House of Commons Hansard #38 of the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was firearms.

Topics

Coptic Christians in Egypt
Government Orders

7:50 p.m.

Liberal

Jim Karygiannis Scarborough—Agincourt, ON

Mr. Chair, in a very long time in the history of the United Nations, Canada does not have a seat at the United Nations inner office, if I can call it such. This is the fault of the government. The government lost the seat and it went to Portugal, a country that is virtually about to go bankrupt. The Conservative government does not care and has absolutely no passion.

If we had a seat, we would have been able to call an emergency debate. If we had the seat, we would have been able to do something faster. We do not have it. We were not there because the government let it lapse and it did not do everything it could in order to get that seat.

Coptic Christians in Egypt
Government Orders

7:50 p.m.

Newmarket—Aurora
Ontario

Conservative

Lois Brown Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of International Cooperation

Mr. Chair, I want to set the record straight and read from an address by the hon. Minister of Foreign Affairs to the United Nations General Assembly on Monday, September 26, 2011, when he said:

As citizens of the global community, we have a solemn duty to defend the vulnerable, to challenge the aggressor, to protect and promote human rights and human dignity, at home and abroad:

Women, Christians, Bahá'í and other victims of persecution in Iran.

Roman Catholics priests and other Christian clergy, and their laity, driven to worship underground in China.

Christians being driven out of Iraq by Al Qaeda—

Coptic Christians in Egypt
Government Orders

October 27th, 2011 / 7:50 p.m.

Conservative

The Assistant Deputy Chair Bruce Stanton

Order, please. We have to give the hon. member time to respond.

The hon. member for Scarborough—Agincourt.

Coptic Christians in Egypt
Government Orders

7:50 p.m.

Liberal

Jim Karygiannis Scarborough—Agincourt, ON

Mr. Chair, the parliamentary secretary can get up and read all the speeches she wants, mention all the names she wants and say what the minister has said. However, the facts speak for themselves. This motion was adjusted by the Minister of Foreign Affairs. He stood and said that I did not know what I was talking about. That was a week and a half ago.

When officials came to the foreign affairs committee meeting, the question was put them simply. They were asked if the government had done anything. The answer was “I'm not aware”. That is the real answer. That is where it is. The government has done nothing—

Coptic Christians in Egypt
Government Orders

7:55 p.m.

Conservative

The Assistant Deputy Chair Bruce Stanton

Order, please. Resuming debate, the hon. member for Mount Royal.

Coptic Christians in Egypt
Government Orders

7:55 p.m.

Liberal

Irwin Cotler Mount Royal, QC

Mr. Chair, I am pleased to share my time with the hon. member for Scarborough—Agincourt. I commend him for both his advocacy and passion in support of this compelling case and cause.

I am pleased to support the motion which states:

That this House stand in solidarity with those religious minorities around the world and strongly condemn the vicious attacks on Egyptian Coptic Christians and their institutions; call on the Egyptian Government to ensure that the perpetrators of the attacks be brought to justice and bear the full weight of the law; and, ask the United Nations Human Rights Commission to conduct an open and transparent investigation into the plight of Egyptian Coptic Christians and issue a public report on its findings.

While we speak and stand in solidarity with religious minorities around the world, a shocking case of religious persecution and discrimination has been passing under the radar screen. What makes it so shocking is not only the extent of the persecution and discrimination but that it goes largely unacknowledged and unaddressed. I am speaking of the fact that approximately 165,000 people are killed each year simply because they are Christian. In total some 200 million Christians worldwide live with the constant threat of persecution, threats, physical abuse, torture and death solely because of their faith. I would be remiss this evening if I did not highlight this unspoken tragedy.

I will turn now to the raison d'être of this take note debate which is contextualized by the persecution of Christians, to which I have just referred, and addresses the specific pain and plight of the Coptic Christians in Egypt, which is a standing blight on the Arab spring.

Who can forget the Tahrir Square revolution, the struggle of the Egyptian people for freedom, democracy and human dignity, which is one of the most inspiring moments of the Arab spring.

Who can forget Wael Ghonim, the young Egyptian expert in social media who ignited the people's revolution? Who can forget that Muslims and Christians stood together in a common cause? Who can forget the young men and women who joined together in the struggle for equality? Who can forget the moving calls for social and economic justice? Who can forget the calls for an end to state sanctioned censorship and the call for an open and free media? Who can forget the calls for an end to the culture of impunity and that the perpetrators be brought to justice?

Simply put, who can forget the call for a plural democracy, constitutional reform, civilian control of the military, the repeal of the emergency laws, and the hope that the army would be the guarantor of the democratic transition that would oversee the birth of a democratic constitution whereby every Egyptian would be equal before the law and enjoy equal protection and equal treatment under the law?

It is often said that the test of a just society and democratic policy is how that state treats its minorities. In that sense, the Coptic Christian community is a test case of Egyptian justice and that justice is wanting.

The history of violence against the Coptic Christian minority is not new. It began to accelerate in the 1990s when from 1992 to 1998 alone Islamic extremists murdered some 127 Copts. In 2000, a massacre left 21 Copts dead. If we fast forward to May 2010, Copts were the standing targets of angry assaults. On January 1, 2011, a bomb was detonated in front of a Coptic Church in Alexandria in the worst violence seen in a decade, killing 23 people and injuring over 100. I have only mentioned some of the sustained attacks.

While the anti-Mubarak demonstrations in Tahrir Square manifested sectarian co-operation whereby Muslims and Christians protected each other from police violence and government thuggery, the Coptic community soon found itself targeted by Muslim extremists who were angered by the building and repairing of churches and the simple acts of religious belief and expression. That exploded into violence on October 9 when a group of Christians organizing a peaceful protest against a recent assault on a Coptic church found themselves assaulted by those obliged to protect them, the Egyptian military, which resulted in 25 killed and over 300 injured.

Who can forget the YouTube videos showing armoured military vehicles driving at high speeds through crowds and into innocent Christian protesters? Who can forget Egyptian TV calling for “honest” Egyptians to rush to the defence of the military, not to the defence of the Copts? The broadcast said that the military was under siege from the unarmed Copts, a scurrilous accusation that incited vigilante attacks against the Coptic protestors who were fleeing from the military vehicles and army bullets.

The Egyptian military asked the government to investigate the violence, stating that all legal measures would be taken against those who organized, incited or participated in the violence. To date, no one has been held accountable.

In the question and answer period, I will set forth some recommendations as to what needs to be done.

Coptic Christians in Egypt
Government Orders

8 p.m.

Mississauga—Erindale
Ontario

Conservative

Bob Dechert Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs

Mr. Chair, I know the hon. member cares deeply about human rights. He is an impassioned supporter of human rights around the world.

He took us through a litany of terrible events that happened to the Coptic people in Egypt over many years. He mentioned one specific incident in 2000, in which I think he said over 20 Copts were killed.

As the hon. member was a minister of the government at that time, could he tell the House what his government did? Did it ask the UN for an investigation into that event? What did it do to ensure that these kinds of events did not continue to go on in Egypt?

Coptic Christians in Egypt
Government Orders

8 p.m.

Liberal

Irwin Cotler Mount Royal, QC

Mr. Chair, in the year 2000, I was not a minister of justice. In the year 2004, when I was minister of justice, I paid an official visit to Egypt and in my official capacity as minister of justice and attorney general I brought up the plight of the Copts. I brought it up again when I revisited Egypt in 2005. I have brought it up almost every visit since, and I have made about 15 visits to Egypt.

Coptic Christians in Egypt
Government Orders

8 p.m.

NDP

Laurin Liu Rivière-des-Mille-Îles, QC

Mr. Chair, Human Rights Watch is concerned with the Egyptian military's intention to control the investigation into its use of force against unarmed Coptic Christians as that amounts to simply a cover-up.

On October 25, Human Right Watch said that the Supreme Council of Armed Forces should transfer the investigation from military prosecution to a fully independent and impartial investigation into the killing of unarmed protesters by military forces.

The NDP believes there should be an independent investigation into the role of the military in the killings of the protesters. This investigation should be conducted by independent judicial authorities and not by military prosecutors.

What does the hon. member think of this?

Coptic Christians in Egypt
Government Orders

8 p.m.

Liberal

Irwin Cotler Mount Royal, QC

Mr. Chair, I have read the Human Rights Watch report. I support and endorse the fact that the government should conduct an independent, open, transparent, accountable inquiry wherein the perpetrators would be brought to justice. However, there are other initiatives we need to take.

The Canadian government must first call upon the United Nations Human Rights Council to enter into an emergency session to inquire into and report on the plight of the Coptic community. The United Nations special rapporteur into religious intolerance should also be called upon to look into this matter. The Geneva-based NGO community should make this a priority in its representations to the United Nations Human Rights Council. Finally, the Parliamentary Forum of the Community of Democracies should make it a priority on its agenda.

In effect, I end where I began, that is the promise of the Tahrir spring, the promise of equal justice, the promise of democratic polity, the promise of a constitutional democracy. All this will be tested by how Egyptian justice treats its Coptic Christian minority.

Therefore, whether we will have an Egyptian Arab spring or whether regrettably and lamentably we will descend into some form of Egyptian winter will be tested by how the Coptic Christian minority is treated with full equality before the law, equal protection and equal treatment of the law.

Coptic Christians in Egypt
Government Orders

8 p.m.

Liberal

Gerry Byrne Humber—St. Barbe—Baie Verte, NL

Mr. Chair, I am sure everyone appreciates the honesty, straightforwardness and integrity of the hon. member not only for his words but for his actions.

Is there anything the hon. member wants to add to what he has already spoken about?

Coptic Christians in Egypt
Government Orders

8 p.m.

Liberal

Irwin Cotler Mount Royal, QC

Mr. Chair, the only thing I would add is that at times such as these qui s'excuse s'accuse; whoever remains indifferent will indict himself or herself.

As my colleague, the member for Scarborough—Agincourt, mentioned throughout his speech, we have to appreciate the sense of urgency and we have to act now.

Coptic Christians in Egypt
Government Orders

8:05 p.m.

Vaughan
Ontario

Conservative

Julian Fantino Associate Minister of National Defence

Mr. Chair, I am pleased to rise to speak to an issue of great concern and importance.

Our government believes that religious freedom is a fundamental human right.

We also believe it is the building block for healthy democracies, which is why we continue to strongly condemn the vicious attacks on Egyptian Coptic Christians and their institutions. People of faith must be able to practise and worship their religion in peace and security.

Tragically, after sharing in the hope of a new Egypt earlier this year, the violence and persecution against the Coptic Christian minority continues.

The current experience of the Coptic community in Egypt and an examination of its rich history deserves particular attention as part of tonight's debate. I am particularly proud to stand with the government that recognized the importance of this issue and proposed the debate take place.

The Copts are native Egyptian Christians and represent the largest Christian community in the Middle East. The Copts' roots in the rural areas around Alexandria where a bombing recently took place taking the lives of 20 worshippers are indeed deep. Their existence dates back to the 5th century and the days of St. Mark. Christians live throughout present day Egypt, but the Coptic Church in Alexandria is recognized as the oldest in Africa.

Although their struggles were far from new, some Coptic Christians living today still remember when President Nasser led a coup d'état against King Farouk in 1952 and established a republic. Their human rights were sometimes violated under Nasser's overarching policy of pan-Arab nationalism and socialism. The Copts were negatively affected by Nasser's nationalization policies because although they represented 10-plus per cent of the population they were relatively prosperous, holding more than 50% of the country's wealth.

During this period, the granting of permits to construct churches was delayed, Christian religious courts were closed and the regime confiscated land and church properties from Copts.

As a result, many Copts emigrated to Australia, Europe and North America.

Those who remain report significant discrimination in modern Egypt.

Many members of the Coptic community participated in the revolution earlier this year and marched arm-in-arm with Egyptians of other faiths in calling for the end of Mubarak's autocratic regime.

However, since the revolution Copts have been increasingly vulnerable to threats from extremists. They like other groups have suffered as police forces have struggled to rebuild in the revolution's wake. They have been victim to both petty and violent crimes. They have reported increased incidents of kidnapping and extortion. Local police forces have proven powerless in the face of increased religious-based violence.

On October 9, members of Cairo's large Coptic community participated in a march to protest against the destruction of a church. The exact circumstances that led to violence that night are unclear. Some say that strangers infiltrated the protest and instigated the violence. Whatever caused the initial violence, it is clear that security forces intervened with force resulting in the deaths of some 27 people. More than 300 others were injured.

Since the events of October 9, the death of one young Coptic man has captivated public attention. Twenty year old Mina Daniel was a respected young activist who by all accounts was a bright and dedicated future leader. His death, reportedly from gunshot wounds sustained during the clashes, is a painful example of the tremendous loss suffered by the Coptic community and the whole of Egypt.

Egyptians are painfully aware that their country can ill afford to lose such promising individuals at such a pivotal time in their history.

We note that Egyptians of all faiths have denounced the violence of October 9. His Holiness Pope Shenouda III has been at the forefront of these denunciations. We commend his tireless efforts to bridge the Coptic community and the Egyptian leadership to restore peace and unity. We sent Canada's ambassador to meet with him last year to demonstrate our country's solidarity.

We hope that all Egyptians will continue to renew their efforts to promote unity and protect religious minorities in order to prevent such tragedies from being repeated.

There have been a number of positive steps in recent days. Canada will play its part to ensure this continues.

As the process of transition continues to move forward, we call on Egyptian authorities to ensure the protection of Egyptians against all forms of extremism. We also urge the Egyptian people to work to sustain a culture of tolerance.

Copts around the world are joining the movement to bring an end to the violence in Egypt, and I would be remiss if I did not refer especially to the vibrant Coptic diaspora here in Canada. Earlier this month, on behalf of the Prime Minister, I addressed the congregation of Coptic Christians, as did others of my colleagues, at the Canadian Coptic Centre in Mississauga, the community adjacent to where I happen to live. I provided our assurances to Coptic Christians in our communities that our government strongly condemns these viscous attacks and calls on the Egyptian government to ensure that the perpetrators of these attacks be brought to justice.

Our commitment is to continue doing our part to protect their religious freedoms and to devote our efforts to prevent harm so that they and their families can feel safe demonstrating their right to practice their faith freely. Outside of Egypt and Sudan, the largest Coptic communities are in the United States and Canada. In the 60 or so years since the arrival of the first Coptic immigrants to Canada, the community here has grown to number roughly 50,000 today. Canadian Coptic leaders have raised serious concerns regarding the Coptic community in Egypt and our government will continue to listen to them and work with them.

The Prime Minister announced in the Speech From the Throne this year that our government would be creating an office of religious freedom. This office will serve religious minorities who are targeted with violence and persecution around the world. As elected representatives, we must stand up for our friends and neighbours whose families are inflicted with the terrible injustice and contraventions of their fundamental human rights, and we will continue to do exactly that. Likewise, we must show our commitment to protecting the rights of these innocent individuals whose lives are acutely affected by these unspeakable actions. We take the concerns of the Coptic community very seriously, and we will continue to demonstrate our tangible commitment to protecting their right to safety and expressing their beliefs in Canada and throughout the world.

We will continue to effectively engage with this community in an effort to promote and protect the fundamental freedoms of Egyptians. We hope it will usher in a new era of hope and prosperity for Coptic Christians, in particular, as a new and truly democratic Egypt takes shape in the weeks and months ahead.

Coptic Christians in Egypt
Government Orders

8:10 p.m.

NDP

Laurin Liu Rivière-des-Mille-Îles, QC

Mr. Chair, the NDP is deeply concerned with the ongoing violence against Coptic Christians in Egypt. The NDP also continues to support the democratic aspirations of the Egyptian people and hopes that the parliamentary elections beginning in November, 2011, will be free and fair.

However, we also know that, in the 2008 throne speech, the government promised to create a new non-partisan democracy promotion agency to support the peaceful transition to democracy in repressive countries and to help emerging democracies build strong institutions.

Could the member opposite please tell the House what happened to this idea and why the government has not created a democracy promotion agency, as it promised three years ago?

Coptic Christians in Egypt
Government Orders

8:10 p.m.

Conservative

Julian Fantino Vaughan, ON

Mr. Chair, I would refer to the statement by the Prime Minister of Canada with regard to the situation in Egypt dated May 9, 2011, where he expressed his concern. He said:

The Government of Canada strongly condemns the violence against Coptic Christians in Egypt.

Canada is a tolerant, multicultural country with a proud tradition of defending religious minorities around the world. We stand behind the Coptic Christian community and their right to practice their faith in safety and security, free of persecution. This is a universal human right and one which our Government is committed to defending.

Recognizing that religious pluralism is inextricably linked to democratic development, our Government has committed to creating a special Office of Religious Freedom to monitor and help ensure religious minorities can practice their faith without fear of violence and repression.

On behalf of all Canadians, I express my deepest condolences to those who have lost loved ones during these events. Our thoughts and prayers are with all Egyptians as they face the difficult challenges ahead.

The point is that, from the Prime Minister on down, all of us are extremely concerned and there are efforts under way to deal with this issue in a more effective, more assertive and much more proactive way, and his statement validates all of that.