Friday, December 15, 2006

Egypt: Test for Religious Freedom

Test for Egypt religious freedom in Bahai verdict
Jailan Zayan
December 15, 2006

CAIRO -- Ragi Labib, a young Egyptian university graduate, cannot find a job, buy a car, or open a bank account. By next year, he may not even be able to prove his identity. Why? Because he is a Bahai.

When the government announced four years ago that only Islam, Christianity, and Judaism were recognized as religions on official papers, the ID card on which he had scribbled the name of his faith became invalid.

"We don't mind omitting religion from ID cards altogether, or being allowed to insert 'other' in the religion field. But we don't want to lie about our religion on official documents," the 25-year-old said.

Now he fears that, despite being born in Egypt to Egyptian parents, his own children will not be recognized as Egyptian citizens.

Egypt's small Bahai community - fewer than 2,000, according to official figures - is eagerly awaiting a December 16 court ruling on the right of Bahais to obtain legal documents that state their religion.

In Egypt, carrying identity papers at all times is required by law and essential for access to employment, education, medical, and financial services.

The Bahai case gained local attention and sparked more than 400 press articles after an April ruling upheld Bahais' right to state their religion on their ID papers, but it is being appealed by the interior ministry.

Before April, most Egyptians had not heard of the Bahais, who are often registered by clerks as Muslims or Christians.

"I had to study the Christian religion at school, because Labib is traditionally a Christian surname in Egypt," said Ragi.

The case has exposed a loophole in Egypt's constitution, which assures that all citizens are equal before the law but also states that laws are to be derived from Sharia - Islamic law - which recognizes only three religions.

Hossam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, argues that the case transcends the small Bahai community in Egypt, and says that it will have a wider impact on religious freedom.

"The case will define the boundaries of the state's involvement in people's personal affairs," he said.

"We're not sure what will happen to us if the court rules against us," said Anwar Shawki, 29, who like Ragi is a fifth-generation Bahai. "But we won't leave Egypt, it's our country," said the entrepreneur who could not get his private furniture business running for three years because he lacked a valid ID. He had to register the business in a friend's name.

"I even had to buy his mobile phone for him because he didn't have the right paperwork," said Alaa Al Battah, 33, who is registered as a Muslim, as he and Anwar showed their almost identical mobile phone numbers.

Bahais have been in Egypt for as long as the religion has existed - 163 years.

The faith, which was founded in nineteenth-century Persia, promotes the idea of progressive religious revelation, resulting in the acceptance of most of the world's religions.

Sheikh Ali Gomaa, Egypt's grand mufti, the government-appointed interpreter of Islamic law, has refused to recognize the faith, and said that all Bahais should be registered as Muslims on the country's new electronic ID cards, which will have replaced the old paper ones by next year.

"There are only three religions in Egypt, and there is no place for anyone to come after that. Bahais, just as Muslims, believe in all three religions and therefore should be listed as Muslims, not Bahais," he told Egyptian satellite television.

Under the late president Gamal Abdel Nasser, Bahais were suspected of collaborating with Israel because the faith's highest governing institution is based in Haifa. In 1960, Bahai assemblies and institutions were dissolved.

"Israel was created in 1948 and our faith has been around for a lot longer," said Ragi's father Labib Hanna, professor of engineering at Cairo University.

The former grand imam of Al Azhar, Sunni Islam's main seat of learning, Gad Al Haq Ali Gad Al Haq, described the Bahai faith as an "intellectual plague" that works "for the benefit of Zionism."

Between 1910 and 2005, five fatwas - or religious edicts - were issued declaring Bahais apostates. In 1946, a woman was forced to divorce her husband after he converted to the Bahai faith.

Of the faith's 12 principles including the unity of mankind, the elimination of all forms of prejudice, gender equality, and independent investigation of truth, it is obedience to government that is most highlighted in Egypt.

Egyptian Bahais will not join political parties, take part in demonstrations, or hold elections for their spiritual assemblies.

"We don't want to cause problems - we just want to exercise our rights as Egyptian citizens," Hanna said.

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