Egyptian government challenges Baha’i civil rights on appeal

Egypt 2006

By Thomas Watkins

June 10, 2009

CAIRO, Egypt -- Egypt's government will go to court Monday to block a Baha'i couple from having their religious affiliation identified on their own government documents and those of their daughters, an Egyptian human rights group said Sunday.

The case has garnered international attention as a test of the Egyptian government's willingness to allow freedom of religion in the autocratic society, which receives billions of dollars each year in U.S. aid.

The married couple filed the suit against the Interior Ministry after the ministry officials confiscated the family's identification cards and refused to issue new ones unless the family members agreed to identify themselves as Muslim, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights reported.

Such documents are critical to obtaining government rights and benefits, and the girls' school had threatened to expel them if the father failed to provide the birth certificates, according to the EIPR, an independent Egyptian human rights organization.

An administrative court ruled in favor of the couple, but Egyptian authorities have appealed that decision.

The Baha'i faith, a monotheistic religion, originated in the mid-19th Century and claims about 5 million followers. The U.S. State Department estimates the number in Egypt at around 2,000, Bahgat said.

"Baha'is are seen as apostates, looked at with suspicion," since the religion has its roots in Iran and has holy places in Israel, EIPR Director Hossam Bahghat said.

Government identification cards do not allow for Baha'is to identify their religion, Bahgat said. Even death certificates limit the options to Muslim, Christian and Jewish; forms that had contained "other" removed the option in 2004, he told reporters last month in Cairo.

Baha'is were tolerated until 1960, when a law dissolved the religion's spiritual assemblies and institutions, opening the door to harassment and discrimination, the EIPR said.

"The idea of forcing Egyptian citizens to choose between giving up all their civil rights to have their religious affiliation recognized or to pretend to adhere to a religion they never chose and know nothing about just because they were born Baha'is an affront to humanity, logic, laws and even Islamic Shari'a," Bahgat said on the EIPR's Web site.

The administrative court noted that the Islamic Research Academy of Al-Azhar had issued a statement "implying that the Baha'i Faith is not a religion, is not endorsed by Islam and sows the seeds of discord among the Muslim nation," but said it did not weigh those claims in making its decision.

"... the scope of the case under consideration is merely confined to mentioning the Baha'i Faith on the identity card of the plaintiffs and the birth certificates of their daughters," it said in the April 5 ruling. "Nothing in the papers submitted to the court shows that the plaintiffs are engaged in spreading the Baha'i Faith or proclaiming it in any manner.

Egypt's Supreme Administrative Court is to hear Monday's appeal.

"People on both sides of the case are mobilized," Bahgat told the Baha'i World News Service. "There are people who are in support of the Baha'is, and people who see this as a threat to society or Islam."

Monday's hearing is to focus on procedural issues concerning the case, which could be fought over a long period in the courts, Bahgat said. The initial hearing on the government's appeal, held last month, wound up turning into a free-for-all.

"Lawyers and other individuals seated in the courthouse interrupted and heckled defense counsel each time they tried to address the court and yelled insults at them, calling them 'infidels' and threatening them with physical violence during the hearing," Bahgat's group reported in a posting on its Web site.

"Unable to impose order in the courtroom, the court briefly adjourned the hearing before resuming the proceedings in camera. When the hearing was adjourned, courthouse security officers refused to protect lawyers who were surrounded by members of the crowd, verbally threatened, pushed, shoved and not allowed to walk away from the area."

Bahgat spoke to reporters who were visiting Cairo on a trip organized by the International Reporting Project at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

More from this Reporter

From Other Reporters in This Country