Baha'is issued “religiously neutral” ID cards in Egypt

Two Egyptian Baha'is have been issued new ID cards with the field allocated for religious affiliation left blank following years of legal struggles for state recognition. The move follows a January 2008 court decision that granted Baha'is in Egypt the right to leave the box for religious faith unfilled on their ID cards and birth certificates. Egypt, otherwise, only officially recognizes Islam, Christianity and Judaism, leaving adherents of other faiths to live as second-class citizens in their own country.
Egypt Bahai twin id card

BEIRUT, August 11, 2009 (MENASSAT) — Sixteen-year old twins Nancy and Emad Hindy obtained their new ID cards over the weekend and will now be able to practice their full citizen rights in Egypt for the first time in their lives.

Official documents like identity cards and birth certificates are obligatory in Egypt and not having them can cause immense obstacles. Egyptians cannot enroll in schools or universities, receive medical treatment, or even buy a car without a national ID card. Not carrying an ID card with you if you are over 16 years of age is considered a criminal offense.

But in order to obtain an ID card or birth certificate one must claim to be an adherent of one of Egypt’s three state religions: Islam, Christianity, or Judaism.  Hence, those of other religious faiths who do not want to be “religious posers” and change religion on their official papers, effectively become "stateless" in their own country, without the right to access the most elementary public services.

The Hindy twins, for example, have been unable to obtain birth certificates as Baha'is and could therefore not enroll in school in Egypt as a result. Instead, their father had to send them to neighboring Libya for schooling.

Given this policy, most Egyptian Baha'i have up until now tended to only posses passports-- the only official Egyptian document that doesn't require statement of religious affiliation.

In 2004, Raouf Hindy, the father of the two twins, decided to take on the authorities and filed a legal case demanding that the Egyptian government recognize their faith on the new computerized ID cards. Their case was brought to court along with that of Hosni Hussein Abdel-Massih, a young student of Baha'i faith who was suspended from university due to his inability to present an identity card.

Egypt's Supreme Administrative Court reversed a December 2006 ruling in favor of the Baha'i after the government appealed. But in January 2008, the Baha'is won again in an appeal. 

The case was represented by the Cairo-based NGO Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), which argued in the suit against the Interior Ministry that forcing Baha'is to list their faith as one of the three religions officially recognized by the state is a violation of the right to freedom of belief, equality and privacy, in addition to being a breech of Islamic Sharia law.

Article 40 of the Egyptian constitution stipulates that “all citizens are equal before the law. They have equal public rights and duties without discrimination due to race, ethnic origin, language, religion or creed.” Article number 46 reads that “the State shall guarantee the freedom of belief and the freedom of practice of religious rites.”

EIPR director Hossam Baghat welcomed the implementation of the January 2008 court decision, while referring to the case as a “correction of a mistake,” rather than a victory.

“While we welcome this step, its neither a step forward nor behind. The Baha'is became victims of an arbitrary policy when the authorities started saying that they misidentified as Christians or as Muslims,” he told MENASSAT in a phone interview.

Although the court ruled in favor of the Baha'is in 2008, none of them have been able to obtain official documents up until now. Baghat stressed that the issuance of the new religiously-neutral ID cards over the weekend holds both administrative as well as symbolic value.

“Looking at it from a larger picture, the significance of this new policy is that-- for the first time-- it establishes an administrative system that recognizes that one can be Egyptian and not adhere to one of the three main religions. So it has symbolic as well as legal significance,” he said.

EIPR is a leading advocate for the rights of minorities in Egypt and has spearheaded the campaign that called for state recognition of Baha'is a few years ago. Following the actual issuance of the new ID cards, Baghat says his organization will adopt more of a monitoring role to make sure that the implementation of the court decision is conducted in a righteous manner.

“Now when the system has started working, our role will be a monitoring one to make sure other applicants won’t be faced by prejudice or bureaucracy,” he said.

Media flurry

The Baha'i religion was founded by Bahá'u'lláh in nineteenth-century Persia. It emphasizes the spiritual unity of all humankind. There are an estimated five to six million Baha'is around the world in more than 200 countries and territories.

Baha'is have been living in Egypt for more than a hundred years and Egypt became in fact the first Muslim country to recognize the Baha'i faith as an independent religion apart from Islam in 1924.

But ever since President Nasser shut down the Baha'i national assembly in the 1960s, and the government proceeded to confiscate Baha'i properties such as libraries and cemeteries, there has been no official record of the group. Baha'i institutions and community activities remain banned under Egyptian law to this day.

The struggle of the Baha'i community for state recognition has received prominent media coverage in Egypt in recent time. While some have expressed support for the group, a number of hardliners and conservatives have launched attacks on the Baha'i community in Egyptian mass media. 

Following an Egyptian TV show in which Egyptian media commentator Gamal Abdel Rahem referred to Baha'i activist and dentistry professor Dr. Basma Gamal Musa as an apostate and called for her killing, scores of Muslim villagers attacked the homes of members of the Baha'i faith in a town in southern Egypt, hurling stones and firebombs at their houses and shouting “No God but Allah” and “Baha'is are enemies of Allah.”

In an interview with MENASSAT following the attacks, Cairo-based Baha'i blogger Shady Samir referred to the events as a result of people's ignorance towards his faith.

“For years, people have been fed lies about the Baha'i faith and the Baha'is. This reaction is nothing but a climax of the ignorance they have about the faith. When someone like Gamal Abdel Rahem claims on a TV show that the Baha'is have to be killed, someone will decide to carry out this killing by himself,” he said.

Samir himself has received several threats over the years as a Baha'i blogger.

Among those who have stood in solidarity with the Baha'i community is Egyptian film maker Ahmed Ezzat, whose 2007 documentary film "Identity Crisis" portrayed the situation of Egyptian Baha'is.

The film focuses in part on the December 2007 verdict  that ruled in favor of the Interior Ministry. It shows a group of Islamist activists at the courthouse triumphantly shouting "Allahu Akbar" (God is Great) while holding up the Quran before a stunned group of Baha'is, human rights activists and journalists.

One of the Islamist activists, Mohamed Salem, proceeds to state before the camera that Baha'is are apostates and that "infidels should be killed."

The film goes on to interview rights activists and Egyptian Baha'i such as Dr. Musa, who claimed that Egypt's highest Islamic institution, Al-Azhar, issued a certificate stating she was an apostate, which delayed her tenure for several years.

Ezzat's film was banned from several Egyptian film festivals, including the Alexandria Film Festival.

Hundreds of applications for “religiously neutral” ID cards have apparently been filed by Egyptian Baha'is since April of this year.