Electoral coordinators prepare to count ballots at a school used as a polling station in Cairo May 24. Egyptian voters of many ages, occupations and beliefs stood in line for hours to cast their ballots for a new president. The winner would replace Hosn i Mubarak, deposed in an uprising last year. (CNS photo/Asmaa Waguih, Reuters)

WASHINGTON (CNS) — As Egyptians began voting to replace ousted President Hosni Mubarak, Christian minorities were anxious to see if the next government would end restrictions on religious freedom and attacks on religious minorities that had been on the rise the past couple of years.

Egypt was one of 16 countries that the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom singled out for particular concern in its 2012 annual report, released in March. Egypt made the list for the second year in a row.

“Over the past year, the Egyptian transitional government continued to engage in and tolerate systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief,” the report said.

Violent sectarian attacks targeted Coptic Orthodox Christians in 2011, it said. About 100 Copts were killed, according to the report, surpassing the death toll of the previous decade. In most of the more than 40 sectarian attacks, the perpetrators were not convicted, the report said.

“This high level of violence and the failure to convict those responsible continued to foster a climate of impunity, making further violence more likely,” the report said.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom reported that the transitional government also failed to prevent the Egyptian media from vilifying religious groups including Coptic Christians, Jews and Baha’is.

That classification as a “country of particular concern” encourages the State Department to take diplomatic and economic actions intended to improve religious freedom in those countries.

The commission members and Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Michael Posner have discussed religious violence in Egypt, as well as in China. Posner visited Egypt in April of last year.

The other countries listed for concern this year were Myanmar, North Korea, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, China, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam.

As in Egypt, many of the violations of religious freedom included attacks on religious minority members, it said.

“Across much of the Middle East, Christian communities that have been a presence for nearly 20 centuries have experienced severe declines in population, aggravating their at-risk status in the region,” the report said.

In Nigeria, Muslim-Christian violence resulted in more than 800 deaths, the displacement of 65,000 people and the destruction of churches and Mosques in 2011, it said.

The report cited blasphemy laws in Pakistan and Egypt as creating an environment of chronic violence, especially after the March 2, 2011, assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti.

Bhatti, a Catholic who was Pakistan’s federal minister for minority affairs, was and a longtime religious freedom advocate. China’s Tibetan Buddhists and Uighur Muslims also suffered the worst attacks in decades it said.

The commission also maintains a watch list of countries where it says trends need to be monitored before they become severe religious freedom violations. The list includes Afghanistan, Belarus, Cuba, India, Indonesia, Laos, Russia, Somalia, and Venezuela.

Egypt had been on the commission’s watch list since 2002.

The recommendations to the U.S. government about Egypt emphasized the need to “press the transitional, and future civilian government to undertake reforms to improve religious freedom conditions, including repealing decrees banning religious minority faiths, removing religion from official identity documents, and passing a unified law for the construction and repair of places of worship.”

In Egypt, some changes have started to take place, the report said. In early 2012, the Egyptian Supreme Council of Armed Forces, known for using deadly force against opponents and protesters lifted the “Emergency Law” under which it restricted human rights such as freedom of religion. The supreme council took control of Egypt after Mubarak was removed from power in February 2011.

Other recommendations include holding sectarian groups accountable. In Egypt, where the Arab Spring took off in 2010, the report said extremist groups’ violence also rose during the countries’ transition. Sufi Muslims were targeted, with attacks on at least five Sufi shrines in Cairo as well as other actions against Coptic Christians and other minorities, it said.

The report cited Egypt’s blasphemy laws affecting other groups and individuals, including Ahmadis, Quranists, Christians, and Sunni, Shiite, and Sufi Muslims. Under the law, members of religious groups who hold other than the mainstream Islamic beliefs or whose beliefs are considered potentially harmful to the community may be detained and prosecuted. On Feb. 1, a comedian from Cairo was sentenced to three months in prison for “contempt of religion” and fined because of the characters he portrayed.

Another source of concern listed by the commission is the accusation by outside sources that Saudi Arabia is financing extremist sectarian groups in Egypt. The commission made note of reports saying Saudi Arabia has funded similar practices across the Middle East and into parts of Africa, Asia, and Europe.

The commission continued to list Saudi Arabia’s involvement in funding “religious schools, mosques, hate literature, and other activities that support religious intolerance and, in some cases, violence toward non-Muslims and disfavored Muslims.”

The commission was established by the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act. The law also established the Office of International Religious Freedom in the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, whose staff monitors religious persecution and discrimination worldwide.

The commission is an independent, bipartisan government agency charged with reviewing violations of religious freedom throughout the world and making appropriate policy recommendations to the president, secretary of state and Congress.

—By Maria-Pia Negro, Catholic News Service