaceful demonstrators during public protests and to thoroughly, independently and impartially investigate all violent attacks on human rights defenders and protestors, including incidents of sexual violence, with a view to bringing to justice those responsible.

The Government of Canada agrees with this recommendation.  The Government of Canada will continue to speak out in support of citizens manifesting their democratic rights in a manner that respects the rule of law.  For example, on July 11, 2013, Ambassador Bennett issued a statement that expressed Canada’s deep concern regarding the deaths of more than 50 protesters outside of the Republican Guard headquarters in Cairo, and called for calm and restraint on both sides.  Canada will continue to reiterate our support for a pluralist democratic Egypt that protects the right of all Egyptians, regardless of faith, sex or background, to live in peace.

Recommendation 6

That the Government of Canada, through its embassy, continue to meet regularly with Coptic activists, Egyptian human rights defenders and NGOs, and provide appropriate diplomatic support in order to empower them in their fight for human rights in Egypt.

The Government of Canada agrees with this recommendation.  The Embassy of Canada in Egypt, through its diplomatic staff, will continue to meet with Coptic activists, Egyptian civil society, and will continue to provide appropriate diplomatic support to empower their respective human rights programs.  The Government of Canada, through its missions abroad, will continue to promote pluralist development that respects the rule of law and the aspiration of all citizens to practise their faith in safety and security. 

Recommendation 7

That the Government of Canada and Canada’s Office of Religious Freedom explore avenues for engaging with like-minded academic institutions and the Al-Azhar Institution on matters relating to respect for freedom of religion or belief and inter-faith dialogue.

The Government of Canada agrees with this recommendation.  Through the Embassy of Canada in Egypt, and the Office of Religious Freedom, government officials are exploring avenues to engage with academic and religious institutions on matters relating to religious freedom and inter-faith dialogue, including the Al-Azhar Institution, the Coptic Orthodox Church, the Anglican Church, the Office of the Grand Mufti, and the Roman Catholic Church.  Canada will continue to explore opportunities to work with like-minded partners to promote and protect freedom of religion or belief. 

Recommendation 8

That the Government of Canada continue to ensure that all of its Canadian and locally-engaged employees in North Africa and the Horn of Africa region understand the situation facing Coptic Christians in Egypt and ensure their sensitivity to those who may need to seek asylum in Canada.

The Government of Canada will take appropriate steps to ensure that personnel understand the difficulties that Coptic Orthodox Christians face and sympathize with their situation.  The Canadian Government makes efforts to select both Canadian and locally-engaged staff based on merit, and provides ongoing training and development opportunities for staff in their respective fields of responsibility.  Both Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada and Citizenship and Immigration Canada keep staff apprised of issues and policies relevant to their area of operation.  In particular, the Office of Religious Freedom provides capacity building presentations to staff regarding freedom of religion or belief and is currently developing detailed training materials for all Foreign Service officers.  The Human Rights Division within the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development has also developed online courses which all staff, including locally engaged staff at missions, are encouraged to follow.  

Recommendation 9

That the Government of Canada urge the Government of Egypt to rebuild state institutions such as the military, the police and other security services on a non-sectarian basis, to take steps to ensure that the judiciary and prosecution services become more representative of the religious and cultural diversity of the country, and to make the principle of non-discrimination an integral part of the operational culture of the Egyptian bureaucracy.

The Government of Canada takes this recommendation under advisement.  Canada will continue to advocate for the promotion of diversity and the idea of shared citizenship to ensure that Egypt’s transition includes inclusive development strategies for the benefit of all Egyptians, regardless of religious affiliation, sex, or background. 

Recommendation 10

That the Government of Canada call upon the Government of Egypt to reform the training and education received by its security forces in order to promote respect for human rights and democracy, including training on international standards regarding the use of force and democratic policing, as well as on principles of non-discrimination and the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

The Government of Canada takes this recommendation under advisement. 

Recommendation 11

That the Government of Canada considers favourably any reasonable request from Egyptian authorities for technical assistance aimed at promoting respect for human rights and democratic practices, including the principles of non-discrimination and freedom of religion.

The Government of Canada notes this recommendation, is open to exploring opportunities to promote respect for human rights and democratic practices, and will continue open and positive dialogue with Egyptian counterparts to identify areas of potential collaboration.

Recommendation 12

That the Government of Canada continue to call upon the Government of Egypt to protect women’s human rights and to ensure that women participate fully in all aspects of the country’s democratic transition, and that through its Embassy in Cairo, the Government of Canada continue to support Egyptian women, including Coptic women, to organize peacefully in order to claim their rights.

The Government of Canada agrees with this recommendation.  As part of regular and high-level engagement in Egypt, the Government of Canada puts an emphasis on engaging groups dealing with women’s issues.  Canada’s programming in Egypt over the past year has also included engagement with women’s advocates.  As part of the November 2012 visit of the then Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs and the March 2013 visit of the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, separate meetings with women’s groups were held to discuss women’s rights in Egypt.  As part of Canada’s development program in Egypt, an average of $7 million per year is disbursed to generate economic growth by fostering an enabling environment for micro, small and medium-sized enterprises and providing skills for employment to marginalized women and youth.  The Embassy of Canada in Egypt has, through local programming, offered training courses specific to reporting human rights abuses, media ethics, and has worked closely with women’s groups to increase advocacy capacity among female lawyers and activists in Egypt. 

Recommendation 13

That the Government of Canada call upon the Government of Egypt to live up to its commitments in respect of other internationally protected human rights, including but not limited to:

  • Upholding every individual’s right to a fair trial before an independent and impartial tribunal;
  • Upholding the rule of law, including the right to equality before the law and equal benefit of the protection of law;
  • Holding to account individuals who are suspected of having committed grave crimes and human rights violations under the Mubarak regime;
  • Upholding the right to freedom of expression and association;
  • Upholding the right not to be arbitrarily deprived of life and ensuring that the use of force by security forces conforms to international human rights standards;
  • Ending secret detention, arbitrary detention, torture and ill-treatment;
  • Ensuring that any statement that is established to have been made as a result of torture shall not be invoked as evidence in any proceedings, except against a person accused of torture as evidence that the statement was made;
  • Upholding economic, social and cultural rights for all Egyptians, with particular attention to the rights of the poorest members of society and those from minority groups.

The Government of Canada takes this recommendation under advisement.  Canada’s foreign policy objectives place a high importance on respect for democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.  Over the past year, officials from the Embassy of Canada in Egypt have delivered this message consistently to Egyptian officials at all levels.  In March of 2013, Canada and Egypt re-launched bilateral consultations that covered a wide range of issues, including human rights and women’s rights.  Many of the specific issues detailed in the above recommendation already form an integral part of Canada’s engagement in Egypt.

Recommendation 14

That the Government of Canada, in its development assistance to Egypt, consider continuing programming that aims to generate economic opportunities for Egyptians, particularly Egyptian youth.

The Government of Canada takes this recommendation under advisement.  Canada has a modest development assistance program in Egypt, disbursing an average of $7 million per year. The program's objective is to generate economic growth by fostering an enabling environment for micro, small and medium-sized enterprises and providing skills for employment to marginalized women and youth. Development projects funded through this program contribute to improving the employability of women and men, through market-driven skills development, and the growth of micro, small and medium-sized enterprises, including those owned by youth. The program plans to retain a core focus on sustainable economic growth in Egypt with a particular emphasis on supporting women and Egyptian youth.