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Egyptians recently warned three members of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) to tread lightly.

The three visited Egypt March 20-24—during a time of heightened tensions and skepticism toward American initiatives in the Middle East—as part of a regional tour including Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the occupied territories.

The commission later asked President George W. Bush to raise the issue of religious freedom during an April visit of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Churches must obtain government permission to build or repair their facilities. Christians are frequently discriminated against, in hiring and promotion, by private employers.

The delegation met with Coptic Orthodox Pope Shenouda III and Sheikh Mohammed Sayed Tantawi of Cairo's Al-Azhar University, the world's premier educational institution for Sunni Muslims. Others—including Mufti Farid Wassel; No'man Goma'a, leader of the 2-million-member liberal Wafid Party; and prominent human-rights activists—refused to meet with the delegation.

"The U.S. does not have the right to act as the protector of human rights in the world," says Abdel Mo'ti Bayoumi, head of the Theological College of Al-Azhar. "See how they guarded human rights in Iraq and Palestine? That was far from evenhanded."

Hisham Kassem, chairman of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, said he is concerned about U.S. government interest in Christian rights in Egypt. "Is it in line with Christian faith to behave like a bull in a china shop and jeopardize the well-being of Christians in Egypt?" Kassem asks. "Pushing for the rights of Christians in a country [that] is perhaps 10 percent Christian and 90 percent Muslim is bound to lead to ill feelings from Muslims, which ...

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May 21, 2001

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