Human Rights

In Egypt, Baha'is face challenges over religious identity and belief

A court ruling on all-important state ID cards stirs a major controversy in Egypt and the Arab world, drawing attention to the plight of Bahá’ís and larger issues of religious freedom.

CAIRO — Normally, a driver’s license in Egypt is good for ten years. But when Basma Moussa sought recently to renew hers, officials gave her one that is valid for just a month.

The problem is her state identity card is an old-style paper document, not one of the new computer-generated plastic ID cards that are currently being phased in by the government. Officials want to see the new card before granting a long-term license.

But Dr. Moussa, an assistant professor of oral and maxillofacial surgery at Cairo University, cannot get a new computerized card without lying — which is firmly against her religious principles.

That’s because Dr. Moussa is a Bahá’í, and the new ID card system is designed to lock out any religious affiliation except Islam, Christianity, or Judaism, which are the three officially recognized religions here.

The inability to properly renew a driver’s license may seem a small thing, but it illustrates a much wider problem facing the small but active Egyptian Bahá’í community.

Because of their inability to get new identification cards, Bahá’ís are gradually losing virtually all rights of citizenship, including access to education, financial services, and government health care — not to mention freedom of movement and security of property.

“By the end of the year, the acceptance of hand-written ID cards will stop,” said Dr. Moussa. “And at that time, everything in our lives will stop. We won’t be able to go to the bank, or have any dealing with any government office, whether hospitals, schools, or even at routine police check points.”

The whole issue of identity cards and religious affiliation has become something of a cause célèbre in Egypt since a lower court upheld the rights of Bahá’ís to be properly identified on government documents.

That ruling, handed down by a three-judge administrative court on 4 April 2006, held that government efforts to deprive Bahá’ís of ID cards were illegal — and that Bahá’ís, even if their faith is not recognized as a religion, have every right as citizens to be identified as Bahá’ís on official documents.

While Egyptian human rights groups immediately hailed the decision, influential Islamic organizations vehemently objected — including scholars at Al Azhar University and representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood.

“Public shock has given way to heated debate over an administrative court ruling sanctioning an Alexandrian family to designate itself as Bahá’ís in their identity cards and passports,” said Al Ahram, one of Egypt’s major newspapers, in its weekly English online version on 11 May.

Apparently in response to the outcry, the government filed an appeal and — after a somewhat raucous and unruly hearing in which lawyers representing the Bahá’í plaintiffs were verbally and physically harassed — the Supreme Administrative Court temporarily suspended the lower court’s order and called for a full hearing on the issue, now set for 16 September 2006.

Widespread coverage

The issue has received widespread publicity, not only in Egypt but throughout the Arab world. Since April, in Egypt alone there have been more than 100 newspaper and magazine articles, as well as numerous radio and television broadcasts, on the ruling, the reaction, and its implications.

“There is a huge interest in this case,” said Hossam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), an independent human rights organization. “The human rights community, the legal community and the media are closely following it.

“This case is important not only for Bahá’ís but for all Egyptians as it will set an important precedent in terms of citizenship, equality, and freedom of religion.

“People on both sides of the case are mobilized,” said Mr. Bahgat. “There are people who are in support of the Bahá’ís, and people who see this as a threat to society or Islam.”

A cursory examination of some of those articles reveals a wide divergence of opinion over the larger question of freedom of religion and belief that many observers say has been raised by the case.

 On 4 May, the Arabic print version of Al Ahram, which has a circulation of more than a million, carried a headline that said “Crisis in Parliament Over a Judicial Ruling About ‘Al-Bahá’íyyah’ [Bahá’ísm].”

The article said the “majority, the opposition, the independent and the government deputies of the parliament all demanded an appeal of the ruling” that upheld the right of Bahá’ís to state their religion in official documents.

“The deputies stated that the issued ruling is in contradiction with the constitution and the tenets of the Islamic Shariah, which considers that ‘Baha’ism’ is not a Divine religion,” stated the 4 May Al Ahram article.

On the other hand, the government’s own Ministry of Culture, in its highly respected weekly newspaper Al-Kahera News [Cairo News], featured an article on 20 June that stressed the need for religious tolerance with respect to the Bahá’í case.

Written by Muhammad Shebl, the article discusses the Bahá’í case as “another round on Islam and freedom of belief.” Bolstered with quotations from the Qu’ran, Mr. Shebl wrote that “God created man and wanted him to be free... and gave him a mind to discern for himself.

“If God had wished to force all humans to worship Him in a certain way, He would have done so, but He allowed them the freedom to choose so that He can hold them accountable,” wrote Mr. Shebl. Therefore, he said, Muslims should respect the followers of all other religions, including Bahá’ís, Buddhists, and Hindus, and honor their choice.

Beyond Egypt, as well, the case has received extensive attention in newspapers, magazines, broadcasts, and various online media — including blogs. And, again, there has been a wide divergence of opinion.

Al Watan, a daily newspaper in Kuwait, carried a headline noting that Al Azhar scholars in Cairo called the April ruling in favor of Bahá’ís “the Greatest Setback.” The article then printed some of the points of misinformation that are often repeated by fanatical Muslims, such as that Bahá’ís are “agents of Zionism and colonialism and are enemies of the country” and that they reject Muhammad and aim only to “strike Islam.”

In contrast, Nabíl Sharafi’d-Dín, writing on 4 May in Elaf, which characterizes itself as the first electronic Arabic daily newspaper, said statements in the Parliament by Al Azhar and others could be seen as an effort to “victimize the followers of the Bahá’í Faith and launch what could be described as a campaign of hatred against the Bahá’ís.”

The court’s ruling

The lower court’s ruling on 4 April concerned the case of an Egyptian Bahá’í couple from Alexandria, Husam Izzat Musa and Ranya Enayat Rushdy, who sued the Ministry of Interior after they had their ID cards confiscated when they requested that their daughters’ names be added to their passports.

Judges Faruq ‘Ali ‘Abdu’l-Qadir, Salah-u-Ddin Algruani, and Hamed Al-Halfawi found that existing precedents in Islamic law indicate that Muslim countries have traditionally housed non-Muslims with different beliefs “without any of them being forced to change what they believe in.”

And since Egyptian law requires that every citizen carry an identity card that states his name and religion, it “is not inconsistent with Islamic tenets to mention the religion on this card even though it may be a religion whose rites are not recognized for open practice, such as Bahá’ism and the like.

 “On the contrary, these [religions] must be indicated so that the status of its bearer is known and thus he does not enjoy a legal status to which his belief does not entitle him in a Muslim society,” wrote the court.

The court ended its ruling by ordering the government to give identity cards and birth certificates to the plaintiffs on which the Bahá’í Faith is stated as their religion.

As noted, the ruling triggered an intense controversy in Egyptian society. The emotions stirred by the case were evident at the initial hearing on the government’s appeal of the case by the Supreme Administrative Court, held 15 May.

At that hearing, lawyers representing the government and other individuals seated in the courthouse “interrupted and heckled defense counsel each time they tried to address the court,” according to an account of the hearing that was posted that same day on the EIPR website. The lawyers for the Bahá’ís were called “infidels” and were threatened with “physical violence during the hearing.”

The  Bahá’í viewpoint

For their part, the Bahá’ís of Egypt wish only to be accorded the rights afforded any other Egyptian citizens — without being asked to lie about their religion.

“All that the Bahá’ís of Egypt are asking for is to be given citizenship rights and not to be noted falsely and fraudulently in our identification documents,” wrote five Egyptian Bahá’ís in a 13 May letter to the Ministry of Interior.

“All that the Bahá’ís of Egypt are asking for is to be given citizenship rights and not to be noted falsely and fraudulently in our identification documents.”

Labib Iskandar Hanna, who is among those who signed the letter, said that Bahá’ís would be satisfied even if the identification cards and other official papers that require one to list their religion simply offered “other” or “blank” as a choice.

“Previously, we used to put a dash or leave it blank,” said Dr. Hanna, who is a professor of mathematics at Cairo University, explaining how Bahá’ís were able to survive under the paper-based ID card system. “If you hit an official who was fanatic, we could go to another office and find someone who would accept it blank or with a dash.”

Under the new computerized ID card system, Dr. Hanna said, that option is locked out. Only the three recognized religions can be listed.

“Not having a new ID prevents us from getting almost anything,” said Dr. Hanna. “For example, if you have to renew your passport, they will ask for it. Or to enroll your children in school. Or even to do banking, the banks are now asking for the new ID cards.”

Bani Dugal, the principal representative of the Bahá’í International Community to the United Nations, said the issue has risen to the level of a major human rights concern relating to the freedom of religion or belief, as outlined in Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

“It is important to keep in mind that the debate is not and should not be about Bahá’í theology or belief — it is about the right for Bahá’ís to hold their beliefs and still be allowed all of the rights that other Egyptian citizens are given,” said Ms. Dugal.

"The debate is not and should not be about Bahá’í theology or belief — it is about the right for Bahá’ís to hold their beliefs and still be allowed all of the rights that other Egyptian citizens are given.” 

—Bani Dugal, Bahá’í International Community

Ms. Dugal said the administrative court’s judgment is essentially correct: since Egyptian law requires identity cards for all citizens, and also requires religious identification on those cards, it is unfair — and legally contradictory — to force Bahá’ís to identify themselves as Muslims, Christians, or Jews — which is the current government policy.

“The declaration on the application form makes the providing of false information an offense punishable by law,” added Ms. Dugal “Yet, Bahá’ís are being told by officials of the Egyptian government that they must declare themselves to be either Muslim, Christian or Jew.

“Most important for a Bahá’í, the declaration of his or her religion as being another is unconscionable as a matter of principle; such a false statement is tantamount to the denial of one’s faith,” said Ms. Dugal. “The Bahá’í writings forbid lying and dissimulation of any sort.”