Rendered faithless and stateless
The Supreme Administrative Court's ruling intensifies the fight for Baha'i Egyptian citizenship rights, writes Gamal Nkrumah
Egypt's Baha'is won a historic victory when their right to be certified as Baha'is on official documentation was recognised by a ruling of the Egyptian Administrative Court on 4 April 2006. This week, the country's Baha'is suffered a disastrous setback. The Ministry of Interior appealed against the April ruling, which was overturned by the Supreme Administrative Court last Saturday, 16 December. Baha'is and human rights activists, both at home and abroad, argue that last Saturday's ruling was a gross human rights violation.
The conservative approach has disappointed the hopeful expectations of both secularists and religious minorities. In the months leading up to last Saturday's ruling, the law was increasingly interpreted by the courts to suit the more conservative elements. That law is intended to discriminate against Baha'is, Buddhists, agnostics or atheists alike. An Egyptian national can only be a Muslim, a Christian or a Jew. No other religious affiliation is officially admissible.
After months of speculation, historians may see 2006 as the year that civil liberties in Egypt took a giant leap backwards. The insistence on the recognition of the Baha'i is not a modish secularist fad, but a fundamental human right.
"The crux of the matter is our struggle for official recognition as Egyptians and for full citizenship rights," Labib Iskandar, a leading Egyptian Baha'i, and a professor of engineering at Cairo University told Al-Ahram Weekly. "We move about without personal identification cards. That is a criminal offence in Egypt. We could be stopped by police at any moment, anywhere and asked for our ID," he explained.
"Did the constitution change? Did the Islamic Sharia change? I cannot understand," Iskandar sighs in palpable despair. "We do not want the state to recognise our religion, we only want to be able to go about our business in peace and without red tape and bureaucratic hassles."
"Inability to produce an ID card entails a five-year prison sentence. Still, we have faith in the legal system," Basma Moussa, a dentist and an assistant lecturer at Cairo University, yet another outspoken Egyptian Baha'i concurred.
"The court ruling appears to be based solely on a public rejection of the Baha'i faith," Hossam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights told the Weekly.
"The court didn't respond to a single legal argument by the defence," he added. "The civil status law makes it compulsory for every Egyptian citizen to carry on his or her person an ID card." He said that the court ruling was prejudiced by religious scholars and Al-Azhar, the country's Sunni Muslim religious institution, the most important in the world for that school of Islam.
"The civil status law prohibits students who don't have an ID card from enrolling at universities and other institutions of higher learning. This is an especially problematic issue for young Egyptian Baha'is who can be suspended from studies and may not even acquire a university degree. Baha'i men are barred from conscription which is compulsory for Egyptian males. This failure to undertake National Service is a serious offence unless waived because of health or other specifically- stated reasons," Bahgat explained.
He singled out the Baha'i youth as especially susceptible to persecution because of their religion. They face discrimination when applying for jobs -- the Egyptian legal system criminalises both employers and employees who do not have computerised ID cards and other personal documentation like birth or marriage certificates, all of which must clearly state the religion of the individuals concerned.
Last Saturday's court ruling effectively bars Baha'is from enjoying fully-fledged Egyptian nationality status. "We do not particularly care if the Baha'i faith is not recognised as a religion. What we do need is the right to have a valid identity card -- either the authorities state on the card that we are Baha'is or they leave the space where one's religion is specified vacant," Iskandar explained.
The government may not recognise the Baha'i faith in official personal identification documents, but the pretense of the law at present is that the Baha'is are not able to obtain necessary documents such as birth or death certificates and identity cards.
"I am 60 years old and it is stated in my birth certificate that I am a Baha'i. My eldest sister is 80 years old and she also is stated as a Baha'i in her birth certificate."
Another sister, Salwa Iskandar Hanna, passed away last year and it was sheer hell trying to issue a death certificate, let alone get permission for burial.
The problem was exacerbated in 2000 when computers were introduced at the general registrar office at the Ministry of Interior.
Iskandar explained that officials refused to leave the space allotted for the registration of one's religious affiliation blank. Some said one can only state Muslim, Christian or Jewish as his religion -- other religions such as Baha'is, Buddhists or Hindus cannot be registered, for example. In other words, Egyptians can only be religiously affiliated to one of the three revealed religions -- Islam, Christianity and Judaism.
"Don't force us to state a wrong religion in my ID card," Iskandar protested. "Neither of my sons Ragy, 25, nor Hady, 20, have an ID card. In their birth certificates it is stated that they re Baha'is, however. We cannot have a valid driver's license, we cannot register our cars, we cannot be employed in the public sector, or much of the private sector for that matter."
Iskandar hails from a Coptic family, but his great grandfather converted from Christianity to the Baha'i faith, and the family has been Baha'i ever since. They have no intention of reverting to Christianity.
A presidential decree promulgated as Law 260 in 1960, closed down Baha'i public places of worship, confiscated Baha'i property and banned the public worship of Baha'is in Egypt.
The Baha'i faith is not recognised in Egypt as a religion. With one accord, and with an anxiety that wrenches their hearts with cruel fears, the Baha'is of Egypt are bracing themselves for a long period of trials and tribulations. They are often denounced as heathens and apostates by a public that is by and large ignorant of the tenets of their faith. "We are not concerned whether we are acknowledged as a heavenly revealed religion. This is not the legal question before the court."
The ruling also reversed the position of the Supreme Administrative Court which had found in 1983 that Baha'is had the right to have their religious affiliation included in official documents.
"Today's regrettable decision throws the ball back in the government's court," Bahgat explained.