US Congress, Coptic churches and the future American-Egyptian relations

The bill, currently referred to the Committee on Foreign Affairs, was strongly repudiated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Sonia Farid

Published: Updated:

The Coptic Churches Accountability Act, recently submitted by Republican representative David A. Trott, has requested “the Secretary of State to submit an annual report to Congress regarding efforts to restore or repair Christian property in the Arab Republic of Egypt that was burned, damaged, or otherwise destroyed during the sectarian violence in August 2013, and for other purposes.”

The bill, currently referred to the Committee on Foreign Affairs, was strongly repudiated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs which considered the bill a flagrant violation of Egypt’s sovereignty and argued that only national entities stated in the Egyptian constitution have the right to supervise any work carried out by the executive power.

“The bill also includes false information,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmed Abu Zeid in a statement. “Egypt did not witness sectarian strife, but was subjected to terrorist attacks committed by an outlawed group,” he added, in reference to the Muslim Brotherhood, whose members are accused of attacking and burning down churches following the dispersal of Islamist sit-ins that called for the return of ousted president Mohamed Morsi. The reaction of the Coptic Orthodox Church was not different.

“The Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church rejects the Congress bill on the restoration of churches and declares that the Egyptian government has done its duty in this regard,” said the church statement. “National unity comes first and we will never accept any interference.” The categorical rejection of the bill on the official level does not, however, diminish the significance of the bill and the way it is expected to affect relations with the US.

Father Rafik Greish, spokesman of the Egyptian Catholic Church, said the bill is an attempt to ruin the relationship between Egypt and the new American administration. “Donald Trump praised on several occasions the efforts exerted by the Egyptian president to combat terrorism and this apparently angered some people,” he said.

“We have to bear in mind that many members of the Republican Party do not support the Egyptian regime and this was very obvious after the toppling of the Muslim Brotherhood.” Greish added that 90 percent of churches destroyed in 2013 were renovated or rebuilt and expressed his surprise that the United States is not aware of that.

“The US has eyes everywhere and they can easily know what’s happening on the ground in Egypt.” Journalist Abdel Nabi al-Shahat had the same view and argued that the bill is part of a plan by Obama’s administration to put as many obstacles as possible in Trump’s way. “Trump and Egypt see eye to eye when it comes to combating terrorism, while Obama totally overlooks the terrorist actions committed by the Muslim Brotherhood, especially the destruction of churches,” he wrote.

US Democratic Party Member Mahdi Afifi disagreed that the bill reflects the intentions of the current administration towards the upcoming one or that the entire Congress is interfering in Egypt’s affairs as critics of the bill believed. “When a member of Congress submits a bill, this does not mean he is representing American interests.

“It just means that he is catering to the needs of a specific group of voters or lobby group or tackling an issue that he personally believes is important, so if he believes Copts are persecuted in Egypt he can simply submit such a bill,” he said, adding that any congressman in the United States can propose any bill and then the Congress can pass it or not based on votes.

“This applies to both local and international issues. In fact, 50 percent of proposed bills are about other countries and that is very clear in the case of Cuba.” Afifi said that Coptic groups in the US might have lobbied for the submission of the bill because they believe Copts in Egypt are persecuted. “If this is true, there would be few of them because most Copts in the US support the Egyptian regime,” he said.

“Islamist organizations that pledge allegiance to the Muslim Brotherhood might have lobbied too, but they operate legally in the US so there is nothing to be done about them.” Journalist Naeim Youssef also refuted claims that the bill proves that the Obama administration is placing obstacles in Trump’s way or attacking Egypt: “Obama is Democratic and the congressman who submitted the bill is Republican,” he wrote.

Coptic US-based activist Magdi Khalil said that the Coptic Solidarity Organization lobbied for the submission of the bill. “The organization lobbied for two laws: the first was the designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group and the second on the supervision of church restoration in Egypt,” he said. According to Khalil, the organization submitted the second bill in response to the state’s failure in issuing a fair law on the construction of churches.

“Many Copts inside and outside Egypt object to the current law, which still makes it difficult to construct churches and most of the requests to build churches after the law were rejected,” he explained, adding that he is surprised that while the state and the Coptic Church supported the first bill they reject the second even though both were submitted by the same organization. Khalil added that it is easy to manipulate Egyptian Copts and use them as a tool for pressure and that congressmen who submit such bills are usually after political gains.

“For example, one of the congressmen who support the accountability act asked Coptic Solidarity to thank him on the organization’s website so that his voters would know that he supports religious freedom.”