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EGYPT: Revolution Brings Religious Freedom to Sinai

Mohammed Omer

EL-ARISH, Egypt, Jun 1 2011 (IPS) - Abu Sumaia’a Al Suoarki is 29 years old and a Muslim, according to the personal identification card issued by the Egyptian government. These days, however, his religious belief is no longer just a detail on his ID card, but is something he openly practices every day.

The Al Qaramani mosque in El-Arish is now accessible to Bedouins. Credit: Mohammed Omer/IPS.

The Al Qaramani mosque in El-Arish is now accessible to Bedouins. Credit: Mohammed Omer/IPS.

Al Souarki is now able to go to the mosque for dawn prayers, cite verses from the Quran, join Muslim youth sessions and attend seminars after Maghrib, the fourth prayer of the day. These were things he could not do without being summoned by the Egyptian State Security, before the revolution last February.

“Today, I am breathing religious freedom,” said the young Bedouin man. The holy month of Ramadan, beginning in August, will be a new chance for him—and many other young Egyptian Muslims in the Sinai area in eastern Egypt—to practice their religion and socialise without being harassed by security forces.

In Egypt, though all share the same language, culture and heritage, personal ID cards display the citizen’s religion, even as the government recognises the Abrahamic faiths: Islam, Christianity and Judaism.

The regime of deposed president Hosni Mubarak oppressed many religious sects and their followers, including Muslim scholars who were prevented from teaching in Sinai.

Among those treated as second-class citizens were members of the Bedouin desert tribe, like Al Souarki. An estimated 1.3 million Bedouins live in Sinai, and experienced discrimination in employment and public services, with their religious freedoms curtailed.

The human rights watchdog group U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, in its 2011 annual report, labelled Egypt a “country of particular concern” for the “systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom.”

This violation of religious freedoms apparently focused primarily on Muslims, but covered Christians as well. Last January, this IPS correspondent witnessed a leader of Egypt’s Coptic Christian Orthodox Church in the northern city of Mansoura approach State Security for permission to illuminate the church’s roof. Permission was given, although “any further lighting should be announced to the State Security branch office in Mansoura,” the Egyptian officer-in-charge said.

Also in Mansoura, Egyptian Professor Ahmad Rasem El-Nafis had been banned from travelling and was arrested three times, he said, because of his belief in the Shiite Muslim doctrine. A majority of Egyptians belong to the Sunni Muslim sect.

In 2009, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, an independent human rights organisation, reported that prosecutors in Samalut, a city on the west bank of the Nile River, investigated a Coptic man for “holding religious rites, with no permit, in his house.”

Other cases include the blocking by security forces of two websites belonging to the Salafist sect, which advocates a literal interpretation of the Quran.

But all that changed with the revolution. Last week, the Rafah Elementary School started a religious and political awareness programme where experts in law, freedoms and Sharia (Islamic law) focus on students’ ability to freely express their views.

At the head of the morning queue to the school was Sheikh Raed Al Attar whose task is to educate students and teachers on the correct concepts of Islam for development and stability. Social science teachers see this as an initial step towards freedom of expression, tapping everyone’s positive energies and views.

Muslim scholars who were previously denied travel permits to Sinai have now been allowed in. For Al Suoarki, this represents “the triumph of the Egyptian revolution” for freedom of religious expression.

On a tour to some of the mosques in the cities of El-Arish and Rafah, in the north of Sinai, Sheikh Abu Khalid Al Tarabin recalled that religious oppression, beatings and torture by the old Mubarak regime were “the reason why a few of the religious youth, under oppression, blew themselves up in desperation.”

Now things are different. “Every day, we hear Muslim scholars and clerics preaching the correct concepts of Islam and not radicalism… we are able to hear more voices talking about the sanctity of blood,” Al Tarabin said.

He expects this religious freedom in Sinai will open the youth up to a better understanding of their own religion. “Hanging people for 90 days in Lazoghly State Security prison is not the way to go,” he said, referring to a friend who was tortured and now suffers permanent damage.

As a Bedouin, Al Tarabin recalled occasions when he was arrested for praying on the last 10 nights of Ramadan, following the 2004 Hilton Taba bombing which killed 34 tourists.

“It seemed to be an arbitrary order to arrest everyone praying in the mosque,” he said.

However, Al Suoarki sees the other side of this religious freedom as a challenge. “We have always been represented as those devils who oppress women, forcing them to wear jilbab and niqab (a long garment and face cover), and who beat people for drinking alcohol and smoking,” he lamented.

“The time has come,” he said with a smile, “to prove those people wrong, as the end of the oppressive regime and the birth of religious freedom will now bring a new type of youth which is ready to integrate with the community and learn the correct Islamic Sharia and Quran, and thus separate Islam from isolated extremism.”

For him and other youth, this has been largely missing and unthinkable in the past three decades of the Mubarak regime, or what the youth now call “the old days of oppression.”

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