The United States has quietly funneled millions of dollars of its annual aid to Egypt to groups among the country’s increasingly restless Christian Coptic community and to areas with large Christian populations as part of an effort to "empower" the religious minority in a little-noticed multi-year aid program, according to a review of several recent congressional documents.
Most of the money has gone through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), which is part of the US State Department. The program benefited more than 40 Christian Coptic non-governmental organizations (NGOs) as of July 2006 at a cost of dozens of millions of dollars of US taxpayers’ money.
Neither the State Department nor USAID has made many public comments about the delicate program as Egyptian Christian Coptic activism has reached unprecedented levels both in Egypt and in the United States over the past few years.
Egypt is already struggling to contain tensions between its Muslim and Christian populations, simmering over a number of issues, including a spate of recent crossover conversions between Islam and Orthodox Christianity.
The news of the USAID meddling with the Christian community was initially reported in July by this reporter for America In Arabic News Agency, a US-based news service publishing in Arabic. The angry reaction among some Egyptian columnists and opinion makers, if not the Egyptian government, has confirmed long-standing suspicion that once in the open, US intervention often prompts widespread rejection among Egyptians.
The most detailed account of how the United States has silently targeted the Egyptian Christian community with both humanitarian and political assistance came in a written document submitted to Congress last year by James R. Kunder, USAID assistant administrator for Asia and the Near East, the most senior officer overseeing aid to Egypt.
During a hearing before the US House of Representatives’ Sub-Committees on Middle East and Central Asia on May 17, 2006, Kunder read an abbreviated version of the testimony and made only a few mentions of the issue.
But a copy of his full written testimony for the record, obtained in its entirety by IPS, gives a first peek into how USAID has put US government dollars into what the senior US official repeatedly called areas "with significant Coptic populations."
"USAID’s projects in health, education, infrastructure, and civil society development operate in every district with a significant Coptic population, mainly in Upper Egypt and cities such as Cairo and Alexandria," he said.
"USAID’s water programs have installed slow sand filter water treatment plants, improved wastewater collection and treatment systems, or rehabilitated and expanded water treatment plants for about 18 villages with significant Coptic populations. Funding allocated to villages with significant Coptic populations under the water treatment programs alone exceeded 200 million dollars over the last five years," Kunder said in his written testimony.
The US official said the Egyptian government didn’t have direct oversight over the money going to those areas and that the programs focused on benefiting Christians.
The funds were channeled "through direct grants to Coptic NGOs," he said.
The aid distribution has also been fine-tuned to cover religious issues in Egypt previously untouchable.
"With more than 2.2 million dollars in grants to 40 Coptic NGOs over the past six years, USAID has helped to strengthen Coptic communities and civil society organizations," he added.
The program, he said, has bankrolled several projects designed to increase "religious tolerance and promote interfaith understanding between the Muslim and Coptic communities," according to Kunder.
He cited several examples of this endeavor including a plan, still under the direct grants program, to support a local Egyptian NGO to establish a Media Monitoring Observatory to track religious tolerance in the Egyptian media.
"That we would very much welcome, something like that," said Dwight Bashir of the quasi-governmental US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).
"That to me would be something we are very supportive of and we’d look forward to more of these kinds of programs," he said.
Others include "empowering community leaders," "training, promoting the social and political inclusion of marginalized populations," and "directly linking decision-makers with the community."
Cairo has been receiving around two billion dollars annually from the United States since it signed a peace deal with Israel in 1979. Egypt remains the second largest recipient of bilateral US aid, after the Jewish state.
The USAID’s mission in Egypt is said to be among the world’s largest because of its extensive programs in that country of more than 75 million people.
For the most part of its nearly 40 years in Egypt, the US programs have often shied away from directly meddling with the sensitive sectarian issue. Yet, the new revelation represents a shift in how Washington views the role of its aid to Egypt in the regions-dominated world of post-9/11.
Kunder’s statements however are not the only ones to surface about targeting Christian Copts with US aid.
In a Congressional report that accompanied the State, Foreign Operations Appropriations Bill for 2008 that came out as recently as last month, the US House of Representatives Committee on Appropriations explicitly called for funding politically active Christian NGOs.
"The Committee further directs the Department of State to fund programs that advance civic participation and human rights in the Coptic Community," said the report that accompanied the bill.
The Committee, clearly eyeing the Christian Coptic community, said that no less than 50 percent of the 50 million dollars slated for "governance and democracy" in the aid to Egypt, which cover Christian Coptic activities, should be provided through NGOs.
"One of the concerns is that many reports from Egypt show Christian Copts are increasingly under pressure. They are suffering from more attacks. There’s increasing persecution of Copts in Egypt," said Paul Marshall, an expert on Islam and religion at the Center for Religious Freedom of the Hudson Institute, a right-leaning think tank in Washington, DC.
"I think this has caused concern in Congress so I believe it is for that reason they directed USAID to make sure that some of its aid in Egypt also addresses Coptic needs."
But controversial questions remain, chiefly regarding Egyptian sensitivities about the level of involvement of the US in this touchy issue and on Egyptian soil.
An Egyptian embassy diplomat in Washington told IPS that the government objected to faith-based measures by any foreign donor.
"Any legally registered NGO in Egypt is qualified to receive foreign assistance contingent on certain procedures," said the diplomat, who wished to remain anonymous. "However, we do not support and we take issue with the disbursement of foreign assistance based on faith or ethnicity."
There is also concern in the State Department about a perception of favoritism in its aid program, and officials are reportedly trying to find out how the statements about the Christians Coptic community "slipped" into Kunder’s written testimony which is often reviewed by several staff members.
"There’s nothing wrong per se with helping the Coptic communities if they felt the Coptic communities were otherwise discriminated against or are not getting their fair share of Egyptian resources," said Sarah Lee Whitson, the Middle East director of Human Rights Watch.
"But if the only reason they are helping these communities is because they’re Christians, I think that’s a big problem… because you do not want US aid money to be seen as missionary money meant to support one religious community over another, particularly in a country that is overwhelmingly Muslim. I do not think that would sit well with the Egyptian population."