In Egypt, some are forced to trade citizenship for freedom

Of note:

On January 8, Egyptian-Palestinian activist Ramy Shaath arrived in Paris after Egyptian authorities released him from prison and deported him after over 900 days in remand detention. He walkedout of Charles de Gaulle Airport with his wife Celine Lebrun-Shaath to a cheering crowd of supporters. Yet the conditions of his release were no cause for celebration — Shaath was forced to renounce his Egyptian citizenship in exchange for his freedom.

In a statement announcing his release, Shaath’s family said: “No one should have to choose between their freedom and their citizenship. Ramy was born Egyptian, raised as an Egyptian, and Egypt has always been and will always be his homeland; no coerced renunciation of citizenship under duress will ever change that.”

Throughout the two and a half years of Shaath’s imprisonment, his wife Celine Lebrun-Shaath, a French national who was deported from Egypt upon his arrest, led a longstanding public campaign for his release. French President Emmanuel Macron also made a direct demand for Shaath to be released during a December 2020 press conference alongside President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, held after bilateral talks at the Elysee Palace in Paris.

Over the last six months, the National Security Agency had been communicating with Shaath’s family to begin the process of his citizenship renunciation, and to arrange for his deportation, according to a source informed of discussions around his release, who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity. Those procedures came to a head on January 1, when Shaath’s lawyer submitted an official document to the Supreme Administrative Court saying that he would drop his Egyptian citizenship, the source added.

Shaath was released on January 6, according to the family, and handed over to a representative of the Palestinian Authority at Cairo International Airport, where he boarded a flight to the Jordanian capital, Amman. He then traveled on to Paris.

The controversial practice is based on a decree — known as Law 140 — issued by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in November 2014 that allows the repatriation of foreign prisoners to their home countries, at the president’s discretion, to serve their time or be retried there.

The decree was issued five months after three Al-Jazeera journalists — Australian Peter Greste, Egyptian-Canadian Mohamed Fahmy and Egyptian Baher Mohamed — were sentenced to between seven and 10 years in prison on terrorism charges in a high profile case that sparked international condemnation and was criticized by human rights groups, Western governments and the United Nations. According to lawyer Negad al-Borai, who represented Fahmy in the case, Law 140 was issued to allow for the release and deportation of Greste to his native Australia. Less than three months after the decree was issued, Greste was indeeddeported.

Around that time, Fahmy renounced his Egyptian citizenship in the hope of being deported to Canada. Fahmy told Mada Masr at the time that senior officials had visited him in detention and told him that renouncing Egyptian citizenship was his “only way out.” Fahmy refused at first, but said he felt pressured and wanted to get out of prison. The move did not work and he was only released, along with Baher Mohamed, after they received presidential pardons in September 2015 following a retrial. Fahmy has since regained his Egyptian citizenship.

Months earlier, in May 2015, Mohamed Soltan, an Egyptian-American activist imprisoned for over 640 days, was forced to relinquish his citizenship in order to be released from prison and deported to the United States after direct appeals from the Obama administration.

Soltan’s case included an additional twist. During a visit to Capitol Hill in July 2021, Egyptian intelligence chief Abbas Kamel insisted to US officials that Washington had promised in 2015 that if Egypt released Soltan he would serve out the rest of his life sentence in a US prison, according to Politico. Kamel even handed congressional staffers what appeared to be a signed agreement between Egyptian and American officials laying out such an arrangement. Sources told Politico that a State Department employee signed the document when it was pushed on them at the airport at the last minute, as U.S. officials were trying to get Soltan out of the country, and that the document was not legally enforceable.

In any case, forcing Egyptians to renounce their citizenship in order to be deported remains a highly controversial, and arguably illegal, practice.

Lawyer Gamal Eid of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information says that Law 140 is unconstitutional, as it creates a privilege for non-Egyptians. “The idea was to cower to foreign governments and polish the regime’s image, but the decree breaches the principle that all are equal before the law, which is a supra-constitutional principle.” Eid says he is not condoning the continued imprisonment of dissidents, rather, he says they should all be released, not just the foreign nationals.

While the decree doesn’t force anyone to drop their nationality, the choice between citizenship and freedom is not really a choice. Hussein Baoumi, an Egypt researcher at Amnesty International told Mada Masr it is more accurate to say that Shaath and Soltan were forced to cede their Egyptian citizenship, which he says is unconstitutional.

“This practice we are now seeing in Egypt of trading citizenship for freedom is against the constitution and the citizenship law, and is also a blatant breach of the stipulations of international law about rescinding one’s citizenship. It circumvents the provisions of the law regulating such a measure,” Baoumi says.

The 1975 citizenship law stipulates that a number of conditions be met before the state can rescind citizenship from an Egyptian national. Yet, this law does not apply in Shaath or Soltan’s case because they technically relinquished their citizenship themselves. However, both Soltan and Shaath contend they had no choice in the matter.

Following Shaath’s release, Soltan tweeted: “To be given a choice between your freedom and your citizenship is easy, for freedom always and forever comes first, and this doesn’t take away from your belonging to your country because that is in the heart. As for a regime that conditions enjoying your most basic citizenship rights of freedom and life upon your dropping your nationality, it is a regime that is reinforcing its repressive philosophy: to be a citizen necessarily means not to be free.”

Source: In Egypt, some are forced to trade citizenship for freedom

Egypt: Activist Stripped of Citizenship @HRW

Of note:

The Egyptian government should reverse its arbitrary and abusive decision, made in December 2020, to revoke the citizenship of political activist Ghada Naguib, Human Rights Watch said today.

The Parliament should amend abusive citizenship laws so that they comply with Egypt’s international human rights obligations.

On December 24, 2020, Egypt’s Official Gazette published the government’s decision, signed by Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouly, to strip Naguib, who lives abroad, of her Egyptian nationality. The action is based on the Law 26 of 1975, which gives the government the power to do so without judicial review.

“Egypt’s decision to revoke Ghada Naguib’s citizenship is a shocking and dangerous precedent,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Egyptian authorities are stooping to a new low in punishing dissent.”

Naguib, 49, is a political activist who has lived in Turkey since late 2015 with her family. Law 26 of 1975 Regarding Egyptian Nationality is subject to abuse as it gives authorities great discretion, without legal oversight or court review, in stripping Egyptians of their nationality.

Under article 16, the prime minister can strip anyone, whether born Egyptian or naturalized, of their Egyptian nationality for several reasons, including if they “maintain normal [i.e., permanent] residence abroad and are convicted of a felony that harms state security from abroad.” That paragraph was cited in the government’s decision against Naguib.

Article 15 of the same law gives the government even wider powers to strip the nationality of those who acquired citizenship through naturalization.

The government decision notes that Naguib was born in Cairo, but falsely claims that she was “originally Syrian.” Naguib shared identification and school documents with Human Rights Watch that confirm she is Egyptian and was born in Cairo, where she grew up and went to school. She lived most of her life in Egypt and has never lived in Syria. She was born to an Egyptian mother and a Syrian father but has only had an Egyptian passport.

The government and pro-government media have frequently targeted Naguib and her husband, Hisham Abdallah, an Egyptian actor and TV host, because of their opposition activities since late 2013.

Human Rights Watch previously documented that the government harassed, intimidated, and arrested members of their families in Egypt in July and August 2018. In January 2019, a Giza criminal court for “terrorism” and “state security” cases sentenced Naguib and Abdallah to five years in prison, in absentia, in a mass trial of over 25 defendants in what is known as the “Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood) media” case (Supreme State Security Case 1102 of 2017), on charges of joining an illegal organization and disseminating false news to undermine national security.

Human Rights Watch reviewed the court verdict, which shows the entire case was based on National Security officers’ allegations about the defendants’ peaceful political activities. The security officers accused the couple of plotting to overthrow the government through media, political, and human rights work.

The charges contravene basic rights, including freedom of association and free speech. The court convictions should be annulled, Human Rights Watch said.

In mid-December 2020, security forces arrested five of Hisham Abdallah’s nephews from Marsa Matrouh and Kafer al-Sheikh governorates. They were missing for two days. On December 23, the State Security Prosecution ordered all five detained pending an investigation on accusations of joining and financing a terrorist organization.

Human Rights Watch has documented an escalating pattern of the government harassing, arresting, and prosecuting relatives of dissidents abroad.

Naguib told Human Rights Watch that she was not able to immediately hire a lawyer to appeal the government’s decision in Egypt. She said that the Egyptian consulate in Istanbul has repeatedly refused to provide her with consular services.

Since 2014, President al-Sisi’s government has invoked article 15 of the nationality law to strip Egyptian nationality from dozens, most likely hundreds, of people, the majority of whom were born to Palestinian fathers and Egyptian mothers and naturalized.

In 2004, Egypt amended its nationality law to rectify discrimination against women by allowing children born to Egyptian mothers and foreign fathers to be granted Egyptian nationality like children of Egyptian men. Those born before the 2004 amendment had to file requests for naturalization, which the Interior Ministry regularly denied.

Following the 2011 uprising, the government granted many of those people Egyptian nationality, but following the 2013 military coup the government stripped the nationality of many of those naturalized in 2011 and 2012.

Additionally, Human Rights Watch is aware of several cases in which authorities stripped Egyptians born in Egypt to Egyptian parents of their nationality, particularly Egyptian men and women married to Palestinians, Israelis, or Palestinian-Israelis.

Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality.” Egypt’s nationality laws contravene international law on the right to nationality. The 1965 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination obliges states in article 5 to “guarantee the right of everyone, without distinction as to race, color, or national or ethnic origin, to equality before the law,” notably in the enjoyment of fundamental human rights, including “the right to nationality.” The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women also calls for states to grant women equal rights with men with respect to the nationality of their children. The UN Convention on the Reduction of Statelessnessgoes further in article 9, which states that governments “may not deprive any person or group of persons of their nationality on racial, ethnic, religious or political grounds.”

The UN Human Rights Council has said in several resolutions that the arbitrary deprivation of nationality, including on political grounds, is “a violation of human rights and fundamental freedoms” and that governments use it to deprive people of basic human rights.

“The Egyptian government seems intent on stripping nationality of mostly those born to Egyptian mothers and foreign national fathers and in doing so, discriminating against women and their children,” Stork said. “Egyptian authorities should immediately restore Ghada Naguib’s citizenship and stop using the nationality issue as a weapon to silence political critics.”

Source: Egypt: Activist Stripped of Citizenship

Interfaith marriage fatwa feeds debate in Egypt

Of note, one of the issues of debate between more inclusive or traditional interpretations:

An Islamic scholar has stirred up major debates by backing the marriage of Muslim women and non-Muslim men, an issue always dealt with nervously by the religious establishment and pro-establishment scholars.

Amna Nosier, a professor of Islamic philosophy at Al-Azhar University and a member of the Egyptian Parliament, said there is no text in the Quran that bans the marriage of Muslim women and non-Muslim men. Islam permits Muslim men to marry non-Muslim women, provided that they do not prevent them from observing their faith.

There are many instances of Muslim men, including celebrities, who have married non-Muslim women. Egypt’s former minister of religious endowments, Mahmud Hamdi Zakzouk, who died in April this year, was married to a German Christian woman.

Speaking on al-Hadath al-Youm TV Nov. 17, Nosier added that the question is especially clear if the men are Christians or Jews, which Islam calls “people of the book.”

A day later, Nosier told the state-run Channel One TV that the Quran only forbids the marriage of Muslim women and “idolaters.” She called on religious scholars to study and reconsider the issue.

Nosier’s remarks were met with a round of fatwas from the nation’s religious establishment and pro-establishment scholars.

Al-Azhar, the highest seat of Sunni Islamic learning, said the marriage of Muslim women and non-Muslim men is not permissible.

“This is an issue on which all scholars agreed in the past and agree in the present,” Al-Azhar said in a Nov. 18 statement.

Abdullah Rushdi, a researcher at the Ministry of Religious Endowments, which oversees the work of the nation’s mosques, described this type of marriage as a form of adultery and “invalid” in a video uploaded Nov. 18.

Ahmed Kerima, a professor of comparative jurisprudence at al-Azhar University, said all Muslim scholars are united against this form of marriage.

“This is a well-established opinion at all times and everywhere,” Kerima told Sada al-Balad TV Nov. 18.

Whether Muslim women should be allowed to marry men who do not follow their faith is an issue that has always been the subject of anxious and acrimonious discussion.

The religious establishment says the Quran speaks against this marriage beyond any doubt, citing verses from the holy book of Muslims that ban the marriage of Muslim women and “idolaters.”

Nevertheless, those calling for sanctifying this form of marriage draw a line between “idolators” and “people of the book.”

Beneath this row lies a need for the reexamination and reinterpretation of religious texts, say religious reformists, especially concerning issues on which the scriptures do not offer clear rules.

“The fight over interfaith marriages is now within Al-Azhar,” said Khalid Montasser, a medical doctor, writer and staunch campaigner for religious reform. “It is between those who want renewal and those who want to keep things as they are with the aim of controlling the public,” he told Al-Monitor.

Historian and researcher Maged M. Farag, one of thousands of people debating interfaith marriages in cyberspace in the past few days, said he knows of dozens of Muslim women who married non-Muslim men.

“They register civil marriage contracts in Lebanon, Cyprus and other countries,” Farag said. “Some non-Muslim men even convert to Islam on paper only. Those living outside Egypt do not care a whit about the fatwas of these sheikhs,” Farag wrote on Facebook.

Nosier says these problems are why there is an urgent need for religious scholars to discuss modern issues and guide believers on dealing with them.

“This is a very serious issue that affects the lives of millions of Muslim women living in the West,” Nosier told Al-Monitor. “Some of these women have to live with their non-Muslim partners without being married to them, as their religion prohibits it. We must renew our understanding of religion to keep up with the changes happening in our life.”

The issue became a hot topic in Egypt after Tunisia overturned a law that prevented Muslim women from marrying non-Muslims in 2017.

Muslim men being permitted to marry non-Muslim women gives rise to accusations that men interpret religious texts in their own interests.

“Men dominate the interpretation of religious texts,” feminist writer and equality campaigner Dena Anwer told Al-Monitor. “Women can no longer be ignored, especially with the major role they play in society.”

TV host Yasmine el-Khateib expressed the view that allowing Muslim women to marry non-Muslim men would be the “correction” of a mistake men make by giving themselves rights they deny women.

The ongoing debate is likely to continue and deepen, but may or may not lead to social change.

Cases of interfaith marriage often elicit shock and condemnation among a large number of Egyptians. Under this shock is the unwavering stance of the religious establishment that these marriages are unacceptable in Islam, especially if they are of women marrying non-Muslim men.

Mohamed Gamal, a civil servant in his early 40s using a pseudonym, said he married a non-Muslim woman even as everyone around him opposed it.

“My family opposed it and her family opposed it, too,” Gamal told Al-Monitor.

He said he has to hide his wife’s religious identity to avoid trouble. “Everybody is against interfaith marriages, even as Muslim men are permitted to marry non-Muslim women,” Gamal said.

Al-Monitor contacted several Muslim women who have married non-Muslim men, but none were ready to talk.

“Muslim scholars prohibited the marriage of Muslim women and non-Muslim men at all times and everywhere, having based their judgment on strong evidence,” said Osama al-Hadidi, the director of the Al-Azhar Fatwa Center, the website through which Al-Azhar reaches out to Muslims around the world. “They did this for the welfare of families,” he told Al-Monitor.

Source: Interfaith marriage fatwa feeds debate in Egypt

Women in Egypt thronging to social media to reveal sexual assaults, hold abusers to account

Of note:

In Cairo, secrets long suppressed have been rising to the surface — and with them hopes the country may be experiencing a feminist movement capable of challenging the culture of impunity that has long accompanied gender-based violence in Egypt.

Online testimonials over the summer by hundreds of women on social media accounts offering anonymity have led authorities to open investigations into two alleged rape cases involving young men from wealthy and influential families.

“Egypt is on fire,” said Mozn Hassan, head of the women’s rights organization Nazra for Feminist Studies. “On fire for more than three months talking about different incidents in different sections and layers [of society].”

Social media, she said, has offered Egyptian women a safe “public sphere” that lets them know they are not alone.

In July, that space led to the arrest of a former American University in Cairo (AUC) student named Ahmed Bassem Zaki, accused of raping a number of women and blackmailing them for sexual favours. A Cairo court has set Oct. 14 as a trial date for Zaki.

“We at first just wanted him to admit it, that he did these things,” said Sabah Khodir, an Egyptian writer and poet who was one of the first to post online warnings about Zaki when she started to hear about his alleged behaviour from friends.

It set off a tidal wave with another Instagram account called Assault Police, encouraging women to share any information they had on Zaki.

“Then girls kept coming forward from all over parts of the world,” Khodir said. “We realized we actually have a shot at finally getting a serial rapist and predator in jail in Egypt that has money and power.”

Source: Women in Egypt thronging to social media to reveal sexual assaults, hold abusers to account

Uncertain future for Egypt’s Salafists following Senate election defeat

No great loss (but extremely low voter turnout combined with government restrictions):

The failure of Egypt’s largest Salafi party to win any seats in the recent Senate elections raises questions about the prospects of the party as well as the future of political Islam in the country.

Al-Nour, founded following the 2011 uprising against autocratic President Hosni Mubarak, fielded 12 candidates who ran as independents in nine out of Egypt’s 27 provinces.

Eight candidates lost in the first round of the elections, which took place Aug. 11-12.

Four other candidates secured a place in the election runoff, which was held Sept. 8-9.

However, they lost too, pointing to what some analysts describe as a “drastic” change in voters’ moods.

“There is a noticeable change in the mood of the voters who are no longer ready to accept political parties with religious backgrounds,” Cairo University political scientist Akram Badreddine told Al-Monitor. “Ordinary people view the Salafists as representing the same political brand as the Muslim Brotherhood.”

Egypt’s Salafists have come a long way since the 2011 uprising, demonstrating a high degree of pragmatism.

They stayed away from politics for decades before the uprising, preferring to focus on religion and inviting people for prayer.

They have a strict interpretation of Islam and many have a low view of non-Muslims and see women as being subservient.

The Salafists have a strong following in the Nile Delta. They have their stronghold in the northern coastal city of Alexandria, where they control most mosques.

Come the 2011 uprising, the Salafists found a chance to advance their agenda in the new Egypt that was evolving then, like other Islamists did, including the Muslim Brotherhood, the movement of the late President Mohammed Morsi.

They formed several political parties, including Al-Nour, the political arm of the Salafi Invitation, by far the most important umbrella organization of the nation’s Salafists.

Having organized themselves into political parties, the Salafists had to tailor their strict worldview to realities on the ground.

They had to answer questions on issues taken for granted in developed countries, but still under debate in Egypt, such as the status of women and non-Muslims in society and whether visiting antiquities is a sin. The Salafists were debating whether visiting ancient sites was against the Islamic religion. Some Salafi figures called for covering the faces of ancient statues with wax. Others called for destroying them, considering them deities that date back to pre-Islamic times.

Salafi politicians tried to attune their answers to these questions to what the media in Cairo liked to hear.

Nonetheless, answers to the same questions by some Salafi sheikhs divulged a wide chasm between the new political class and moderates.

In 2012, a Salafi sheikh called for the destruction of the Great Pyramids of Giza. Another said Muslims should not congratulate Christians on Christian religious occasions.

Such views gratified a number of Egyptians, especially conservative ones. And many voters backed the Salafi parties in the elections that followed the 2011 uprising.

The Salafi parties Al-Nour, Construction and Development and Al-Asala won 128 seats in the first post-Mubarak parliamentary polls between November 2011 and January 2012 (112, 13 and 3 respectively) out of a total of 498 seats).

This made the Salafists the second-largest political force in parliament after the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party — now outlawed — which won 222 seats.

Al-Nour also won 45 seats in the Senate elections in January 2012, coming in second to the Freedom and Justice Party, which won 105 seats, out of a total of 270 seats.

“The Islamists saw their political heyday after the 2011 revolution because they were the most organized political force then,” Muneer Adeeb, a specialist in political Islam, told Al-Monitor. “The lack of strong secular parties and prevailing security and political conditions made the rise of the Islamists inevitable.”

The Salafists were allied with the Muslim Brotherhood all through the one year of Morsi’s rule.

Adeeb said, however, “This honeymoon ended because the Brotherhood wanted to exclude everybody else in its pursuit for fully dominating the political stage.”

This was why the Salafists welcomed the army-backed popular uprising against the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi in 2013.

They even backed the post-Muslim Brotherhood authorities and President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi — who formally came to power in mid-2014 — apparently to evade the fate of the Muslim Brotherhood and to secure a continued presence on Egypt’s political stage.

Sisi, who has a hard line against political Islam in general and the Muslim Brotherhood in particular, also courted the Salafists in his bid to discredit Muslim Brotherhood propaganda about his hostility to the Islamic religion, analysts said.

Nonetheless, the Salafists’ courtship of the post-Muslim Brotherhood authorities failed to help the Salafists maintain their popularity, let alone attract new fans.

In the 2015 House of Deputies elections, Al-Nour, the only functional Salafi party, won only 12 seats out of a total of 596.

“This result should have acted as an early warning for the Salafists,” Badreddine said.

The failure of Al-Nour to win any seats in the recent Senate elections appears to be yet one more indicator of the collapse of the Salafists’ popularity.

This does not augur well for the party, especially with the nation’s political parties preparing for the House of Deputies elections in October.

It also gives insights into the looming demise of political Islam as a whole in Egypt, especially with the ongoing crackdown by the authorities on the Muslim Brotherhood, analysts said.

“My belief is that political Islam is on the way out, given the changes happening in this country,” Badreddine said.

The Senate elections were the first for the body to be held in Egypt since 2012. The upper house of the Egyptian parliament was dissolved in November 2013 and then excluded from the 2014 constitution. However, it was reinstituted by a package of constitutional amendments in 2019.

Nonetheless, the Senate elections were untimely for the Salafists. They were held after months of suspension of services at the nation’s mosques, the main sphere of activity for the Salafists, because of the coronavirus.

The Salafists were also negatively affected by hostile propaganda from the Muslim Brotherhood, which is angry about their cooperation with Sisi.

Voter turnout in the Senate elections and the runoff was also very low, 14% and 10.25% respectively, according to the independent elections commission.

“This voter turnout, along with the practices of the other parties participating in the elections, reduced our chances of success,” said Salah Abdel Maaboud, a senior Al-Nour official who ran as an independent in the Senate elections in the Nile Delta province of Menoufia.

Abdel Maaboud and his colleagues said they have started preparing for the House of Deputies elections in October.

He told Al-Monitor that the party has prepared lists of its potential candidates amid hopes of making up for some of the losses in the Senate elections.

“We hope we can achieve positive results in the elections,” Abdel Maaboud said. “This is possible if we communicate better with voters.”

Source: Uncertain future for Egypt’s Salafists following Senate election defeat

‘Invasion’ of ancient Egypt may have actually been immigrant uprising

Interesting and impressive work:

Ancient Egypt’s first “foreign” takeover may actually have been an inside job. About 3600 years ago, the pharaohs briefly lost control of northern Egypt to the Hyksos, rulers who looked and behaved like people from an area stretching from present-day Syria in the north to Israel in the south. The traditional explanation is that the Hyksos were an invading force. But a fresh analysis of skeletons from the ancient Hyksos capital suggests an alternative: The Hyksos were Egyptian-born members of an immigrant community that rose up and grabbed power.

The pharaohs ruled Egypt from about 3100 B.C.E. to 30 B.C.E., but they weren’t always in complete command of their territory. One period of vulnerability began around 1800 B.C.E., with a succession of ineffectual pharaohs who struggled to maintain order. The Hyksos took advantage of the power vacuum by seizing control of northern Egypt, according to ancient texts, leaving the pharaohs in charge of only a tiny strip of land to the south.

Archaeologists know the Hyksos were unlike typical Egyptians: They had names like those of people from the neighboring region of southwest Asia. Ancient artwork depicts them wearing long, multicolored clothes, unlike normal Egyptian white attire. But exactly who they were has been unclear.

Source: ‘Invasion’ of ancient Egypt may have actually been immigrant uprising

Some U.S. religious leaders flout COVID-19 restrictions

Unfortunately, not that surprising among some evangelical groups:

School buses delivered hundreds of church-goers to Life Tabernacle Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on Sunday, defying physical-distancing guidelines and the state governor’s direct order banning gatherings of more than 10 people.

Religious service, steeped as it is in community, is one area where people are finding it hard to avoid gathering amid the COVID-19 pandemic. And while some churches in the U.S. are finding innovative ways to continue services, such as conducting them virtually, a few are still gathering in person, potentially exposing many people to the novel coronavirus.

South Korea has experience with the danger of public worship services: More than half of the country’s coronavirus cases were linked to the branch of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus in Daegu.

But Life Tabernacle is flouting officials’ pleas in a state where, as of Monday afternoon, more than 4,000 have been infected and 185 have died, according to an ongoing tally by Johns Hopkins University.Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, on March 22 ordered a lockdown of all but essential services, which did not include religious worship services, and prohibited gatherings of more than 10 people.The father of Life Tabernacle’s pastor Tony Spell says the church is an essential service.

“The church is not a non-essential. The church is the most essential thing in all the world,” Timothy Spell told NBC News outside the church Sunday.

“No one is telling anybody you got to come to church. We tell people not to come if you have a fever, if you have any symptoms, if you’re aged, if you’re elderly, don’t come.”

Florida pastor arrested

That’s got local residents like Ryan Tregre fuming.

“If they really worried about just spreading the [spiritual] word, they would go on Facebook Live or YouTube or some kind of way to spread the word where they would not have to go and meet in places and spread this virus that’s killing people every day,” he told NBC.Life Tabernacle wasn’t the only church to defy public orders and open their doors to parishioners on Sunday.A video posted to the Facebook page of the River at Tampa Bay Pentecostal church in Florida on Sunday shows hundreds of parishioners standing side by side.

Rev. Rodney Howard-Browne has said he would close services only for the Rapture and that shutdowns were for “pansies.” He reportedly held two services Sunday, flying in the face of physical-distancing guidelines and attracting the attention of the local sheriff’s department.

Florida has not ordered a statewide shutdown of non-essential businesses, but on Monday the Hillsborough County Sheriff charged him with unlawful assembly and a violation of health emergency rules.

Canadian clergy urge compliance

It’s a different story in Canada.

A statement released by religious leaders across Canada on Monday urged people to follow public health officials’ guidelines.David Guretzki, vice-president of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada said there were no evangelical services that he knew of this past weekend and noted his group has signed on to statement.Still, members of all faiths are grappling with how to continue practicing.

Some mosques in the Toronto have stayed open after Ontario Premier Doug Ford declared a province-wide state of emergency March 17.

In Montreal, police were called to a synagogue after receiving a report that someone saw Hasidic men going inside, CTV reported.

Social distancing measures like working from home, school closures and cancelling sporting events could lead to a drop of new infections of coronavirus. 1:54

“Some wonder if this is too much, too fast, but in general the approach has been that, no, the best approach is just to shut down,” said Daniel Cere, an associate professor of Religion, Law and Public Policy at McGill University in Montreal.

“My impression is that on the whole, in Canada, the religious communities have fallen in line with the government on this.”

‘God will take care of your body’

One religious scholar in the U.S. attributes the defiance to a particular type of Christian teaching.

“There is this strand in modern American Christianity that has rejected the norms of science and medicine and that thinks health can be achieved through discourse with the divine, holy spirit,” said Bradley Storin, director of religious studies at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.

The philosophy is, he says: “If you are a good and true believer then God will take care of your body.”

He’s noted the church busing people in for services and passing out “anointed” handkerchiefs to people for protection.

“What we see pastor Spell doing is giving way to this ancient tradition of linking faith in God with healing in the body,” said Storin.

“It feels a little violative of the social compact that we have right now,” said Storin.

Source: Some U.S. religious leaders flout COVID-19 restrictions

And meanwhile, in Egypt:

For 55-year-old Coptic housewife Magda Mounir, knowing she can no longer pray at her local church is worse than all the precautions she has had to endure to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus in Egypt.

“The church is our haven; it is where we go to find moral support,” Mounir told Al-Monitor a few days after Egypt closed all places of worship, including mosques and churches.

The Ministry of Religious Endowments, more often referred to as the Awqaf Ministry, and Egypt’s Orthodox Christian Church both released statements March 21 announcing they would temporarily halt communal prayers.

Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church, to which the majority of Egypt’s Christians belong, said it would lock down churches and suspend masses for at least two weeks.

In multicultural and multifaith Egypt, Christians make up roughly 10% of the country’s 100 million-plus population, with the vast majority of Christians in Egypt belonging to the Coptic Orthodox Church.

“The holy week is coming, and we used to spend these days in the church. It seems this year we will not be able to do so for the first time in our lives,” Mounir said tearfully, referring to the Easter holiday on April 19.

Sandy Emad, a 27-year-old engineer, supports the ministry’s decision. “I support the decision [to close places of worship], and I can’t understand the anger of some people,” she told Al-Monitor. “We can’t kill ourselves and our families and say God will rescue us. God gave us brains to use and protect ourselves from any harm. This is what he ordered us to do,” Emad said.

“This decision is considered the most difficult decision the church has made in decades,” admitted Bishop Boules Boutros of St. Michael Church in the district of Heliopolis in Cairo. “However, it is necessary for slowing down the rapid spread of the coronavirus. God does not only exist in churches; we all have him in our hearts and can pray to him to heal the whole world,” Boutros said.

Boutros said he was not sure just how long the churches would remain closed, but it was unlikely they would be opened in time for Easter mass.

Egypt’s Awqaf Ministry decided to suspend congressional Friday prayers in all mosques nationwide until further notice. The suspension came after controversy erupted over Muslim worshippers insisting on flocking to mosques for Friday’s noon prayers despite a religious edict allowing people to pray at home due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“If it was necessary to shut mosques because of the crowd, why not close down the underground, which carries thousands every day?” Mohamed Abdel Monem, a 45-year-old Arabic teacher, said to Al-Monitor. “Now is the time most people need to resort to God and pray. Praying to God is our only way out of this ordeal,” he added.

But not everyone shares his views. Hassan Khaled, a 28-year-old graphic designer, agreed with the decision to shutter holy places. “Given that people insisted on going to the mosques despite the call to stay home, it is a wise decision to close down mosques,” he said. “If only one person is carrying the virus, thousands will be infected, and then they go home to infect their families,” Khaled added.

Khaled said while it is difficult to be deprived of places of worship during times like these, he also understands it is necessary for public health. “I imagine people will resort to praying in open areas if [prayers in mosques] continue to be banned,” he said.

Religion plays a major role in Egyptian society, so statements by religious authorities carry major weight on keeping people at home. Dar al-Ifta, Egypt’s body responsible for issuing religious edicts, issued March 24 a brief statement warning that “any call for people to gather in the streets in any pretext or under a slogan” would be sinful as it would jeopardize public health.

The statement stressed it is a “duty” under Sharia law to comply with official decisions to “protect people from epidemics and diseases.”

The Awqaf Ministry also modified the adhan — the Muslim call to prayer — to include warnings to stay at home and take precautions on preventing the spread of the coronavirus. The new adhan, broadcast on radio and television a day after religious sites were closed, urges believers to take “the utmost caution in adhering to preventive and precautionary” measures.

Islamic scholars say the special adhan was previously used during natural disasters and pandemics as well as in earlier times in Islam’s history when people were instructed to perform prayers at home.

Meanwhile, Minister of Endowments Muhammad Mukhtar Juma suspended on March 22 an imam and a preacher in Beni Suef governorate, south of Cairo, for violating the ministry’s order to close mosques. The two men were banned from giving sermons from the pulpit for a period of three months.

“Preserving life is a main aspect of Islam, and the faithful should comply with preventive measures taken by the government,” Sheikh Mohammed Mehana of Al-Azhar University told Al-Monitor.

“The images of empty mosques would break any Muslim’s heart, but the priority now is to save people’s lives. This is what Allah asked us to do, and the rest is his will,” said Mehana, adding he hoped the crisis would end before the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which starts on April 24 and goes until May 23, and that everybody would reunite for Taraweeh, the additional prayers carried out at night during Ramadan.

The Ministry of Health has reported some 609 cases of coronavirus and 40 deaths in Egypt so far.

A 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew has been imposed countrywide as part of strict measures to limit the spread of the coronavirus, Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouly said March 23.

All masses as well as public and private transport are suspended during the curfew.

Source: Egypt Egyptians feel demoralized by empty churches, mosques

A Bittersweet Homecoming for Egypt’s Jews

Interesting both with respect to the personal histories and connections, as well as the politics:

Clutching a decades-old black-and-white photo, Doris Wolanski directed a vehicle through Cairo’s chaotic traffic, her gaze trained on the street corners, in search of rue du Metro.

The photo showed an 8-year-old girl and her mother on a balcony overlooking a wide, deserted boulevard. The girl was Mrs. Wolanski, now 71; the apartment was her Jewish family’s home until they were expelled from Egypt in 1956, during the Suez crisis. Now she was trying to find it again.

The address wasn’t much help — rue du Metro had been renamed — but she hoped that details on the photo might lead her home. Spotting a familiar landmark, she filled with anxious anticipation.

“My stomach is churning, it really is,” she said. “I’m back to that little girl of 8 with my uniform, two pom-poms and a hat. It’s a very strange feeling.”

Mrs. Wolanski’s mission was part of a much larger homecoming for Egypt’s Jewish community, which at its peak numbered 80,000 and is now racing toward extinction.

Last weekend, 180 Jews from Europe, Israel and the United States traveled to the city of Alexandria on Egypt’s Mediterranean coast to attend religious ceremonies at a historic synagogue that was rescued from ruin. It was the largest such gathering of Jews in Egypt since they were pressured to leave during the Arab-Israeli wars of the 1950s and 1960s.

Egypt’s government paid for the $4 million synagogue renovation — part of a longstanding drive to rescue the country’s crumbling Jewish heritage which President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has stepped up.

Last year, Mr. el-Sisi ordered the renovation of a badly dilapidated Jewish cemetery which is one of the oldest in the world.

And he supported a scholarship project, run with the help of an Israeli scholar, that uncovered a rare, 1,000-year-old Hebrew Bible.

But Mr. el-Sisi’s embrace of Egyptian Jews is also awkward and laced with contradictions. The visit of 180 Jews took place under a news media blackout, with no coverage in Egyptian outlets, and amid iron-tight security by Egyptian officials who at times outnumbered their visitors.

Although Mr. el-Sisi paints himself as a moderate, he has done little to counteract anti-Semitism in Egyptian society, where Jews are often conflated with Israel, and where many young Egyptians know little of their country’s Jewish past — and how it ended.

“I’m full of questions,” said Philippe Ismalun, who fled Egypt after his father was arrested during the 1967 Middle East war. “After so many years of Jews being told that Egypt is not their country, not their home, it was puzzling to see the government spend so much money and effort on renovating the synagogue.”

In part, the answer is politics.

Perhaps 16 Egyptian Jews remain in Egypt — six in Cairo and another 10 in Alexandria, mostly in their 70s and 80s, according to community leaders in both cities. The government says it is rescuing their synagogues and cemeteries so Jewish heritage can take its rightful place alongside Egypt’s Pharaonic, Coptic and Islamic civilizations.

“It’s a message for Egyptians that we lived in a unique diversity — Jews, Christians, everyone — for millenniums,” Khaled El-Anany, Egypt’s minister for antiquities and tourism, said in an interview.

For Mr. el-Sisi, though, the good works also cement his foreign alliances. In recent years, Egypt has quietly allied with Israel to carry out secret airstrikes against the Islamic State in Sinai. Mr. el-Sisi’s officials were muted in their criticism of President Trump’s contentious plan to resolve the Israeli- Palestinian conflict.

Since Mr. Trump came to power in 2016, Mr. el-Sisi has hosted at least 10 delegations of American Jewish leaders at his presidential palace, apparently viewing them as a vehicle to leverage influence in Washington.

Last February, one of those delegations appealed for his help in saving Cairo’s Jewish cemetery, which had fallen into a woeful state.

Squatters had encroached on the ninth-century cemetery, building houses and stealing its marble tombstones. Sewage pooled in corners, goats roamed between graves and garbage was piled high in places.

Local criminals used the cemetery as a place to deal drugs or burn the rubber coating from stolen electrical cables, said Magda Haroun, the head of Cairo’s half-dozen strong Jewish community.

“It was in a terrible shape,” said Ms. Haroun, 67, whose sister’s grave lies beneath a squatter’s house.

A cleanup started within hours of Mr. el-Sisi’s meeting with the American group, she said. It has been continued by A Drop of Milk — an old Jewish welfare organization now dedicated to rescuing Jewish heritage, and composed mostly of Christian and Muslim volunteers.

“We’ve removed tons and tons of rubbish,” she said. “But there’s much more to be done.”

For many of the Jews who returned to Alexandria last weekend, the Shabbat service at the renovated Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue, an imposing neo-Classical structure that officially reopened in January, was an emotional moment.

A cavernous ark holds dozens of Torah scrolls collected from Alexandria’s other synagogues that have been sold to developers. Heavy wooden pews gleam with brass plaques bearing the names of Jewish families since scattered across the world.

Mr. Ismalun, who lives in Switzerland, brought along the kipa he wore as a child for his bar mitzvah in the same synagogue.

“It was very moving,” he said.

Yet many could not fail to notice that the news media had been barred from the event, and that not a single Egyptian government official had come along. Many said they felt isolated, and it raised a broader question about whether Mr. el-Sisi will allow ordinary Egyptians access to the synagogue that his government has so lavishly restored.

“The Egyptian attitude is between ambivalent and schizophrenic,” said Rabbi Andrew Baker of the American Jewish Committee, who noted that he also attended the reopening of a Cairo synagogue 10 years ago, under President Hosni Mubarak, which took place in similarly veiled conditions.

“The Egyptians appreciate that people have a positive view of this from abroad,” Rabbi Baker added. “But now that you have this beautiful synagogue, it’s fair to ask what purpose it will serve in the future.”

Egypt’s unresolved relationship with Israel is undoubtedly a factor. Despite a 1979 peace treaty, the two countries have not normalized relations, and public debate about the subject remains taboo in Cairo. In 2016, an Egyptian lawmaker was expelled from Parliament for inviting the Israeli ambassador to his home for dinner.

Copies of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” an anti-Semitic tract, are sold openly by street vendors in Cairo. After a spate of anti-Sisi protests in September, documents circulated on social media that purported to prove an old conspiracy theory that Mr. el-Sisi’s mother is secretly Jewish.

At the same time, there are signs of changing attitudes.

Documentaries about the last Egyptian Jews have received a warm reception from young Egyptians eager to know more. And the government authorized an Israeli scholar, Prof. Yoram Meital of Ben Gurion University, to help A Drop of Milk catalog thousands of Jewish scrolls and other relics in Cairo’s shuttered synagogues.

Two years ago, that led them to a goatskin parchment in the back of a closet — a handwritten document, dating from 1028, that covers the third part of the Hebrew Bible and is among the oldest copies of the Bible ever found.

“Many people think the final chapter on the Jewish community of Egypt has been written,” Mr. Meital said in an interview. “I believe the opposite is true — that its heritage has a future that is beginning now.”

Mr. el-Sisi’s outreach has its limits. Jewish leaders want access to a vast register of community records, dating back to 1830 and counting tens of thousands of pages, that catalog births, marriages, deaths and bar mitzvahs.

But Egyptian officials have sequestered the register inside the national archives and, despite a promise from Mr. el-Sisi, refused to provide any access, ostensibly for national security reasons.

“Those records are our heritage. They’re everything about us,” said Reginette Schafer, who left Egypt in 1954 and lives in Washington. “And we can’t get them out.”

For many, the test of Egypt’s commitment to celebrating its Jewish heritage may lie in how the renovated synagogues are used: whether they remain huddled behind armed policemen, as is currently the case, or can be opened to ordinary Egyptians as a monument to a part of their culture that is as old as the pyramids.

“That’s the real challenge,” said Rabbi Baker. “It’s the story you’re telling about this community, and whether you have faith that Egyptians will see it as something positive. That’s my hope.”

Mrs. Wolanski, driving around the Cairo district of Heliopolis with her husband and two sons, beamed with delight when she found her old school, St. Clare’s, where she had once been taught by Catholic nuns.

Later she posed for a photo outside a nearby synagogue where her father prayed, as armed policemen looked on.

But she couldn’t find rue du Metro, or her old apartment. She would save it for next time, she said, “when I come back with my grandchildren.”

Source: A Bittersweet Homecoming for Egypt’s JewsA rare ceremony at an ancient synagogue brought 180 Jews back to Egypt, decades after they were pressured to leave.

Rulings spark hope for Egyptian Copts fighting Islamic estate law

 Some apparent progress:

  • Egyptian courts have largely applied Islamic inheritance laws to both Muslims and the Coptic Christian minority

  • But Coptic Orthodox customs call for gender equality in inheritance matters

CAIRO: Egyptian Copt Amal Hanna says she is determined to fight the long-standing application of Islamic inheritance laws to Christians, as recent court victories embolden Coptic women.For decades, Egyptian courts have largely applied Islamic inheritance laws — which mostly allocate a bigger share of inheritances to men than to women — to both Muslims and the country’s significant Coptic Christian minority.But Coptic Orthodox customs call for gender equality in inheritance matters.
Hanna has twice been faced with the unbalanced division of family estates.
The first was more than 20 years ago, when a court granted her brother double her share of their parents’ property.
Then, after her aunt died last year, another court awarded the entire inheritance to Hanna’s brother.
“I was dumbstruck,” she said. “It really upset me, especially as my family raised us — me and my brother — as equals.”
Hanna has appealed against the ruling.
But Christian women’s hopes were rekindled late last year after Coptic lawyer Hoda Nasrallah and her brothers were granted an equal share of their father’s inheritance.
The November ruling by a Cairo family court took into account a constitutional article allowing Christian principles to be the basis of rulings on the minority’s personal status affairs.
Nasrallah’s rare victory generated a buzz across Egypt, but it was not the first of its kind.
In 2016, a Christian woman won a legal dispute with her brother, obtaining equal inheritance.
Coptic Christians have long complained of discrimination and underrepresentation in Egypt.
They are the largest non-Muslim religious minority in the Middle East, and account for 10-15 percent of Egypt’s predominantly Sunni Muslim population of 100 million.
They have also been the target of Islamist militant attacks that have left more than 100 dead since December 2016.
Elizabeth Monier, an expert on Coptic affairs at the University of Cambridge, said applying Christian inheritance rules would meet resistance from within the legal system.
Their application “has had to overcome resistance from entrenched practices and norms, both in the judiciary and society,” she said.
Though Nasrallah had already agreed with her brothers to split the estate equally, it took her around a year to have a court rule in her favor.
She said she pursued the case in order to set a legal precedent for other Christian women.
“My fight was about ensuring that the constitution is applied,” Nasrallah said.
“Many judges are against applying Christian norms,” she added. “It can be even more challenging when the heirs are in disagreement.”
Hanna also criticized a lack of legislation forcing judges to apply Christian rules.
In building her case, she said she invoked the constitution and used the 2016 ruling as precedent.
Hanna said she feared her appeal would be rejected, but would keep on challenging the decision.
“I will even take it to the constitutional court if I have to,” she said.
Lawyers say the lack of a personal status law for Christians is partly to blame for courts’ resistance.
“Coptic males sometimes push for Islamic laws to be applied since it’s in their interest,” lawyer Atef Nazmy said. “It is vital that a personal status law for Christians be created to regulate these issues.”
Christian denominations have for years been locked in talks over a unified personal status law.
They have yet to reach agreement or present a bill to parliament.
Nazmy said issues like divorce were at the core of the divisions.
Egypt’s strict Coptic Church applies rigid rules to divorce, granting it only in cases of adultery or conversion to other faiths.
Monier said courts might also resist granting Christian women equal inheritance because they fear Muslim women would seek the same rights.
In 2018, then Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi sparked controversy across the Islamic world by proposing a bill on equal inheritance for Muslim women.
The move drew praise from secularists and women’s rights activists across the region, but stern rebuke from Egypt’s Al-Azhar, the Sunni Muslim world’s most prestigious educational institution.
Despite the resistance, Monier remains optimistic.
“That a Coptic woman has taken her case to court and won suggests there is some progress being made,” she said.
“This is another step that is part of the journey toward greater gender equality.”

Source: Rulings spark hope for Egyptian Copts fighting Islamic estate law

Egypt Opens Citizenship By Investment Scheme

Given visa restrictions on Egyptian passport holders, not sure how attractive this will be as the article notes:

Egypt cabinet has approved new citizenship law paving way for foreign investors to seek fast track citizenship for investments in the country. The move is part of Egypt’s bid to boost its finances. Under the new citizenship by investment scheme, there are five paths to becoming an Egyptian national:

  1. Donation: $250,000 (donation to state treasury, non-refundable)
  2. Real Estate Investment: $500,000 (individuals or legal entities)
  3. Investment project: $400,000 (foreigner’s share in the project cannot be less than 40%)
  4. Bank Deposit: $750,000 (refundable after 5 years in the local currency, without interest)
  5. Bank Deposit: $1 million (refundable after 3 years in the local currency, without interest)

The amounts stipulated in the 4th and 5th items have to be deposited into a special account under the Central Bank of Egypt (CBE) treasury.

Prior to the latest rules, foreigners had to live in Egypt for ten consecutive years before applying for naturalization and citizenship, in general, was transferable through a father or mother.

Dual Citizenship: Persons who become naturalized Egyptian citizens may keep their original nationality if the other country permits it.

Egypt Passport Mobility: Egypt ranked No. 168 in the CEOWORLD magazine’s Global Passport Ranking for 2019, with 49 visa-free countries– but not, notably, the United States or the UK.

  • Asia: Cambodia, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Laos, Macao, Malaysia, Maldives, Nepal, Tajikistan, and Timor-Leste.
  • Africa: Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde Islands, Comores Islands, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritania, Mauritius, Mozambique, Rwanda, Senegal, Seychelles, Somalia, Tanzania, Togo, Uganda, Zimbabwe.
  • Oceania: Cook Islands, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Niue, Palau Islands, Samoa, and Tuvalu.
  • Caribbean: Dominica, Haiti, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
  • Americas: Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua.
  • Middle east: Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, and Yemen.

Egypt has no visa-free treaty with any major economic powers, such as the United States, China, Japan, Germany, United Kingdom, India, France, Italy, Brazil, and Canada. Citizenship by investment is a practice and a choice offered for many seeking a second nationality in the countries where they often travel to or have a business in.

Egypt’s economy: Egypt’s economy is projected to grow by 5.8% of GDP in 2020 and to see a growth rate of 5.7% in 2021, according to study. The annual inflation rate is predicted to fall from 13.9 percent in 2019 to 5.9 percent in 2020. Egypt’s tourism is projected to hit a record of $15.1 billion in 2020 and $17.3 billion in 2021.

It also expected an increase in the volume of foreign direct investments to register $6.3 billion in 2020 and $7.3 billion in 2021. It expected that the country’s tax revenues will rise from $43.5 billion in 2019 to $53 billion in 2020 and to $58.6 billion in 2021.

The primary budget surplus will go up by 2.1% of GDP in 2020 and 2.2% in 2021, while the fiscal balance is projected to hit $26.8 billion in 2020 and $27.3 billion in 2021.

It suggested that the foreign debt will recede to 17.2% of GDP in 2020 and to 16.7% in 2021, the country’s foreign reserves will register $43.5 billion in 2020 and $41.7 billion in 2021.

Source: Egypt Opens Citizenship By Investment Scheme