Human Rights

Egypt lower court rules in favor of Baha'is, opening door to ID card solution

CAIRO — In a victory for religious freedom, a lower administrative court has ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in two lawsuits that sought to resolve the government’s contradictory policy on religious affiliation and identification papers.

In a ruling on 29 January 2008, the Court of Administrative Justice in Cairo endorsed arguments made in two cases concerning Bahá’ís who have sought to restore their full citizenship rights by asking that they be allowed to leave the religious affiliation field blank on official documents.

“Given the degree to which issues of religious freedom stand at the heart of human rights issues in the Middle East, the world should cheer at the decision in these two cases today,” said Bani Dugal, the principal representative of the Bahá’í International Community to the United Nations.

“The compromise offered by the Bahá’ís in these two cases opens the door to a way to reconcile a government policy that was clearly incompatible with international law — as well as common sense,” said Ms. Dugal.

“Our hope now is that the government will quickly implement the court’s decision and allow Bahá’ís once again to enjoy the full rights of citizenship to which they are duly entitled,” said Ms. Dugal.

The decisions concerned two cases, both filed by Bahá’ís, over the issue of how they are to be identified on government documents.

The first case involves a lawsuit by the father of twin children who is seeking to obtain proper birth certificates for them. The second concerns a college student who needs a national identity card to re-enroll in university.

The government requires all identification papers to list religious affiliation but has restricted the choice to the three officially recognized religions — Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. Bahá’ís have in recent years thus been unable to obtain identification papers because they refuse to lie about their religious affiliation.

Without national identify cards — or, as in the case of the twin children, birth certificates — Bahá’ís and others caught in the law’s contradictory requirements have been deprived of a wide range of citizenship rights, such as access to employment, education, and medical and financial services.

These problems were highlighted in a report issued in November by Human Rights Watch and the Cairo-based Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR).

“Employers, both public and private, by law cannot hire someone without an ID, and academic institutions require IDs for admission,” said the report. “Obtaining a marriage license or a passport requires a birth certificate; inheritance, pensions, and death benefits are contingent on death certificates. The Ministry of Health has even refused to provide immunizations to some Bahá’í children because the Interior Ministry would not issue them birth certificates accurately listing their Bahá’í religion.”

The issuance of birth certificates is at the heart of the first case, which concerns 14-year-old twins Imad and Nancy Rauf Hindi. Their father, Rauf Hindi, obtained birth certificates that recognized their Bahá’í affiliation when they were born.

But new policies require computer generated certificates, and the computer system locks out any religious affiliation but the three officially recognized religions. And without birth certificates, the children are unable to enroll in school in Egypt.

The second lawsuit was filed by the EIPR last February on behalf of 18-year-old Hussein Hosni Bakhit Abdel-Massih, who was suspended from the Suez Canal University’s Higher Institute of Social Work in January 2006 due to his inability to obtain an identity card because of his refusal to falsely identify himself as a Muslim, a Christian, or a Jew.

In both cases, lawyers representing the Bahá’ís have made it clear that they were willing to settle for cards or documents on which the religious affiliation field is left blank or filled in, perhaps, as “other.”

This solution is what makes these two cases different from the lawsuit that was rejected by the Supreme Administrative Court last year. In that ruling, the Supreme Administrative Court rejected a decision by the lower court that granted the right of Bahá’ís to be specifically identified on government documents.