Once among the most active communities in the Middle East, Baha'is of Egypt have long faced persecution
The Bahá’í community of Egypt was once among the most vibrant and active in the Middle East, with Spiritual Assemblies and local groups established throughout the country, and an impressive array of administrative, educational, and social institutions.
The community was among the first to be established outside of Iran, birthplace of the Faith’s Founder, Bahá’u’lláh. Bahá’í merchants settled in Alexandria and Cairo in the 1860s.
By 1900, a number of Arabic language Bahá’í books were being published in Cairo, and Egypt had become a transit point for Western Bahá’ís coming to and from Acre in what was then Ottoman Palestine, where the son of Bahá’u’lláh, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, was imprisoned.
‘Abdu’l-Bahá, himself, visited Egypt in September 1910, shortly after his release from prison, and there made the acquaintance of a number of intellectuals and other influential figures. Significantly, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá spent a total of almost two years in Egypt, visiting on two other occasions. He became a well known public figure — as evidenced by extensive press coverage in Egypt of his funeral in 1921.
The Bahá’í community of Egypt grew steadily during the period from the turn of the century to the mid-1920s, and included individuals from minority groups such as those of Kurdish, Coptic, and Armenian origin.
In 1924, the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Egypt was formed. This represents the highest administrative body on a national level in the Bahá’í Faith, a sign of a community’s maturity.
At one point in the 1930s, a member of the Egyptian Parliament made a public tribute to the Faith. And in 1934, the National Spiritual Assembly achieved legal incorporation. Authorities allocated four plots to serve as Bahá’í cemeteries in Cairo, Alexandria, Port Said, and Isma’iliyyih, having decided it would not be lawful for Bahá’ís to be buried in Muslim cemeteries.
In May 1944, the community celebrated the Centenary of the Faith’s founding in an impressive and newly completed national headquarters building in Cairo. More than 500 Bahá’ís from around the country attended, along with some 50 guests who were Christians, Muslims, and Jews.
During the 1940s and 1950s, Bahá’í festivals and public meetings were commonly publicized in the media and regular Bahá’í meetings were open to the public. Official statistical publications listed the Bahá’í Faith among the religious movements active in Egypt. In April 1955, the community purchased some 17,000 square meters of land on the banks of the Nile for use as the future site of a Bahá’í House of Worship. By the late 1950s, local Assemblies had been established in 13 cities and towns, and Bahá’í groups existed in another 11 localities.
At the same time, such progress disturbed fanatic elements in Egyptian society. In the early 1940s, to cite one incident, the custodian of the national headquarters building was at one point beaten, suffering a broken arm.
In 1960, without warning or explanation, President Gamal Abdul Nasser signed a short, six paragraph Decree stating that “all Bahá’í Assemblies and Centres” are “hereby dissolved, and their activities suspended. Individuals, bodies and institutions are warned to refrain from any activity.” All Bahá’í properties — including the national headquarters building, the libraries and cemeteries — as well as all Bahá’í funds and assets were confiscated. The properties and assets have not been returned to this day.
The government promised that individuals would remain free to practice their religion. In keeping with the Bahá’í principle of obedience to government, the Bahá’ís of Egypt duly disbanded their institutions immediately. The Faith’s members shifted to a footing that emphasized quiet worship by individuals and families, with limited social and educational activities focused on internal development. Unfortunately, they have nevertheless faced episodes of harsh persecution, along with continuous restrictions on their personal, religious and social activities.