Launching a tour of the Middle East, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) is to gather information about the condition of Egypt's Coptic Christian minority who complain of discrimination. A USCIRF issued last year said Copts and other Egyptian Christians "experience serious and pervasive religious discrimination."
Last month, Coptic clerics reacted angrily to a court verdict that acquitted most of those accused of massacring 21 Christians in the southern town of Kosheh in January last year.
The USCIRF delegation headed by Elliot Abrams will meet leading Christian and Muslim clerics, as well as Egyptian foreign ministry officials when it begins it tour here Tuesday, the U.S. embassy said.
A Coptic lawyer, Mamduh Nakhla, director of the Kalima Center for Human Rights, added that the delegation will meet Tuesday with Pope Shenuda III, the patriarch of Egypt's Coptic community.
The Copts, who the government says account for six percent of Egypt's 65 million people (other estimates say as much as ten percent), complain the government discriminates against them in the state bureaucracy, police and army, education system, and other areas.
Coptic clerics charged that the February verdict for the Kosheh massacre, where 92 people were acquitted and four were given relatively light jail terms, would only encourage Muslims to kill more Christians.
Nakhla, the Coptic lawyer, said he hoped to discuss with the delegation the "limits of the right of Copts to build churches, attain high-level government positions, and the lenient verdict handed down in the Kosheh trial."
Abrams said in an interview with the Egyptian government newspaper Al Ahram while in the United States that his delegation would raise the case of Egyptian-American human rights and democracy activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim.
Ibrahim is on trial on various charges, including spreading false information alleging persecution of the Copts in Egypt.
The Muslim Brotherhood, a banned but partly tolerated Islamic movement, said in a statement to AFP that "such visits turn into investigative commissions and open the way to U.S. sanctions against sovereign countries."
The Brotherhood urged "all the political parties to boycott the delegation."
A member of parliament from the Nasserite opposition party, Kamal Ahmed, wrote to the government asking why this delegation "is allowed to interfere in our internal affairs."
Egyptian human rights campaigners had ambivalent feelings about the delegation's visit.
One campaigner said USCIRF was unlikely to be impartial as it was financed by the U.S. State Department, while another said the visit gave the Copts a chance to show that persecution against them is not systematic.
The delegation, which will spend four days in Egypt, is composed of Abrams, Vice Chairman Firuz Kazemzadeh, a Baha'i, and Commissioner Laila al-Marayati, a Muslim.
The delegation will also travel to Saudi Arabia, Israel and the Palestinian territories.
Abrams, quoted by Al Ahram, said his delegation would go on to study the rights of access to holy sites that Christians had in the Palestinian territories and Muslims had in Israel. Abrams also is a Beliefnet columnist.
Created in 1998 to monitor religious freedom around the world, the commission makes recommendations to the U.S. president, the secretary of state and Congress.