(AFP) – Jan 14, 2010
CAIRO — A Christmas Eve attack in southern Egypt in which six Coptic Christians were killed reveals an "atmosphere of intolerance," US Assistant Secretary for Human Rights Michael Posner said on Thursday.
The United States is "very concerned about the tragic events in Nagaa Hammadi," Posner told reporters in Cairo. "It's part of what we see as an atmosphere of intolerance."
On January 6, the eve of the Coptic Orthodox Christmas, three gunmen raked worshippers emerging from mass in Nagaa Hammadi with bullets, in the deadliest attack since 2000 when 20 Copts were killed in sectarian clashes.
Reconciliation efforts between Christians and Muslims alone are not enough, Posner said.
"There needs to be prosecution... there needs to be a break in the sense of impunity and there needs to be justice," he said.
Following the attack, residents of Nagaa Hammadi were furious at what they called government attempts to hush up Egypt's sectarian problem.
Three people were arrested and charged with premeditated murder after the attack which also saw one Muslim policeman killed.
But Posner said more information needed to come to light.
"Who was involved? Who may have ordered the killings?" he asked.
Copts, who account for nearly 10 percent of Egypt's population of 80 million, are the Middle East's largest Christian community but complain of routine harassment and systematic discrimination and marginalisation.
Posner was on his first visit to Egypt in his capacity as Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labour, as part of a tour that also took him to Jordan and Israel.
While he was openly critical of the human rights situation in Egypt, he insisted that democracy could not be imported.
"There are serious human rights problems in Egypt," Posner said, citing the emergency law, prison conditions, torture, abuse and religious freedom as issues of concern.
But "we know that in any society change occurs from within... In Egypt we take our lead from what Egyptians are saying or doing. It's an Egyptian discussion," said Posner who met ministers, officials, NGOs and activists during his visit.
A report by 16 Egyptian human rights groups published in December described Egypt as a police state where citizens receive no protection from torture.
"The basic feature of human rights in Egypt today is the prevalence of a policy of exception in which those responsible for violations usually escape punishment amid a climate of impunity intentionally created and fostered for several decades," said the report.
"With this policy of impunity gradually becoming the norm, the prerogatives of the security apparatus have been expanded and Egypt has turned into a police state," the report said.
Egypt has been operating under a state of emergency since the 1981 assassination of president Anwar Sadat, which has been renewed repeatedly since then, despite protests from rights groups and regime opponents.
The state of emergency allows for the detention of anyone who falls under the broad category of constituting "a danger to public security."
US President Barack Obama has placed less emphasis on political reform in the region than his predecessor George W Bush.
His administration's rhetoric has backed away from Bush's robust calls for Egypt to release dissidents and ensure fair elections.
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