U.S. lawmakers are warning Egypt that their support for foreign aid to that country will depend on the Egyptian government doing more to protect the rights of Christian Copts.
Members of Congress called a news conference Wednesday to express concern that the Egyptian government is not doing enough to prevent violence against the country's Christian Copts.
Last month, violence broke out in the northern city of Alexandria after rumors spread that a Coptic Christian church was distributing video recordings of a two-year-old theater performance that Muslims said insulted Islam. Police used tear gas and rubber bullets to respond to the incident, which left three people dead.
Congressman Frank Wolf, a Virginia Republican, says Egyptian officials have been at best lax and, at worst, criminally negligent in the October 21st riots. He says it is part of a disturbing trend.
"Egypt's Copts are being pressed from all sides, as we can see from the reports coming out of Egypt," said Mr. Wolf. "They face a hostile state media, which is at times virulent in its anti-Semitic and anti-Copt rhetoric. They face growing hostility as a minority population, and they face a government that is savvy in its rhetoric to appease the international community, but continues to engage in outright persecution and more subtle forms of discrimination and harassment."
Other lawmakers cited an increase in attacks on the Copts' churches, property and businesses, as well as reports of abductions of young Coptic girls with the aim of forcing them to convert to Islam.
Egypt is the second largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid. Some lawmakers are considering linking that assistance with improvements in Egypt's record on human rights and, in particular, religious freedom.
Senator Sam Brownback is a Kansas Republican.
"We are going to start looking at the issue of religious freedom in Egypt in context of our overall relationship, including that of foreign aid with Egypt," said Mr. Brownback. "We have not pressed this issue as much in the past as I believe we should have. We are going to press it much more in the future because the progress is not being made. Indeed, it is getting worse."
Congressman Tom Tancredo, a Colorado Republican, echoed the comments.
"I for one have been a strong supporter of Egypt. I have supported every request for aid in terms of foreign aid package that we put together every year on the House side," he said. "I will continue to do so based a lot upon what happens here, in terms of the way this issue is dealt with in Egypt and in terms of the way the Egyptian government takes this up."
The news conference came on the same day that Egyptian voters went to the polls in the first round of Egypt's parliamentary election.
Senator Brownback says Egypt cannot have true democracy without religious freedom.
"As Egypt seeks, as I believe it does, to grow and improve democratically and with human rights, one of the very basic foundational issues will be the degree of religious freedom in their society, the degree to which people can practice their faith, seek their God without fear or repercussion. Unfortunately that is not yet the situation in Egypt today," he added.
Senator Brownback is chairman of the Helsinki Commission, a U.S. government agency that monitors progress in the implementation of the provisions of the 1975 Helsinki Accords.