Human Rights

ROLL CALL Opinion - Swett: Lautenberg Amendment a Lifeline for Iranian Refugees

By Katrina Lantos Swett
Special to Roll Call
Sept. 6, 2012, 11:44 p.m.

An unmarried Baha'i woman spent three years in Iran's notorious Evin Prison charged with being a spy for Israel and the United States. She was told: "To destroy you, we have to destroy your community, your meetings and your prayers." She hopes to live "as a free Baha'i in the U.S." and wants to be sure that "no one will look at me as someone who doesn't belong in society."

An unmarried Christian woman fled Iran after she was forced to join a mosque and develop a relationship with a mullah who stalked her daily. She fears the mullah would kill her if she were forced to return.

A husband and wife who are Mandaeans - religious followers of John the Baptist - fled Iran with their two children after enduring a lifetime of religious persecution. Suffering from physical developmental delays and epilepsy, the daughter had been denied medical care because of her religion.

What do these people have in common, besides fleeing Iran? They were able to seek safety and freedom in the United States thanks to a provision in U.S. law known as the Lautenberg Amendment. Authored by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), this law is a needed lifeline for religious minorities, including Jews, Christians and Baha'is, to escape religious persecution in former Soviet nations and now Iran.

They also share the fervent hope that the Lautenberg Amendment will continue offering a lifeline to others. It is now up to Congress to make sure that happens. Enacted as part of the 1990 Foreign Operations Appropriations Act, the Lautenberg Amendment has been reauthorized ever since. Unless Congress extends its life, it is set to expire Sept. 30.

The Lautenberg Amendment offers vital protections for historically persecuted groups seeking refugee status by establishing a presumption of eligibility and allowing fast-track processing to prevent undue backlogs in "third" countries that host their processing. Such processing is vital for those who flee countries, such as Iran, which do not have U.S. embassies. Without such assurances, "third" countries probably would not provide transit visas permitting persecuted individuals to be processed in safety on their soil.

The amendment neither increases the number of refugees the United States accepts each year nor requires any special appropriated funds. Rather, it recognizes the unique situations these groups continue to face. The small number of refugees who qualify each year are fully screened and vetted.

The Mandaeans, Christians, Bahai's and others who have fled Iran seek refuge from a country that the Secretary of State each year since 1999 has designated a "Country of Particular Concern" under the International Religious Freedom Act for egregious, ongoing and systematic violations of freedom of religion or belief.

According to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which I chair, religious freedom conditions in Iran have regressed to a point not seen since the early days of the Islamic revolution more than 30 years ago. Religious minorities, including Baha'is, Christians, and Sufi Muslims, along with recognized non-Muslim religious minorities - Jews, Armenian and Assyrian Christians, and Zoroastrians - who are protected under Iran's constitution, face increased discrimination, arrests and imprisonment.

The Lautenberg Amendment enjoys strong support from both parties in Congress. Given the many issues that Congress must wrestle with in September, we urge lawmakers to put the Lautenberg Amendment at the top of the agenda and swiftly reauthorize this measure, sending the unmistakable message that religious freedom matters, as do the lives and safety of the persecuted.

Katrina Lantos Swett is chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

Lantos Foundation statement on the death of Oswaldo Paya

The Lantos Foundation joins countless others in mourning the tragic death of Oswaldo Paya, one of Cuba’s foremost human rights leaders. Paya, a devout Roman Catholic, drew strength from his faith as he relentlessly pressed for democratic change in his homeland for over three decades. He was one of the chief organizers of the Varela Project, a peaceful grass roots petition drive that was the single largest challenge to the repressive decades long rule of Fidel Castro. He was also an original founder of the Christian Liberation Movement which emphasized non-violent civic action. Congressman Lantos was a great admirer of Oswaldo Paya and considered him to be one of the true heroes of democracy in the Western hemisphere.

Questions have been raised about the death of Paya in a car accident in La Gavina, near the eastern city of Bayamo. There are allegations that his car may have been pushed off the road and there have been numerous calls for an independent investigation into the circumstances surrounding his death.

Katrina Lantos Swett, President of the Lantos Foundation said;

“The Lantos Foundation concurs with those who have asked that there be a free and independent accounting of the events that led to the untimely death of this great man. The world is poorer today for the loss of a man of such integrity, courage, and faith but no doubt heaven has been made richer by the arrival of Oswaldo Paya. May his work for a free, democratic and peaceful Cuba continue with renewed strength in honor of his memory”.

Katrina Lantos Swett Testimony - Escalating Violence Against Coptic Women and Girls: Will The New Egypt Be More Dangerous Than the Old?

TESTIMONY BY DR. KATRINA LANTOS SWETT ON BEHALF OF THE UNITED STATES COMMISSION ON INTERNATIONAL RELIGIOUS FREEDOM GIVEN BEFORE THE UNITED STATES COMMISSION ON SECURITY AND COOPERATION IN EUROPE AT THE HEARING ENTITLED ESCALATING VIOLENCE AGAINST COPTIC WOMEN AND GIRLS:  WILL THE NEW EGYPT BE MORE DANGEROUS THAN THE OLD?
 
JULY 18, 2012
 
Thank you for the opportunity to testify today before the Helsinki Commission on “Escalating Violence against Coptic Women and Girls:  Will the New Egypt be More Dangerous than the Old?”  I have been asked today to give an overview about the general status of and conditions for religious freedom in Egypt, especially for Coptic Christians. I request that my statement be entered into the record.
 
Since its inception nearly 15 years ago, USCIRF has been deeply engaged on Egypt and for good reason:  For our entire existence, and indeed, prior to our creation, religious freedom conditions, including those of Egypt’s Coptic population, have been extremely problematic.  This situation continues into the present and with the election of Mohammed Morsi, the first freely elected President of Egypt, on June 30. The Egyptian transitional government continues to engage in and tolerate systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of freedom of religious freedom.   Discriminatory and repressive laws and policies remain that restrict freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief. Given these concerns, and for the second year in a row, USCIRF recommended in its 2012 Annual Report that Egypt be designated a “country of particular concern,” or CPC, under the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA). I also request that USCIRF’s 2012 Annual Report chapter on Egypt be entered into the record.
 
From the evidence we have seen, the biggest problem faced by the Copts, who comprise about 10 to 15 per cent of Egypt’s 80 million people, continues to be one of impunity.  Simply stated, for decades, Egypt’s government has fostered a climate conducive to acts of violence against Copts and members of other minority communities. It has done so in at least two ways. First, Cairo’s long history of restrictive laws and policies -- from blasphemy codes to an Emergency Law to across-the-board discrimination -- has drawn unwelcome attention to religious minorities, further marginalizing them and leading to violent words and deeds launched by intolerant individuals as well as by radical religious groups.  
 
Second, the government’s continued failure to protect innocent people from these attacks and to convict those responsible has served to encourage further assaults. For years, President Mubarak’s government tolerated widespread discrimination against religious minorities and disfavored religious groups, from dissident Sunni and Shi’a Muslims to Baha’is, as well as Copts and other Christians, while allowing state-controlled media and state-funded mosques to deliver incendiary messages against them.  The consequences of the climate of impunity are especially apparent in Upper Egypt. 
 
After Mubarak’s departure, a breakdown in security and a rise in sectarian violence made 2011 one of the worst years for Copts and other minorities. Last year alone, violent sectarian attacks killed approximately 100 people, surpassing the death toll of the previous 10 years combined.    As during the Mubarak regime, Copts were the primary target, and most of the perpetrators still have not been brought to justice: perpetrators have not been convicted or alleged perpetrators have been detained for short periods, but eventually released without charge.   While USCIRF’s 2012 Annual Report chapter on Egypt includes a list of some of the most tragic acts of violence committed against the Coptic Orthodox community, let me note the following significant incident: Last October, Egypt’s state media falsely accused Copts of attacking the military when Muslim and Christian protestors marched toward the state television station.  Following the state media’s call on civilians to counter this imaginary threat, on October 9, in downtown Cairo, armed men attacked peaceful demonstrators, killing at least 26 of them, most of them Copts, while injuring over 300 more. Responding to the violence, Egypt’s military used live ammunition and also deployed armored vehicles that deliberately crushed and killed at least 12 protestors. 
 
In addition, reports in recent years support claims that there were cases of Muslim men forcing Coptic Christian women to convert to Islam.  The State Department has asserted that such cases are often disputed and include “inflammatory allegations and categorical denials of kidnapping and rape.”  For example, there were credible cases in which Coptic girls voluntarily converted to Islam to marry Muslim men, and subsequently, when the relationship failed, sought to return to Christianity.  Nevertheless, during the reporting period, experts and human rights groups have found that there were also credible cases where Coptic Christian women were lured deceptively into marriages with Muslim men and forced to convert to Islam.  According to these reports, if a woman returns or escapes from the marriage and wants to convert back to Christianity, she faces the same legal hurdles in changing her religious affiliation on official identity documents as discussed above.
 
In recent years, in response to sectarian violence, Egyptian authorities have conducted “reconciliation” sessions between Muslims and Christians as a way of easing tensions and resolving disputes.  In some cases, authorities compelled victims to abandon their claims to any legal remedy. USCIRF has stated that reconciliation efforts should not be used to undermine enforcing the law and punishing perpetrators for wrongdoing. In recent years, the State Department concluded that reconciliation sessions not only “prevented the prosecution of perpetrators of crimes against Copts and precluded their recourse to the judicial system for restitution” but also “contributed to a climate of impunity that encouraged further assaults.” 
 
For all Christian groups, government permission is required to build a new church or repair an existing one, and the approval process for church construction is time-consuming and inflexible.  Former President Mubarak had the authority to approve applications for new construction of churches.  Although most of these applications were submitted more than five years ago, the majority have not received a response.  Even some permits that have been approved cannot, in fact, be acted upon because of interference by the state security services at both the local and national levels. 
 
In 2005, former President Mubarak devolved authority to approve the renovation and re-construction of churches from the president to the country’s governors.  Several years later, some churches continue to face delays in the issuance of permits.  Even in cases where approval to build or maintain churches has been granted, many Christians complain that local security services have prevented construction or repair, in some cases for many years.  In addition, local security services have been accused of being complicit in inciting violence against some churches undergoing routine maintenance or repair.  In recent years, the government repeatedly has pledged, most recently in October 2011, to adopt a new law that would apply to all places of worship.  In June, after consulting with religious leaders and other experts, the SCAF released publicly a draft version of the law.  The draft was criticized widely by Muslims, Christians, and Egyptian human rights groups. While a subsequent version has not been made public, some reports have indicated that the revised draft law covers only churches and not other places of worship.
 
This is not to say there has been no progress since the end of the Mubarak regime.   To be sure, we have seen some hopeful developments.  Last year, the Grand Sheikh at Al-Azhar began several initiatives expressing support for freedom of religion or belief.  In May of last year, the government began to reopen more than 50 churches that had been closed, in some cases for years. Last July, the Supreme Administrative Court ruled that reconverts to Christianity could obtain new national identity documents indicating their Christianity but not their former Muslim faith. And following the October violence, the transitional government took steps to reduce discrimination in Egypt’s Penal Code. 
 
Yet despite this progress, the bottom line is this: Copts need to be protected, Copts aren’t being protected, and Copts must be protected -- along with every other member of Egyptian society -- from attacks on their right to order their lives and practice their beliefs in dignity and peace.   
 
As long as Copts and other religious minorities aren’t being sufficiently protected, USCIRF will continue to spotlight the problem and recommend that the U.S. government take strong action in support of religious freedom.  Our recommendations to the United States government are as follows:
 
First, the United States should press Egypt to improve religious freedom conditions, by repealing discriminatory decrees against religious minorities, removing religion from official identity documents, abolishing the blasphemy codes, and passing a unified law for the construction and repair of places of worship.  
 
Second, the United States should urge Egypt’s government to prosecute government-funded clerics, government officials, or any other individuals who incite violence, while disciplining or dismissing government-funded clerics who preach intolerance and hatred.
 
Third, the United States should increase pressure on Egypt to bring to justice those who have committed violence against fellow Egyptians on account of their religion.
 
Fourth, Washington should press Cairo to include robust protections for religious freedom in a new constitution.
 
Fifth, the U.S. Congress should require the Departments of State and Defense to report every 90 days on the Egyptian government’s progress pertaining to religious freedom and related rights.
 
Sixth, until genuine progress occurs, USCIRF renews its call for the United States to designate Egypt a “country of particular concern” as one of the world’s most serious religious freedom abusers.
 
And finally, if Egypt demonstrates a commitment to progress on freedom of religion and related rights, the United States should ensure that a portion of its military aid to Egypt is used to help Egypt’s police implement a plan to enhance protection for religious minorities, their places of worship, and places where they congregate.
 
Today, as Egypt confronts the rigors of democratic transition, will it uphold the rights of Copts and other religious minorities?   The world is watching, the Helsinki Commission is watching, and USCIRF is watching, too. Thank you again for this opportunity to testify.

Katrina Lantos Swett Testimony - Escalating Violence Against Coptic Women and Girls: Will The New Egypt Be More Dangerous Than the Old?

Roll Call: Swett -- Egyptian Tolerance Is Democracy Barometer

TheTreatment of Coptic Christians and Other Religious Minorities Poses a Cause for Concern

Since its inception almost 15 years ago, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, on which I serve, has been deeply concerned about conditions for freedom of religion or belief in Egypt.

Among its concerns is the deteriorating status of Egypt’s religious minority communities, including its population of Coptic Christians.

It began when President Hosni Mubarak was still in power; it continues today under the new government. How Egypt treats this challenge going forward may be a telling indicator of its commitment to a full transition to democracy.

From the evidence we’ve seen, the central problem Copts face remains of impunity. Simply stated, for decades, Egypt’s government has fostered a climate conducive to acts of violence against its Coptic citizens, as well as members of other minority communities.

It has done so in at least two ways.

First, Cairo’s long history of restrictive laws and policies — from blasphemy codes to an emergency law to open, across-the-board discrimination — has marginalized religious minorities and led to violent words and deeds by intolerant individuals as well as byradical religious groups.

Second, the government’s continued failure to protect innocent individuals from these attacks and to convict those responsible has served to encourage further assaults.

For years, Mubarak’s government tolerated widespread discrimination against religious minorities and disfavored religious groups, from dissident Sunni and Shiite Muslims to Baha’is, as well as Copts and other Christians, while allowing state-controlled media and state-funded mosques to deliver incendiary messages against them.

After Mubarak’s departure, a breakdown in security and a rise in sectarian violence made 2011 one of the worst years for Copts and other minorities. Violent sectarian attacks killed about 100 people, surpassing the death toll of the previous 10 years combined. As during the Mubarak regime, Copts were the primary target, and most of the perpetrators still have not been brought to justice.

Last October, Egypt’s state media falsely accused Copts of attacking the military when Muslim and Christian protesters marched toward the state television station.

After the state media’s call on civilians to counter this supposed threat, on Oct. 9, armed men attacked peaceful demonstrators in downtown Cairo, killing at least 26 of them, most of them Copts, while injuring more than 300.

In response to the violence, Egypt’s military used live ammunition and also deployed armored vehicles that deliberately crushed and killed at least 12 protesters.

This is not to say there has been no progress since the end of the Mubarak regime.

To be sure, there have been a number of hopeful developments.

Last year, Al-Azhar University published statements expressing support for freedom of religion or belief. In May 2011, the government began to reopen more than 50 churches that had been closed, in some cases for years. Last July, the Supreme Administrative Court ruled that reconverts to Christianity could obtain new national identity documents indicating their Christianity but not their former Muslim faith. After the October violence, the transitional government took steps to reduce discrimination in Egypt’s Penal Code.

Yet despite such evidence of progress, the bottom line is this:

Copts need to be protected, Copts aren’t being protected, and Copts must be protected, along with every other member of Egyptian society. They have a right to order their lives and practice their beliefs in dignity and peace.

So long as the problem exists, we will continue to highlight it and recommend that the U.S. government take strong action in support of religious freedom.

First, the United States should press Egypt’s government to reverse long-standing policy by repealing discriminatory decrees against religious minorities, removing religion from official identity documents, abolishing the blasphemy codes and passing aunified law for the construction and repair of places of worship.

Second, Washington should urge Cairo to prosecute government-funded clerics, government officials or any other individuals who incite violence, while disciplining or dismissing government-funded clerics who fan the flames of intolerance and hatred.

Third, it should increase pressure on Egypt to bring to justice those who have committed violence against fellow Egyptians on account of their religion.

Fourth, the U.S. government should press the Egyptians to include robust protections for freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief in a new constitution.

Fifth, Congress should require the Departments of State and Defense to report every 90 days on the Egyptian government’s progress pertaining to religious freedom and related rights.

Sixth, until genuine progressoccurs, USCIRF renews its call for the United States to designate Egypt a “country of particular concern” as one of the world’s most serious religious freedom abusers.

Finally, if Egypt demonstrates a commitment to progress on freedom of religion and related rights, the United States should ensure that a portion of its military aid to Egypt be used to help Egypt’s police improve protection for religious minorities and their places of worship.

Today, as Egypt confronts therigors of democratic transition, will it embrace the rights of Copts and other religious minorities and commit to a truly democratic future, characterized by  respect for rule of law and the full panoply of human rights, including the right to freedom of religion?

The world awaits an answer.

Lantos Foundation Statement on Discrimination by Turkish Airlines

The recently announced partnership between the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice and the Roosevelt Institute to re-establish the FDR International Disability Rights Award (FDRIDRA) is intended to raise awareness of the needs and rights of persons with disabilities. The recent experience of FDRIDRA Advisory Board Member Kersen DeJong onboard Turkish Airlines tangibly demonstrates the vital need for greater support and understanding this Award is meant to encourage.

When Mr. DeJong boarded a Turkish Airlines flight from Istanbul to Amsterdam this past week, he was refused a seat that would accommodate his disability: two artificial legs. After being denied both bulkhead seating and an aisle seat, he was forced to separate his artificial legs from his upper body and drag himself to his seat with his hands. His artificial limbs were then stored by airline staff in an overhead compartment away from his assigned seat. All of this occurred while the flight crew and passengers looked on. At the end of the flight, Dutch customs officers had to assist him in literally putting himself back together before he could leave the airport.

“This incident is a shocking reminder of the challenges people with disabilities face every day. Mr. DeJong is a man of stature and well informed about disability laws, including laws governing public transportation and persons with disabilities. While he handled this deplorable incident with strength and determination, one shudders to think how a less informed and experienced person with a disability would be able to endure such a mortifying experience,” said Katrina Lantos Swett, President of the Lantos Foundation. “We call on Turkish Airlines to apologize to Mr. DeJong and work to establish policies and practices that accommodate all of their travelers comfortably and compassionately.”

The FDR International Disability Award encourages and recognizes countries that make meaningful progress in upholding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The UN Convention originated in 2007 and currently has 153 signatories and has been ratified by 112 countries.

Though the United States signed the Convention in 2009, the United States Senate has not yet ratified it. On May 17th, just one week before Mr. DeJong’s appalling experience on Turkish Airlines, President Obama sent the treaty to the Senate where it currently awaits approval. If you are as outraged as we are about Mr. DeJong’s treatment, we encourage you to contact your Senators and urge them to support ratification of the UN Convention for Persons with Disabilities immediately.

Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice Sponsors Monks Visit

“Days of Peace and Harmony” continue Through the Weekend at Canterbury Shaker Village”

On Wednesday the Tibetan Buddhist Monks from the Drepung Gomang Monastery arrived at Shaker Village in Canterbury for The Peace and Harmony Program. Their visit is part of their annual tour to support the monastery and the 2,000 monks who currently reside there in exile from China.
 
The support given by the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice is part of their ongoing commitment to human rights in China. In 2009, the Lantos Foundation drew the criticism of the Chinese government when they awarded the Lantos Human Rights Prize to Tibet spiritual leader, His Holiness the Dalai Lama in recognition of his lifelong commitment to the peaceful promotion of human rights for the people of Tibet [Autonomous Region of China]. “In honor of His Holiness the Dalia Lama and in remembrance of the dozens of Tibetans who have tragically set themselves on fire this past year to protest repressive Chinese rule, we are pleased to sponsor this event as a peaceful way to bring attention to the issue of human rights abuses in China and Tibet [Autonomous Region of China].” said Katrina Lantos Swett, President of the Lantos Foundation.
 
Open to the public, the main events are scheduled for this weekend, including a costumed Snow Lion Dance performance, a participatory Om Mani Padme Hum stone painting activity, and the dispersion of the vibrantly colored sacred sand mandala at the conclusion of their visit.
 
For more information call Shaker Village at (603) 783-9511 x230 or visit their event page at shakers.org. Suggested donations are appreciated.