If Egypt's "Arab Spring" is allowed to devolve into empowerment for religious extremism at the expense of liberty and freedom, the world will have lost a marvelous opportunity, and security in North Africa and the Middle East will have taken a giant step backward.
The violence that has wracked Egypt in recent days, seemingly aimed mostly at Coptic Christians, needs to become a major priority for the Obama administration. There are strategic concerns. Egypt, whose peaceful relations with Israel extends back to the administration of Jimmy Carter, is now home to strong voices that would renew old hatreds. The administration cannot afford to let such a large and strategic partner become another threat to peace in the region.
But there are moral concerns, as well. President Obama has spoken eloquently about the need to protect religious freedom as a fundamental human right. The United Nations declared it a universal human right in its Declaration of Human Rights, as well as in other documents. Religious freedom is a bellwether for the condition of a nation's populace. Research has shown a link between a lack of such freedom and religious terrorism. An atmosphere that allows all believers to organize, express themselves and be politically active lessens the amount of violence and extremism.
In Egypt, it appears extremist groups have taken advantage of the slowness of the nation's ruling military council to organize free and open elections after the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak in February. Recent violence has pitted Coptic Christians against hard-line Muslims and Egyptian security forces. Christians make up about 10 percent of the nation's population. They are protesting what they see as the systematic destruction of Christian churches without any real attempts by government forces to hold perpetrators accountable.
Writing for hudson-ny.org, Raymond Ibrahim, a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center, said Muslim extremists insisted one old Coptic church be free of crosses and bells when it is renovated, even though such things were granted in permits by local government officials. Then they insisted the church's dome be removed. When the church refused, Copts were forbidden to shop in local stores or to even leave their homes. Finally, the church was burned.
Against this backdrop, Congress has been reluctant to renew funding for the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent, bipartisan body created in 1998 to advise the president and Congress. The commission was part of a continuing resolution that kept the government going until November, but its existence remains in peril, and many in Congress do not seem to grasp its importance. That is evidence of a stunning lack of appreciation for the role of the United States in such matters.
This is one issue the president could influence through strong action. He ought to cajole Congress into renewing the commission, reminding them of the central importance of religious freedom to this nation's founding, and he ought to do all in his power to ensure that Egypt knows Washington will not tolerate violence toward any people based on their religious beliefs. Failing to do so now could lead to many more problems for the United States in coming years.