Human Rights

Egyptian court removes barriers to ID documents for Baha'is and others

CAIRO - In a ruling that opens the door to a new level of respect for religious privacy in Egypt, a court here has removed all grounds for preventing Bahá'ís from receiving proper official identity documents.

The decision, issued in March by the Supreme Administrative Court, was quickly followed by a decree from the Ministry of Interior specifying that individuals can now obtain government documents without identifying themselves as belonging to a particular religion.

The Court's ruling and Ministry's decree cleared the way for an end to deprivation for Egyptian Bahá'ís, who have in recent years been unable to get identification cards, birth certificates and other documents essential for access to things like education, financial services, and even health care in government hospitals.

The ruling goes beyond the issue of rights for Egyptian Bahá'ís, said Hossam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR).

"This is the first time that the Supreme Administrative Court has found that any Egyptian has the right to keep their religious convictions private, even if the state does not recognize their belief system," said Mr. Bahgat, whose organization handled legal representation for Bahá'ís in court.

"The final ruling is a major victory for all Egyptians fighting for a state where all citizens enjoy equal rights regardless of their religion or belief," he said.

Mr. Bahgat said that because the Supreme Administrative Court is the highest court on such matters, there can be no further appeal to this case.

"The government policy that justified mistreatment of Egyptian Bahá'ís has now been firmly and finally struck down," he said.

For nearly five years, since the government began introducing a computerized identity card system that locked out all religious classifications except Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, Bahá'ís have been unable to get ID cards and other documents.

In April 2006, a lower administrative court upheld the right of Bahá'ís to be explicitly identified on official documents. But in December that year, the Supreme Administrative Court reversed that decision.

Bahá'ís then proposed using a dash or the word "other" on documents, instead of being forced to list themselves as Muslim, Christian, or Jewish. On 29 January 2008, a lower court again ruled in their favor. But then two Muslim lawyers filed an appeal.

The Court's ruling on 16 March 2009 rejected the appeal by the Muslim lawyers. It was issued over the case of 16-year-old twins Imad and Nancy Rauf Hindi who have been deprived of birth certificates and were unable to legally attend school in Egypt.

Bani Dugal, the principal representative of the Bahá'í International Community, said the court's decision was exceedingly welcome, as was the Ministry's quick move to change the law.

"We are now hopeful that officials will begin granting proper identification cards and other documents for Bahá'ís and any others who have been deprived under the previous policy," said Ms. Dugal.

On 8 August, the two young Bahá'ís at the center of the court cases were granted new computerized ID cards, showing a "dash" on the back in the field reserved for religion.