Foreign Affairs Committee on Oct. 25th, 2011
Evidence of meeting #8 for Foreign Affairs and International Development in the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was egypt.
A recording is available from Parliament.
On the agenda
- Barbara Martin Director General, Middle East and Maghreb Bureau, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade
- Marie Gervais-Vidricaire Director General, Stabilization and Reconstruction Task Force, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade
- Jeffrey McLaren Director, Gulf and Maghreb Relations, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade
- Hani Tawfilis Board Member, Mississauga, Canadian Coptic Centre
- X As an Individual
- Antoine A. Malek Chair, Coptic Orthodox Community of Greater Montreal
- Hugh Segal Ontario, CPC
Dominic LeBlanc Beauséjour, NB
Thank you, Mr. McLaren.
But in terms of the resolution that was passed by the House of Commons, there has been no direct or high-level intervention at the UN as a result of that particular motion being passed. In other words, I appreciate that the minister's speech...and it was appropriate for him to mention it, but as a result of what the House of Commons did, there hasn't been a further intervention, either with the Secretary-General or some senior UN body. I appreciate the human rights body having a schedule, but the events are outrunning the schedule of UN bureaucracy.
Director General, Middle East and Maghreb Bureau, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade
The resolution was passed last Monday. It is a question of it not yet being raised.
The Chair Dean Allison
Thank you very much.
That's all the time we have. We have a tight schedule because we have three different sets of witnesses today. I am going to suspend the meeting.
I thank the witnesses, once again, for being here.
We'll bring in the next witnesses and we'll get started right away.
The Chair Dean Allison
I'm just wondering if we can get started again. As I say, we have three different sets of witnesses today.
I want to welcome Mr. Hani Tawfilis, who is a board member with the Canadian Coptic Centre.
We have someone with us who is just known as witness number one.
We thank you for being here as well.
We also have with us Mr. Antoine Malek, who is with the Coptic Orthodox Community of Greater Montreal.
Welcome, gentlemen. I will start with Mr. Tawfilis. I believe you have opening statements of eight to ten minutes. Then we'll have time for at least one round--maybe two--of questions for you.
Hani Tawfilis Board Member, Mississauga, Canadian Coptic Centre
My part is mainly an introduction because my colleagues and I decided that the Coptic file is too big and we can't discuss it in 15 or 20 minutes.
The Chair Dean Allison
We're happy that's the case, because it will give us more chance for questions.
Why don't I just turn it over to you, sir, and we'll go from there?
Board Member, Mississauga, Canadian Coptic Centre
My part here is to just give a simple, very quick introduction for people who don't know who the Copts are.
First of all, thank you very much for letting us come here and for listening to our problems and to what is happening in Egypt. It makes me very proud as a Canadian Egyptian to see everyone concerned about our homeland and our homeland here in Canada too.
The Copts are the oldest surviving Christian community in the Middle East, and even in the whole world. The Coptic church started in the year 42, after the resurrection of Christ, through the presence of Saint Mark, who went to Egypt and established the church. At that time, all the Egyptians were descendants of the Pharoahs and were under the occupation of the Roman Empire at that time.
Within 50 years, almost all over Egypt the message of Christianity had been received, and Egypt changed into being a completely Christian country by about the year 200 after the resurrection of Christ, which is very quick, as there was no communication at that time via the Internet or the means now available. It was very quick: the message was received and the descendants of the Pharoahs came to follow this way.
The word “Egyptian” or “Egypt” is the translation of Aegyptos, which is a Greek word. The term “Copt”was put into use only after the invasion of Muslims in 641 into Egypt from Saudi Arabia, during the weakening of the Roman Empire. The Egyptians didn't put up any resistance to the kingdom's ending, because they wanted to be rid of the Roman Empire. The Muslims called the Egyptian people “Copts” because they couldn't pronounce the word “Aegyptos”, and it stayed that way, becoming the right translation into English in the seventeenth century—as “Copts”.
So the Copts are the descendants of the Pharoahs. They stayed with that name as the Christians of Egypt from that time. When Islam came to Egypt, three options faced the Christians: pay a tax to continue to be Christians, convert to Islam, or be killed. The people who were able to pay the tax continued their faith, continuing to pay the taxes and keeping their Christianity. The people who could not afford it changed to Islam. There were also some martyrs who were killed at the hands of the Islamic invaders of the area.
Throughout the subsequent period, the Christians have lasted through several episodes of persecution. I'm proud to say that if they have lasted for 2,000 years, then they are persistent in their beliefs and they are very strong in keeping themselves upon that piece of land. They are a distinct society among the Egyptian people, because they are the original Egyptians.
In the new era, from the 19th century on, the Copts enjoyed a short period of prosperity during the time of Muhammad Ali when he came into Egypt. He let them build their own churches, and their art continued to flourish. But this didn't last for more than a hundred years; then another persecution followed. In the modern era of Egypt, these Egyptians have suffered a lot of persecution. It shows very clearly in that they have not been able to hold any high positions in the government and it is very hard for them to reach their goals as they had done. To build a church or even to renovate one, they needed a decree from the president himself, even to renovate something like a water tap area.
In the last few years, we have seen an escalation in the killing of Christians under the eyes of the governments, either the previous government or the present one. The one thing I will point to is that, during all of the feasts of the Christians, such as Easter, Christmas, and all of those occasions, you will find a huge presence of police arresting Christians who are observing those feasts. On the other hand, we've never heard even a single incident of a Christian who attacked a mosque in Egypt. This shows how peaceful they are.
This is a very small summary of the Copts in Egypt.
Copts in Canada started to migrate here in the 1950s, or after 1952, after the coup by the army in Egypt under the presence of Nasser. At that time, 50% of the wealth of Egypt was in the hands of the Christians, and they started to face this problem of having all of their property taken from them. So the most fortunate ones, or the rich ones, started to migrate to Europe, to Australia, to Canada, and to the U.S.A. Another wave of immigration started after 1973, after the second war or the presence of the Sadat era, when all of the Islamists started to rise up against the Christians.
Copts in Canada are famous for being highly educated. They rank number one amongst the immigrant groups in Canada in education, and they rank number two in wealth.
This is a summary about the Copts. I know it's short, but I hope it's comprehensive.
Thank you very much.
The Chair Dean Allison
Witness number one, do you have any comments?
X As an Individual
Thank you very much for inviting me here to discuss this issue. I think it's highly important to know that we are here because of the last event, and the uniqueness of this event is that military, police, and Islamists, all of them, operated on one ground, which is religion. Now we will shed light on how the military or interim government behaved or what kind of attitude it has.
I'm not going to dwell too much on the incidents because all of them are recorded in many avenues, but I want to shed light on the causes and why this is happening in Egypt.
After the invasion of Arabs to North Africa in 641, Muslims persecuted Egyptians up and down, but they had managed to co-exist until 1970, when Sadat introduced the second article in the constitution, which, in sharia law, is the source of legislation. That automatically changed the attitude of everyone on how this country should perform.
It is important to look at the context of militant Islamism in Egypt. It's easy to understand that the more Islamism we have in Egypt, the more violation to minorities. With sharia, by definition, any non-Muslim is considered a second-class citizen. Introducing sharia law in the constitution automatically defines the identity of each person based on whether they are a Muslim or Christian. Any legislation will affect whether you are a Muslim or a Christian; it defines the line of identity of every individual.
In Egypt, we shed light on discrimination in the legal framework. Once sharia law was in place, it automatically affected the freedom of religion, the international law, and all other things. Although we have section 2 in our constitution, sharia law introduced articles 40 and 46 in the same constitution. The first one says that everybody is equal in this country. Article 46 says that everybody has the right to practise his or her religion. Yet after the assassination of Sadat, these were lifted and it was left to the courts to run any case according to what they liked. The tendency is to run it as per the constitution, section 2, which is sharia law.
With regard to international law, the president has a right to sign any agreement with any international set-up, any country, but the limits of any agreement end where sharia law starts. If the agreement is complicit with sharia law, it becomes accepted; if not, then it ends right there. That's why the government in Egypt is willing to sign any agreement, but when it comes to the application, they will stop it right there because it does not comply with their sharia law.
When it comes to discrimination at a local level, it has affected four areas: conversion, day-to-day difficulties, family law, and building churches.
With respect to conversion, any Muslim who changes his or her religion and becomes apostate is given a period of time to repent. If she or he fails to repent, then imprisonment--or maybe termination--is required. If any Christian is willing, they are welcome to convert from Christianity to Islam, yet he or she cannot reverse it. If he--or she--personally reverses his belief, it will be on his ID card that he previously adopted Islam. He automatically becomes a target in every avenue of life.
Many adopted Christianity, but they were captured and tortured--in prison, at the airports, and everywhere. I'm not going to go through the cases; we can discuss them later.
Under family law, any Muslim can marry any Christian, but the Christian must convert to Islam and must divorce and consider her husband as apostate. The offspring, the children, must be Muslims. If need be, their children will be taken away from the mother and handed over to another person or another mother to be raised according to the Koran or sharia law.
On building churches...this is a long story. In 1856 a law was issued saying that permission to build any church should be given by the president or the government of the country. In 1999 President Mubarak lessened that by saying that repairs may be allowed. In 2005 he retracted that and said that it was up to the government of each area to decide whether permission for the building a church could be issued. Until today we have seen nothing, because it's up to the government to decide.
In regard to Christians in positions of authority, sharia law says that non-Muslims cannot seek authority over a Muslim, so automatically you will not see any Christian as an ambassador or a professor or someone of high rank in any area. There has been silent discrimination now for so many years. People say: “Too bad. You're so good, but you're Christian. We cannot give a job to you.” So what's happening right now is that all the people who have projects and money in Egypt are Christians and try to hire Copts, and the opposite is correct. In fact, they are trying to force business people to hire Muslims as much as they hire Christians, but the opposite is not correct.
In conclusion, I'm not too sure we can describe what's happening in the Arab world as the Arab Spring. I would call it Islam Spring. And we have to pay attention to that, because spreading from Tunisia, Algeria, and Saudi Arabia, and all around that area, they're all adopting sharia law. Any international institution, including the United Nations, has to look at this, not necessarily at a democratic level, but in fact it is concerning, alarming, because the level of democracy and the language that we use in a democratic society do not necessarily have the same definition in these lands.
It has to be taken really cautiously. I'll leave it at that stage.
The Chair Dean Allison
Thank you, witness number one.
Now we're going to move to Mr. Malek.
Sir, you have 10 minutes, if you need it.
Antoine A. Malek Chair, Coptic Orthodox Community of Greater Montreal
Good morning. Thank you for having us here this morning. At the risk of using the same words as my colleagues, I will say that I too am proud to belong to a civilized country that respects human rights and is recognized for doing so. I am also proud to see that the current government is moving forward. I will cite some examples later on. My remarks will focus mainly on the role that Canada could play.
Before addressing certain suggestions and certain situations concerning the role that Canada has played in this matter to date, I would like to emphasize one point. The attacks against the Copts are an expression of the hatred against non-Muslims that is constantly taught in Egypt, where authorities close their eyes and where the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis have been undermining society and bringing fanaticism to the masses for decades. This is a fundamental reality and central to the problem. We are talking about the education and psychology of a people.
The overthrow of Mubarak and the resumption of power by the armed forces have not at all restored safe conditions for the Copts. Anti-Christian violence in Egypt is caused by extremist Egyptian Muslims actuated by a Christianophobia similar to the anti-Semitic hatred that made Egyptian Jews flee Egypt in the 1950s. I'll give you an example of this teaching. At the highest levels of society, in the most prestigious university in the Muslim world, Al-Azhar University, in Cairo, Jihad against the Jews and Christians is depicted as a collective duty of Muslims for the defence and expansion of Islam. Islamists cite a sura, a chapter in the Koran entitled "The Table Spread", which emphasizes the hostility and collusion of the infidels—the reference here is to miscreants or infidels, in other words Christians—and states: "They are but friends and protectors to each other. And he amongst you that turns to them is of them."
This is the real origin of the anti-Copt pogroms and anti-Christian hatred in Egypt. It also applies to the Arab and Muslim countries won over the years through the virus of anti-Western Islamist totalitarianism and obscurantist Christianophobia. That is a brief summary, but it is a representation of everyday life.
As regards Canada's role, I would like to emphasize a world first in the Copt file. That world first was guided by the present Prime Minister of Canada, the Right Hon. Stephen Harper, who raised awareness of the Copt issue among the heads of state of the G8. We saw this last April, at the meeting of G8 ministers of foreign affairs, and then in May, with the heads of state. Even in April, in Canada's final communiqué in the context of the G8, mention was made of the Copt file for the first time.
I also hope that the creation of the new special office of religious freedom will truly be the pride of minority religious communities around the world and avoid falling into political correctness.
I believe this office will be worthless if it involves political correctness.
We have a number of suggestions regarding Canada's role. We are not necessarily attached to all these suggestions, but they do provide food for thought.
The social and political map of the Middle East is changing dramatically. I'm not just talking about Egypt. Yesterday, Tunisia elected a majority Muslim parliament. Yesterday, Libya officially declared Sharia law the basis of its legislation. Egypt next door is coming along. In Palestine, there are fewer than 5,000 Christians. Lebanon has a Christian majority, as was the case until around the mid-1960s. We don't know about Syria, but if ever the government in power is overthrown, we believe the Islamists will be there as well. We already know about Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia. So we can easily see what the Middle East is becoming.
The position of Coptic Christians in the Middle East is truly strategic for the West, Canada and the United States, and for Western Christian values. They are the largest Christian minority, not simply in that region, but in all Muslim countries of the world. That is why we have suggested creating an operational unit of a task force on Christians in the Middle East. I know the Department of Foreign Affairs has that kind of unit concerning the Muslim communities here. We believe the Middle East deserves this kind of operational unit.
We also suggest establishing a working group on Egypt that would focus solely on what is going on in Egypt. We expect there will be enormous changes in Egyptian politics and society and I believe that a task force on Egypt would be a good thing.
There has been talk about reacting strongly when the situation requires it because, on October 10, the day following the murders, Canada or the Department of Foreign Affairs issued a press release that I found disappointing. I immediately sent a letter to the Department Foreign Affairs.
I'll tell you why. On January 7, 2010, Canada was the first country to condemn the murders of seven Coptic Christians as they left church. I will read the following sentences: "Canada condemns the attack on Coptic Christians in Nag Hammadi." It also states the following: "We encourage the Government of Egypt to continue its efforts to bring the perpetrators to justice..." That's very good.
On January 1, 2011, following the attack on the church, Canadian authorities wrote, and I quote: "Canada condemns this latest vicious attack by extremists against Egypt's Coptic community."
On May 9, 2011, the Prime Minister Stephen Harper made the following statement: "The Government of Canada strongly condemns the violence against Coptic Christians in Egypt. We stand behind the Coptic Christian community and their right to practise their faith in safety and security, free of persecution." That's very good.
However, the October 10 statement reads as follows: "Canada urges all involved..." I'm sorry.
You can't put victim and murderer on the same level. That's disappointing. The word "condemn" did not appear in that press release, nor did the words "armed forces". And yet, it was the armed forces that did the killing. However, the following week, there was the new motion, and I then sent a thank you letter to the Minister of Foreign Affairs on that subject.
As a Canadian, a Copt and an Egyptian, I would ask Canada to act in a file such as this, rather than simply react. It should not wait for an attack in order to act. I believe this file deserves to be monitored and that we should implement mechanisms in an attempt to prevent this kind of barbarism.
The Chair Dean Allison
Thank you very much, Mr. Malek.
We're now going to start on the NDP side with Madame Ayala.
You have seven minutes.
Paulina Ayala Honoré-Mercier, QC
Inter-religious violence in Egypt clearly is not a recent phenomenon. It is part of life. Dozens of Copts were killed in 1992. In the circumstances, what is Canada's role?
Egypt is preparing to implement democratic systems and to elect a government in a context of growing violence. How can this threat influence the ability of minority or moderate groups—not just Christians, but also moderate Muslims who are not Islamists—to obtain representation in the new parliament?
In your opinion, what can Canada do to support the implementation of democratic institutions that include the minorities? You've talked about how you see Canada's role in regard to these events, but, in concrete terms, Canada will provide economic support in the area of work for people who are unemployed. But what can we do about education, for example? As we know, the textbooks for Egyptian children—and this is also true of public television—trivialize this xenophobic propaganda and stigmatize Jews and Christians as accomplices of Zionists and foreigners. How can that be changed with Canada's help?
You also talked about establishing a task force on Christians in the Middle East. We're dealing with problems these days, and education is a source of solutions. These cultural conflicts stemming from prejudices and intolerance are fuelled by systems of disinformation. We have seen how Egyptians have managed, through the Internet and social media in particular, to decompartmentalize their minds and to look beyond local propaganda.
What can Canada do to support the deployment of new and independent media as well as the pursuit of a dialogue between Egyptians and the rest of the world?
Chair, Coptic Orthodox Community of Greater Montreal
You've gone to the heart of the matter in a concrete way. I didn't have the time to mention education earlier. You touched on that, and, in my humble opinion, that's where the work must be done.
I'll give you an example. In the elementary schools, they teach—when I say "they", that may be at home or come from other people—young children not to play with other children unless they know whether they are Christian or Muslim. I believe a significant amount of work has to be done in the area of education. How to do it? That's a very serious question which we will have to examine at length. It's one of the reasons why, in my suggestions, I talked about establishing a task force on Egypt. I believe a point such as this requires a lot of thought.
A little earlier, when she was here, the president mentioned some points that I had noted myself. Canada should work with Egyptian authorities in an attempt to reduce the number of unemployed workers. We talked about that this morning. I'll give you an example. Egypt really needs an effective system for small and medium-sized businesses, and Canada has the necessary expertise in that field.
Canada can help Egypt in the field of agriculture. It can help Egyptians get more from their land, for example. That's very important because Egypt is still an agricultural country. Canada can also provide assistance in every other field that would help create jobs.
To conclude on what you're saying, madam, about education, I will say that it won't be done overnight. It will take generations. It in fact involves a change in mentality.
You mentioned tolerance. Did you know that the word "compromise" has no Arabic equivalent. I won't dwell on the reason for that state of affairs. However, I will talk to you about psychology. There are moderate Muslims, that's true. There are some among my friends. I respect them and I like them very much. The problem in the Muslim world, even in Canada, is that the moderate majority is silent. We will have to find ways to communicate with those silent majorities, whether it be in Canada, in Egypt or in other Muslim countries. We have to ensure that the silent majority has a voice. I believe that if the silent moderate majority has a voice, that voice will definitely take over from the extremists.
Paulina Ayala Honoré-Mercier, QC
I was headed in that direction because those people are no doubt afraid. They are afraid this will become an Islamist system. When you talk about the police, that troubles me. The police apparently did not try to disarm or really oppose the crowds of attackers led by Salafi religious leaders, despite numerous alerts. The Christians were apparently forced to defend themselves alone.
Will the interim military council be taking the necessary measures to protect the members of that community, and will it fight discrimination? Earlier you said that the police themselves share the same religion.
What can Canada do to contribute to the safety of minority groups throughout Egypt? What can we do to promote dialogue within that society?