The Ambassador in Great Britain (Dawes) to the Secretary of State

No. 866

Sir: I have the honor to refer to the Department’s instruction No. 334 of April 21, 1930, enclosing a copy of a letter dated March 24, 1930, together with copies of its enclosures, addressed to the American Minister at Cairo by the Egypt Intermission Council, regarding the future of religious liberty in Egypt. In compliance with this instruction, a member of the Embassy staff on May 2 interviewed the Foreign Office official dealing with Egyptian affairs. He explained the anxiety of the Egypt Intermission Council for the cause of religious liberty in Egypt and outlined briefly the various points raised in the Council’s letters to Minister Gunther, with particular reference to the Council’s assertion that in specific cases where Moslem men or women should desire to change their faith, Sharia law as enforced in Egypt was not in consonance with Articles 12 and 13 of the Egyptian Constitution which provided in the clearest terms for religious liberty. The Embassy official then inquired whether any steps were being taken to safeguard these liberties in Egypt in connection with the Anglo-Egyptian arrangements being discussed at the present time. He added that the United States Government considered the viewpoint of the Intermission Council in this matter to be reasonable and that it hoped that at an appropriate time sympathetic consideration might be given to the Council’s suggestion.

The Foreign Office official stated that he was glad to know of the Department’s views and that he fully understood the problems facing the missionaries in their work, which were identical with those facing British missionaries in Egypt. He apparently was thoroughly familiar with the specific questions raised in the Council’s letters, and referred at once to two of the principal points causing the Council concern, namely, the loss of inheritance rights by Egyptian converts [Page 760] to Christianity, and the right of a parent or husband to claim the person of an Egyptian woman convert to Christianity. He said that only the other day the representatives of British missionaries in Egypt had conferred with Sir Percy Loraine (the High Commissioner at Cairo, now in London for the Anglo-Egyptian negotiations) and with him on this same general subject. The difficulties in the way of British governmental action at this time had been intimated to the missionaries, and they had suggested that they themselves see the Egyptian Delegation here to present their case, to which plan, he said, Sir Percy Loraine and he agreed. He continued that the Archbishop of Canterbury had interested himself in the matter and that an occasion was being sought by him to discuss the question with Nahas Pasha.26

The official stated that the situation, so far as the Foreign Office was concerned, was as follows: The Constitution of Egypt, in Articles 12 and 13, stated that “Liberty of conscience is absolute” and “The State protects, in harmony with usages established in Egypt, the free exercise of any religion or faith, on condition that it is not contrary to public order or good morals”; in short, that the Constitution of Egypt, which is largely based on the Belgian Constitution, gave as many safeguards of religious freedom as any Constitution could or did give. The Government, therefore, could hardly ask, and the Egyptian Government, considering its almost complete dependence on Mohammedan support, could hardly give, more than was contained in the Constitution itself.

It was unfortunate that under Sharia Law injustices to individuals converted to Christianity might have occurred, but, he said, he knew of only two or three cases in the past ten years where female Egyptian converts had been claimed by their elders and married to Moslems. It was equally unfortunate about the alleged loss of inheritance rights of converts, but the Foreign Office official could offer no solution other than that the best to be hoped for was that there would be a gradual evolution toward more enlightened practice. He said that already such an evolution had taken place in the penal and civil codes; for instance, primitive punishments, such as the cutting off of hands, meted out under Mohammedan law, which according to Mohammedan tradition was immutable, had been slowly and quietly done away with in Egypt and more enlightened punishments substituted in accordance with Occidental practice. The same changes were undoubtedly taking place in the civil code in Egypt, and the official hoped that in due course this development would lead in directions favorable to the missionaries’ cause. He referred to Lord [Page 761] Robert Cecil’s letter in the Times Weekly Edition of January 23, 1930 (part of the enclosures to the Department’s instruction No. 334) as an endeavor to turn public opinion in Egypt in the right direction, and he particularly stressed the importance of the growing feminist movement in Egypt, which he believed would in time have a decided influence as had occurred in Turkey.

In the Foreign Office official’s opinion, however, this evolution would have to be a gradual process, and interference by foreigners, particularly on religious questions, to hasten the matter might have an exactly opposite effect. He felt that no good purpose would be served in the cause of religious liberty in Egypt by endeavoring to interject it into a political agreement such as is now being negotiated. He said that no steps were being taken in the negotiations to safeguard religious liberties further than what was contained in the Egyptian Constitution itself.

I have [etc.]

For the Ambassador:
Ray Atherton

Counselor of Embassy
  1. Egyptian Prime Minister.