The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) issued its annual report
designating Egypt as a “country of particular concern,” or CPC, under the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA).
The annual report was issued late Wednesday, providing an outline of religion freedoms in 33 countries around the world.
It is the fifth year in a row that the commission recommends that Egypt be designated as a CPC under the IRFA.
The report highlights that since Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi was sworn into office, El-Sisi has made several gestures encouraging religious tolerance.
Nonetheless, the report criticised the fact that the Egyptian government "has not adequately protected religious minorities, particularly Coptic Orthodox Christians and their property."
It also criticised discriminatory and repressive laws and policies that remain in place and restrict freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief.
The USCIRF stressed that the government has increased its control over all Muslim religious institutions, including mosques and religious endowments.
"Egyptian officials have justified this regulation by claiming it is necessary to counter extremism and terrorism."
The report referred to an administrative court ruling, which upheld a decree by the ministry of religious endowments that prevents imams who are not graduates of Al-Azhar from preaching in both licensed and unlicensed mosques.
The ruling, which resulted in the closure of thousands of small mosques, bans unlicensed mosques from holding Friday prayers and requires Friday sermons to follow government “talking points.”
The report praised El-Sisi's move when he attended in January 2014 a Coptic Christmas Eve mass at the St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo.
It also praised his gesture of offering his personal condolences to the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church following the abduction of 21 Coptic Christians in Libya by ISIS group militants.
"Over the past year, the number and severity of violent incidents targeting Copts and their property decreased significantly when compared to the previous year. However, sporadic violence continues, particularly in Upper Egypt," the report read.
The report lists a detailed account of all churches burned and the sectarian strife resulting in the death of many Copts in Upper Egypt following the ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi.
It highlighted that, although many churches have been rebuilt, no investigations have been made into the deaths of 29 people due to the sectarian strife.
"The inability to protect Copts and other religious minorities, and successfully prosecute those responsible for violence, continues to foster an atmosphere of impunity," the report read.
"Blasphemy cases have increased since 2011, and this trend continued during the reporting period," the USCIRF annual report stated.
It indicated that the majority of those sentenced to prison terms for blasphemy have been Christians, Shi’a Muslims, and atheists, mostly as a result of flawed trials.
The report cited many cases from 2014 of defendants convicted on blasphemy charges.
One such example is the case of Coptic Christian Kirollos Shawqi Atallah, who was sentenced in Luxor to six years for posting photos on a Facebook page that were deemed defamatory to Islam.
Meanwhile, the report referred to the initiative by ministries of religious endowments and sports and youth to combat the spread of atheism among Egyptian youth.
At the end of the report, USCIRF urged the Egyptian government to revise Article 98(f) of the Penal Code, which criminalises contempt of religion, and, in the interim, provide the constitutional and international guarantees of the rule of law.
USCIRF recommended several points to improve religious freedom conditions in Egypt.
The first was to ensure that a portion of U.S. military assistance is used to help police implement an effective plan for dedicated protection of religious minority communities, and to provide direct support to civil society to advance freedom of religion and belief for all Egyptians.
It has also recommended that the Egyptian government undertake "immediate reforms" to improve religious freedom conditions, including repealing decrees banning religious minority faiths, removing religion from official identity documents, and passing a law for the construction and repair of places of worship once a new parliament is formed.