Mr. Speaker, it is my honour to stand this evening and speak to the issue of ongoing violence and vicious attacks against Coptic Christians in Egypt, a subject that has received considerable attention in this House in recent weeks.
On October 17, the House adopted a motion condemning attacks against Coptic Christians in Egypt and called on the Egyptian government to ensure that the perpetrators of those attacks bear the full weight of the law. The strong and unequivocal language in that motion highlights how important this issue is to all members on this side of the House and to all Canadians.
The promotion and protection of human rights and the rule of law is an integral part of our country's foreign policy. As Canadians, we enjoy the freedom to believe and the ability to express those beliefs without retribution.
It is worth noting that Canada's strong relations with Egypt are based on significant people-to-people ties and growing bilateral trade and investment links. For example, it is estimated that some 55,000 Canadians have roots in Egypt, some 100,000 Canadians travel there every year, and Egypt imports some $630 million in goods and services from Canada. This relationship gives us the right to be open and direct with Egypt and we have expressed our desire to see tangible evidence of transition to democracy, as well as to express our concerns about rising sectarian tensions.
Members will recall that there was an attack on Coptic Christians leaving a Christmas mass in Nag Hammadi in January 2010, as well as a bombing of a church in Alexandria during the celebration of a New Year's mass earlier this year, both of which Canada condemned in the strongest terms. I spoke with our Coptic brothers and sisters and mourned those tragedies.
Last Christmas, I and many members of Parliament went to Christmas mass at many Coptic churches across Canada to celebrate the holiday despite the threats that had been issued against Coptic churches in Canada.
The Prime Minister and the hon. Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism visited the Coptic community at St. Mary's church in Mississauga to listen to their concerns and then to express support for these great Canadians.
More recently, the Minister of Foreign Affairs issued a statement expressing his deep concern and calling on Egypt to ensure freedom of religion and to protect religious rights. At the minister's request, Canada's chargé d'affaires met with Bishop Youannes, general bishop and private secretary to His Holiness Pope Shenouda III, at St. Mark's Cathedral to express Canada's concern and support. The Minister of Foreign Affairs had also requested that Canada's ambassador to Egypt discuss previous attacks with the Pope.
The chargé d'affaires also provided the bishop with a copy of the resolution adopted by the House of Commons that condemns the attacks. It calls on the Egyptian government to bring the perpetrators to justice and asks the UN Human Rights Council to conduct an investigation into the plight of Egyptian Coptic Christians and issue a public report of its findings.
Indeed, the Minister of Foreign Affairs also made reference to the situation of Coptic Christians during his address at the United Nations General Assembly, as well as during public consultations related to the new office of religious freedom on October 3, 2011.
Egypt is entering a pivotal period in its transition to democratic governance and this significance cannot be overstated. It is the country with the largest population in the Arab world. In fact, one out of four people from Arab countries is Egyptian. It is a nation with an ancient civilization and a vibrant and rich culture that has long been a moderate leader of the Arab, African and Muslim worlds. It has a long history of religious diversity and tolerance. What happens in Egypt has important implications for other countries of the region, for the world economy and for international security, including the security of Canadians.
In the context of the Arab Awakening, the outcome in Egypt has the potential to affect the transitions under way in other countries. The developments in Egypt over the coming months and years will shape the region and the world as we know it. Canada's hope for Egypt is that its transition continues to be based on a clear desire of Egyptians for respect for human rights, the rule of law and the protection of religious freedoms. Canada stands by the people of Egypt, including the Coptic community, as they work toward a peaceful and democratic transition.
As the Minister of Foreign Affairs recently stated in his address to the United Nations General Assembly, “the long history of humanity has proven that religious freedom and democratic freedom are inseparable.”
We cannot ignore the numerous attacks against the Coptic community in Egypt, including the most recent attack on October 9 in Cairo between Egyptian security forces and Coptic Christian protestors. Twenty-seven people, mostly Coptic Christians, were killed and over 300 were injured in that tragic event. This was the most violent incident since the fall of the former regime.
Immediately following that incident, the Minister of Foreign Affairs issued a statement expressing our concern and urging “ all involved to work together to build a society where religious communities can live and prosper together and build a new Egypt”. Furthermore, we called for a transparent investigation into the violence and for those responsible to be held accountable.
We have seen positive steps by the Government of Egypt to address tensions. For instance, since the events of October 9, the Government of Egypt has committed to conduct a full investigation into the clashes and to bring to justice the instigators and perpetrators of the violence. An investigation is also under way into the destruction of the church into the village of al-Marinab in early October, which led members of the Coptic community to protest on October 9.
We will continue to monitor the situation. The Department of Foreign Affairs has made numerous representations to the government of Egypt about the importance of promoting and protecting human rights, including those of the Coptic Christians. These representations have been made in Cairo by the Canadian embassy, in Ottawa through the Egyptian embassy, at bilateral meetings between Canadian and Egyptian officials and at the United Nations.
Looking ahead, we recognize that Egypt's future must be charted by the Egyptian people themselves. The best way to accomplish that is through peaceful, orderly, political and economic reforms that enable all Egyptians to participate in the process and that allow the opportunity for dialogue with all parties.
We recognize that there are considerable challenges going forward as Egyptians work to define the foundations of a new Egypt. This is to be expected as Egyptians seek to find new common ground and define the nature of their society and their government going forward. One of the greatest challenges for Egyptians will be to continue to work together to build a strong culture of respect for pluralism and human rights, including religious freedom.
Even with laws in place to prevent discrimination, the importance of strong social norms that make it unacceptable to discriminate on the basis of religion cannot be understated. This will be a long-term process, the road may be occasionally rocky and we urge the Government of Egypt to fully implement the measures to which it has committed.
We have and will continue to be clear on this point. The protection of Egyptians against all forms of extremism during the upcoming election period is vital to ensure that religious minorities are free to play a meaningful role in the political transition.
As I have noted, Coptic Christians have been an integral part of Egyptian society for many centuries and today the overwhelming majority of Egyptians support religious tolerance.
We continue to urge the Egyptian people to sustain their long history of tolerance and peaceful co-existence. Rest assured that the Government of Canada will be watching.