Human Rights Watch's latest report is scathing of Egypt's record on religious freedoms, writes Mohamed El-Sayed
The main focus of Prohibited Identities: State Interference with Religious Freedoms, compiled by Human Rights Watch in conjunction with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights and released this week, is the difficulties faced by converts from Islam to other religions and the problems facing Egypt's Bahaais.
Based on interviews with more than 40 victims of discrimination, lawyers, family members, and religious and community leaders, the report comprises more than 100 pages. It elucidates the hardships faced by converts from Islam to and other religions, including their being denied documents "not on the basis of any Egyptian law prohibiting such conversion, but on what officials understand to be the prohibition in Sharia against conversion from Islam as a form of apostasy". In contrast, the report points out, Egyptians converting from other religions to Islam seldom face problems when amending their identification documents.
Interviewees recount how Ministry of Interior officials attempted to intimidate them into assuming a religious identity not of their choosing. "In some cases officials have confiscated valid identity documents in order to compel individuals to acquire computer-generated ones for themselves or their children. Several Christian women who had converted to Islam and subsequently attempted to 're- convert' back to Christianity testified that a senior officer within the Criminal Intelligence Unit of the Civil Status Department (CSD) alternately threatened and attempted to bribe them in order to pressure them to maintain their Muslim identity. Un some instances, this official intolerance of conversion [or re- conversion] to Christianity led to the dissolution of marriages and destruction of families."
Converts from Islam to Christianity who are unable to have their conversion recognised by the state must register their children as Muslims meaning the children must study Islam throughout their schooling.
Such policies and practices violate Egyptian as well as international law. Article 40 of Egypt's constitution guarantees equal rights to all citizens and prohibits discrimination based on religion and other factors. "The civil status law of 1994," says the report, "allows citizens to change or correct information, including religious affiliation, in their identification documents simply by registering the new information, without requiring approval by the CSD." Yet rather than adopt an approach that upholds the basic principles of justice and equality and reconciles Sharia with international human rights law, the report accuses the government of "directly violating the internationally recognised rights of its citizens."
Tackling official justifications of this policy, the report insists that "the government has consistently failed to demonstrate how public order would be harmed by allowing citizens to list their true religious affiliation in their identification documents. Furthermore, the limitations imposed by the government are clearly discriminatory against specific religions and the ensuing limitations on affected individuals' access to healthcare, education, employment, and other services outweigh the putative public order interest served by the government's approach."
The government's argument, the report continues, also fails to explain its decision to cease the practice of granting Bahaais identification documents with the word "other" inserted in the religion entry, or its insistence on arbitrarily subjecting converts to Christianity to Muslim personal status rules.
Egyptians who are born Muslim but convert to Christianity face considerable social opprobrium as well as official harassment. "For these reasons, very few if any Muslim converts to Christianity have initiated the necessary formal steps to revise their identification documents to reflect their change in religion, as permitted by the civil status law. An undetermined number have emigrated to other countries, or live anonymously and surreptitiously with forged documents. Some who nonetheless have made their conversion public say that security officials have detained them on charges of violating public order and, in some cases, have subjected them to torture."
Officials may have singled out Egypt's Bahaai community as the largest "unrecognised" independent religious community in Egypt but, the report says, "neither Egypt's government nor its judiciary has provided any jurisprudential basis to support forcing converts or Bahaais to proclaim themselves as Muslim, or to misidentify their true religion, as an appropriate remedy for apostasy."
Official indifference extends to non- Muslim children whose fathers were Christians and converted to Islam when they were still children. "When this occurred the children were automatically 'converted' as well, without regard to their actual religious practices, without regard to their mothers' wishes, and frequently without their even being aware that this had happened. Indeed, many individuals in this category only learned they were 'Muslim' when they applied for their own national ID cards upon reaching their 16th birthday."
The report adds that, "when these Egyptians attempt to assert their Christianity, typically fortified with documents from the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchy proving that they have lived their entire lives as Christians, they face discrimination and obstruction from CSD officials."
The report concludes that the Egyptian government is using an Islamic religious belief -- that Islam is the last revealed religion and that no other legitimate faiths will follow -- in order to negate the civil rights of citizens who adhere to other faiths that emerged after Islam and that most Muslims do not recognise as a legitimate religion. It recommends that the government of Egypt should take immediate steps to ensure that a person's religious identity in CSD files, as well as any religious identification listed on vital documents, accurately reflects his or her religious belief and the faith to which they adhere in practice without any negative civil or criminal consequences. "The government should also instruct officials to cease pressuring individuals to convert to Islam, or to accept any religious identity against their wishes."
Much of the blame for the current situation, say the report's writers, must be laid at the door of the Ministry of Interior. The HRW sent two letters asking the minister to explain the position of his officials but received no response. Following the release of the report on Monday, however, HRW officials did meet a senior official within the Interior Ministry though the meeting was far from helpful, reports Joe Stork, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch. "There wasn't a positive response from the ministry during the meeting, and the official continued to defend the policies criticised in the report," he told Al-Ahram Weekly, arguing that only Islam, Christianity and Judaism could be recognised under the civil status law. The official, says Stork, based his position on legal precedents though "these policies originate with the ministry not from any court [ruling]".
The ministry defended its intransigence by arguing that most conversions are an attempt to secure a divorce or inheritance. "But conversion," says Stork, "should not be the business of the state but that of the bishop or the imam concerned. And the government can act [positively] on a number of fronts when it wants to, [like] closing the loopholes allowing for female genital mutilations and investigations into torture by police."
The state-controlled National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) has yet to make a statement on the report though Hafez Abu Seada, member of the council and head of the Egyptian Human Rights Organisation, agrees with much of what it says. "We are of the opinion that either the identification of religion be removed completely from ID cards or people from religions other than the three recognised ones be allowed to have their religion on the ID," Abu Seada told the Weekly. He does, however, disagree with the report placing most of the blame on the Ministry of Interior. "The issue of discrimination goes far deeper than this apportioning of blame suggests. Concerning the Bahaais, particularly, the Supreme Administrative Court ruled against them [having their religion identified on official documents]."
The NCHR, he said, has already asked the government to eliminate the requirement to list religion on official identification documents though it has yet to receive any response. "What we need," believes Abu Seada, "is for the international community, the media, human rights activists and organisations and intellectuals to play a more prominent role in attempting to convince the authorities to remove religious identification from official documents since retaining this anachronism tarnishes Egypt's image."