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
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,"
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
"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
But controversial questions remain, chiefly regarding Egyptian sensitivities
about the level of involvement of the US in this touchy issue and on Egyptian
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."