History of the Persecution of the Bahá’ís of Egypt
Although it faced periodic episodes of religious discrimination through the early half of the 20th century, the Bahá'í community of Egypt's greatest challenge came in 1960, when President Gamal Abdul Nasser issued a decree dissolving all Bahá'í assemblies, banning Bahá'í activities, and confiscating all Bahá'í properties. The Decree remains in effect and is the underlying source of the Bahá'í community's oppression today.
Designated as Presidential Decree 263, the proclamation came without warning or explanation. In just six short paragraphs, issued on 19 July 1960, President Nasser effectively shut down the Bahá'í Faith as an organized religion in Egypt.
"All Bahá'í Assemblies and Centers existing in the two regions of the Republic are hereby dissolved, and their activities suspended," states the opening paragraph of Decree 263/1960. "Individuals, bodies and institutions are forbidden to engage in any activity, as was conducted by these Assemblies and Centers."
The Decree further stated that all "properties and possessions" of Bahá'í Assemblies and Centers would be taken over by the Ministry of the Interior. And, indeed, all Bahá'í properties — including the community's national headquarters building, its libraries and its cemeteries — as well as all Bahá'í funds and assets were soon confiscated. These assets have not been returned to this day. Some important properties, such as some 17,000 square meters of land along the Nile that Bahá'ís had purchased for a future House of Worship, were sold at public auction. Other confiscated Bahá'í properties were turned over to the Islamic Association for Teaching the Qur'an.
Children in Ismailia Baha'i Centre, Egypt (circa 1950)
The Decree further made Bahá'í activities to be criminal offenses, punishable by a minimum imprisonment of six months and/or a fine of 100 to 1,000 Egyptian pounds.
No official reason was ever given for the Decree, and to this day the Bahá'í community of Egypt can only speculate about the Government's motivations. Recent accounts in the Egyptian press have connected the ban with old and entirely false accusations, which are also commonly given in Iran to justify the persecution of Bahá'ís there, that Bahá'ís are somehow spies for Israel — an accusation that arises because the Bahá'í World Centre is located in Haifa, Israel. A more likely answer is simply the intolerance that fundamentalist Muslims have for the Bahá'í Faith because of their belief that Muhammad is the "Seal of the Prophets" and no religion can therefore follow Islam.
Effects of the Decree
The Government initially 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, Bahá'ís in Egypt have nevertheless faced episodes of harsh persecution, along with continuous restrictions on their personal, religious and social activities.
Since 1960, groups of Bahá'ís have been imprisoned on charges related to the Decree and solely because of their religious convictions at least seven times. These episodes include:
• In May 1965, 39 Bahá'ís were arrested and accused of having re-established the Bahá'í administration, and of having held meetings in their homes to which Muslims were invited for the purpose of teaching them the Faith. The court trial continued until 10 November 1977, when the case was thrown out of court.
• In June 1967, immediately after the armed conflict between Egypt and Israel, a number of Bahá'ís were held in detention camps for about six months. They were detained without charges or explanation. During their incarceration, they were physically abused, inadequately fed, and prevented from sleeping.
• In February 1985, 41 Bahá'ís were arrested on the charge of running a group aimed at resisting the basic principles of the State. A subsequent trial generated an intense and widespread campaign in the Egyptian press, featuring more than 200 newspaper articles, that denounced the Bahá'í Faith as an apostasy whose members deserved the death penalty.
• In May 1987, the courts sentenced the Bahá'ís to three years imprisonment with labor. The verdict aroused protest in Western circles, and the decision was overturned on appeal, with all 41 Bahá'ís being ultimately acquitted.
• In March 1997, three Bahá'ís in Al Ghardaqa were arrested. They were questioned directly about Bahá'í belief and teachings. After ten days, they were released without explanation.
• In January 2001, 16 Bahá'ís in Shawraniya near Sohag were arrested in January 2001, on the accusation of "immorality," according to the semi-official newspaper Al-Ahram. The 16 were held for nearly nine months at a Cairo prison but all were ultimately released without charge or explanation.
Both the arbitrary restrictions and the incidents of arbitrary arrest and imprisonment have created a climate of fear that effectively suppresses the Bahá'í community. Moreover, Egyptian legal decisions upheld against the Bahá'ís over the years have reduced them to second-class citizens in matters of family, education, and employment.
Bahá'í marriages are not legally recognized in Egypt, a fact that affects a whole range of family issues. Individuals have no recourse on inheritance, pension, alimony, child maintenance, and divorce. Unrecognized marriage is regarded as cohabitation, equivalent with adultery in Middle Eastern countries like Egypt, and children are stigmatized as illegitimate.
Freedom of worship, likewise, is severely restricted. The Egyptian courts have consistently interpreted Decree 263 as a general ban even on any type of community worship or observance by Bahá'ís, as well as a ban on teaching other people about the Bahá'í Faith.
On 27 April 1967, for example, the court of first instance of Al-Zaytoun issued a judgment that even organizing studies based on Bahá'í books or the exchange of Bahá'í materials could be punishable by the Decree.
Bahá'ís have also faced discrimination in education and employment. In 1983, for example, a young Bahá'í was expelled from the University of Alexandria because he insisted on listing his religious affiliation as Bahá'í.
To be continued....