Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Decree-263 and the Persecution of Egyptian Baha'is (Part-2)

This series on Decree 263 and its impact on the rights of the Baha'is of Egypt began in this previous post. The entire report is cited from a publication by the Baha'i International Community on the persecution of this religious minority in Egypt. Pictures are added by the author of this blog.

The Decree and International Law

By any moral standard, the Decree is unfair and unjust. The principles of the Bahá'í Faith stress obedience to duly constituted governments, and the Bahá'ís of Egypt, in keeping with the teachings of their Faith, do not and have never become involved in partisan politics. They are committed to non-violence. They desire only to be recognized as full citizens of their country, actively promoting the progress and advancement of Egyptian society at large. The persecution and discrimination they face comes only because of their religious beliefs.

Baha'is of Alexandria, Egypt (circa 1940)

In theory, the Egyptian Constitution upholds freedom of religious belief. However, The Egyptian Supreme Court issued a decision in 1975 that upholds the Decree. The Court characterized the Bahá'í belief system as "evil," immoral, and a threat to public order. As the "Constitution guarantees the freedom of practice only to those religions recognized by Islam, i.e., Judaism and Christianity," the Court concluded that: "Belief in the Bahá'í Faith is considered apostasy. Therefore, the practice of that Faith is against Public Order, which is essentially based on Islamic Law (Shariah)."

However, religious discrimination such as that faced by the Bahá'ís of Egypt is clearly counter to international human rights treaties and covenants to which Egypt is a party. Specifically, Egypt was one of 48 members of the United Nations that in 1948 jointly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which recognizes that "everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion," including the right "to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance," either alone or as a community.

Moreover, Egypt in 1982 ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, an international treaty that further codifies the rights outlined in the UDHR. The Covenant even more clearly spells out the right to freedom of religion, stating in Article 18 that:

1. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.

2. No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to

3. Freedom to manifest one's religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.

While Egyptian Government officials have told the United Nations that the "public order" provision of Article 18 applies in their refusal to recognize the Bahá'í Faith as a legitimate religion, international human rights experts have rejected Egypt's argument and stated that Article 18 clearly applies to Egypt in the case of the Bahá'ís.

Egyptian delegation to signing of Universal Declaration of Human rights, San Francisco, USA (10 December 1948)

In 1993, for example, the UN Human Rights Committee that oversees implementation of the Covenant, said this about Egypt's compliance under the treaty in relation to Bahá'ís:

"[T]he Committee is worried about restrictive legal provisions existing in Egypt with regard to freedom of thought, conscience, religion, assembly and association. Restrictions not in conformity with article 18 of the Covenant regarding various religious communities or sects, such as Bahá'ís, are a matter of particular concern."

The Bahá'í Faith is, of course, widely recognized as an independent world religion, clearly falling under the terms of the Covenant. And even if Egyptian statements that the Faith is an apostasy were to be accepted, it would nevertheless be no excuse under the framework of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Through the years, Bahá'ís have fought for their rights in the courts — with no success. They have also sought to deliver corrective statements to the press, virtually none of which have been published. Representatives of the Bahá'í International Community have also sought redress for their co-religionists in Egypt at various international forums. Bahá'ís can only guess at the reasons for the Government's unresponsiveness.

Some of the fatwas also wrongly connect the Faith with Zionism and/or colonialism — buzzwords that seem calculated to incite hatred.

To be continued....

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