Tuesday, July 31, 2007

US Congress: Briefing on Religious Freedom in Egypt

Nina Shea, Vice Chair of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom has recently presented a Briefing on “Religious Freedom in Egypt: Recent Developments” before the Task Force on Religious Freedom Of the United States House of Representatives. The Commission's Annual Report was published on 2 May 2007. The section on Egypt is on pages 203-211 of the report. The testimony was presented by Ms. Shea on 23 May 2007.

As the briefing went into great details in describing the violations of religious freedoms of the various minorities in Egypt, and because of the known focus of this blog, this post will point mainly to the sections of the briefing where it mentioned the crisis currently facing the Baha'is of Egypt.

In the introductory paragraphs it states: "...These violations include continued prosecution in state security courts and imprisonment of those accused of “unorthodox” Islamic religious beliefs or practices, including those who are not militants; discrimination against, restrictions on, interference with, and harassment and surveillance of members of non-Muslim religious minorities, particularly Christians and Baha’is, by the Egyptian state security services...."

Later on it states: "...Under the Emergency Law, the security forces are given license to mistreat and torture prisoners, arbitrarily arrest and detain persons, hold detainees in prolonged pretrial detention, and occasionally engage in mass arrests. Thousands of persons have been detained without charge on suspicion of illegal terrorist or political activity; others are serving sentences after being convicted on similar charges. Non-Muslim religious minorities, particularly Christians and Baha’is, report discrimination, interference, harassment, and surveillance by these same state security services."

It also describes the specific issues facing the Baha'is in the following two paragraphs:
"Life in Egypt is particularly difficult for members of the Baha’i faith, whose institutions and community activities have been banned since 1960 by a presidential decree, leaving them unable to meet and engage in group religious activities. Over the years, Baha’is have been arrested and imprisoned because of their religious beliefs, often on charges of insulting Islam. Al-Azhar’s Islamic Research Center has issued fatwas (religious edicts) in recent years urging the continued ban on the Baha’i community and condemning Baha’is as apostates.

The Egyptian government’s requirement that religious affiliation be included on national identity cards especially affects the Baha’i community. Since only Islam, Christianity, and Judaism are protected under the Constitution, these are the only choices for religious affiliation, effectively preventing Baha’is from obtaining identity cards, which are needed for many basic transactions, such as opening a bank account, buying a car, or obtaining a driver’s license. There was a glimmer of hope in April 2006, when a lower Egyptian administrative court ruled that a Baha’i couple should be permitted to identify their religious affiliation on official government documents. However, this positive development proved short-lived, as the Interior Ministry appealed the ruling following the advice of religious authorities and some parliamentary members. A higher court suspended the original decision in May, creating a sense of insecurity in the Baha’i community. In December of last year, the Supreme Administrative Court ruling upheld the government’s discriminatory policy of prohibiting Egyptian Baha’is from obtaining a national identity card. When the Commission visited Egypt in July 2004, we met with representatives of the Baha’i community who expressed to us in very stark terms the ramifications for their lives in Egypt without identity cards—they would essentially be shoved to the perimeters of society and prevented from pursuing normal, everyday functions needed to sustain themselves."

Regarding Egypt's National Council for Human Rights (NCHR), the briefing states the following:
"On a positive note, the National Council for Human Rights (NCHR), a government-appointed advisory body which was formed in 2003, has emerged as an important entity in Egypt. The Commission met with a representative of the NCHR just yesterday, and was encouraged to hear of some of its new efforts in addressing religious freedom concerns. In November 2005, the NCHR announced the formation of a sub-group, the “Citizenship Committee,” to focus on religious freedom issues. As a result, the NCHR’s 2006 annual report contained increased reporting on religious freedom concerns, including on the situation of Baha’is; problems facing Jehovah’s Witnesses; violence targeting Christians; and the need for the government to pass a law on the construction of new places of worship for all religious groups."

The briefing concludes with the following recommendations:
"The Commission has made several specific recommendations for U.S. policy which are included in our Annual Report, which was just released three weeks ago. I would like to highlight a few of those recommendations if I may.

The Commission has recommended the U.S. government should establish a timetable for implementation of political and human rights reforms; if deadlines are not met, the U.S. government should reconsider the appropriate allocation of its assistance to the Egyptian government. Finally, in the context of the annual congressional appropriation for U.S. assistance to Egypt, Congress should require the State Department to report to it annually on the extent to which the government of Egypt has made progress on the issues described here and in my written testimony.

The Commission also recommends that the U.S. government urge the Egyptian government to:
. repeal the state of emergency, in existence since 1981, in order to allow for the full consolidation of the rule of law in Egypt, but ensure that the emergency decree is not replaced by other legislation that allows security forces to continue such actions as arbitrary arrest, pro-longed detention without charge, and torture and other ill-treatment;
. remove de facto responsibility for religious affairs from the state security services, with the exception of cases involving violence or the advocacy of violence;
. repeal Article 98(f) of the Penal Code, which “prohibits citizens from ridiculing or insulting heavenly religions or inciting sectarian strife”; allow for full access to the constitutional and international guarantees of the rule of law and due process for those individuals charged with violating Article 98(f); and release Internet blogger Abdel Karim Suleiman and any individuals convicted under Article 98(f) on account of their religion or belief;
. implement procedures that would ensure that all places of worship are subject to the same transparent, non-discriminatory, and efficient regulations regarding construction and maintenance;
. repeal a 1960 presidential decree banning members of the Baha’i community from practicing their faith and ensure that every Egyptian can obtain a national identity card by either (a) omitting mention of religious affiliation, or (b) making optional any mention of religious affiliation;
. cease all messages of hatred and intolerance, particularly toward Jews and Baha’is, in the government-controlled media; and
. more actively investigate religious-based violence against Egyptian citizens, particularly Coptic Christians, prosecute perpetrators responsible for the violence, and ensure compensation for victims.

Mr. Chairman, only a few years ago, our government was an outspoken advocate of democratic reform and human rights in Egypt. Yet, in the past year or so, U.S. policy has shifted and there have been missed opportunities by U.S. officials to express publicly their concerns regarding religious freedom. The U.S. government has become seemingly reluctant to condemn developments in Egypt that clearly signal a backsliding in human rights protections. Yes, Egypt is an important country—to the United States and in the world today. Yes, the Egyptian government appears to be making great efforts to combat extremism; yet, these same security services that work actively against extremists seem unable—or unwilling—to find the perpetrators of extremist violence against religious minorities and hold them to account.

Egypt also receives a substantial amount of U.S. assistance. It is critical that our government hold the Egyptian government accountable for its policies and practices that violate the human rights, including religious freedom, of so many Egyptians.

Thank you Mr. Chairman. I welcome any questions that you might have."

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Grand Mufti of Egypt on "Freedom of Religion"

The Washington Post has published a collection of articles, on 21 July 2007, under a section entitled "Muslims Speak Out" that featured, among others, Ali Gomma'a, the Grand Mufti of Egypt. One third of his statements were specific to the question of "Freedom of Religion in Islam."

Coverage of this article was also published in Arabic in Egypt's Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper and Al-Arabiya website.

The Washington Post describes the Grand Mufti as follows: "Since 2003, Dr. Ali Gomaa has served as the Grand Mufti of the Arab Republic of Egypt, a position of religious authority second only to the Sheikh al-Azhar. As one of Islam’s most respected scholars of Islamic law, Dr. Ali Gomaa oversees Dar al-Ifta, Egypt’s highest body for delivering opinions on religious law. Details"

In that section of the Washington Post the Grand Mufti stated the following when he addressed religious freedom question:

Freedom of Religion in Islam

The essential question before us is can a person who is Muslim choose a religion other than Islam? The answer is yes, they can, because the Quran says, “Unto you your religion, and unto me my religion,” [Quran, 109:6], and, “Whosoever will, let him believe, and whosoever will, let him disbelieve,” [Quran, 18:29], and, “There is no compulsion in religion. The right direction is distinct from error,” [Quran, 2:256].

These verses from the Quran discuss a freedom that God affords all people. But from a religious perspective, the act of abandoning one’s religion is a sin punishable by God on the Day of Judgment. If the case in question is one of merely rejecting faith, then there is no worldly punishment. If, however, the crime of undermining the foundations of the society is added to the sin of apostasy, then the case must be referred to a judicial system whose role is to protect the integrity of the society. Otherwise, the matter is left until the Day of Judgment, and it is not to be dealt with in the life of this world. It is an issue of conscience, and it is between the individual and God. In the life of this world, “There is no compulsion in religion,” in the life of this world, “Unto you your religion and unto me my religion,” and in the life of this world, “He who wills believes and he who wills disbelieves,” while bearing in mind that God will punish this sin on the Day of Judgment, unless it is combined with an attempt to undermine the stability of the society, in which case it is the society that holds them to account, not Islam.

All religions have doctrinal points that define what it is to be an adherent of that religion. These are divine injunctions that form the basis of every religion, but they are not a means for imposing a certain system of belief on others by force. According to Islam, it is not permitted for Muslims to reject their faith, so if a Muslim were to leave Islam and adopt another religion, they would thereby be committing a sin in the eyes of Islam. Religious belief and practice is a personal matter, and society only intervenes when that personal matter becomes public and threatens the well-being of its members.

In some cases, this sin of the individual may also represent a greater break with the commonly held values of a society in an attempt to undermine its foundations or even attack its citizenry. Depending on the circumstances, this may reach the level of a crime of sedition against one’s society. Penalizing this sedition may be at odds with some conceptions of freedom that would go so far as to ensure people the freedom to destroy the society in which they live. This is a freedom that we do not allow since preservation of the society takes precedence over personal freedoms. This was the basis of the Islamic perspective on apostasy when committed at certain times and under certain circumstances.

After reading this, one must ask the following questions:

1) What is the definition of a "religion other than Islam?"
2) It is a known fact that Egypt recognizes three religions only (Islam, Christianity & Judaism). What is the status of other religions then? Are these teachings and interpretations applicable to them? How about Hindus, Buddhists and Baha'is?
3) As the quotations from the Qur'an, included by the Grand Mufti, give no reference whatsoever to which religions a person is free to choose, Who is to decide then that only certain religions are to be acceptable for the individual choice of belief--without falling into the trap of being accused of "a crime of sedition against one’s society?" Why should there be any restrictions on personal freedom of belief in this age? Don't these restrictions violate the individual freedoms guaranteed by all international declarations of human rights, including those of Egypt's own constitution?
4) As 51% of the world's population does not belong to any of the three recognized religions in Egypt, what is the proportion of these world adherents that would be considered "to undermine the stability of the society" as stated by the Grand Mufti?
5) Who would make that judgement, i.e. a determination that a group of adherents is attempting "to undermine the stability of the society" and what criteria are to be used to make that determination?
6) Do his statements imply that Egyptian Muslims are free to convert to Christianity, Judaism or any other religions that are deemed not "to undermine the stability of the society" without any fear for their civil and human rights, or without a threat to their life?

I am sure that there are many other questions to ask, and I suspect that the readers would be eager to express their opinions and questions regarding this in the comment section of this post.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Egypt's Project for Law Against Discrimination

In the 17 July 2007 issue of Egypt's Nahdet Misr newspaper, an article was published describing Egypt's new project for a law that will prohibit discrimination between its citizens.

The article explains that Egypt's National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) was charged by the government with the responsibility of proposing a law that would eliminate all forms of discrimination in Egypt, including "the official resolution of the situation of the Baha'is, the inclusion of Copts living abroad in their deliberations, and addressing the prevailing trend of torture."

The NCHR will hold a convention on "citizenship" next November, which will address the matter of equal opportunity for all Egyptian citizens. Its recommendations will be passed on to the Egyptian Parliament in its forthcoming session that will address the elimination of all forms of discrimination between the citizens of Egypt.

In preparation for the November convention, the Council will hold several workshops/symposia. The first of which will be held on 30 July to discuss several issues regarding the ratification of the status of citizenship in Egypt, as well as preparing a law on equal opportunity and the elimination of discrimination between citizens.

A second session will be held on 18 August that will examine the problems facing Egyptians living abroad. It will address several issues of importance affecting that segment of citizens.

A third workshop will focus on the apparent prevalent trend of torture in Egypt and compensation for victims of torture.

A fourth workshop will address the crisis of official identity documents for adherents of religions that are not recognized in Egypt as "divine." Muhammad Fa'eq, Secretary General of the Arabic Network for Human Rights and chairman of the civil and political rights committee of the Council stated that this does not imply the official recognition of these religions, but its main goal is to guarantee the rights of these citizens to acquire official papers and identity documents that would allow them to have a normal life. This will also include those who have changed their religion.

Fa'eq confirmed that the Council will use examples of laws from Australia and Sweden in its efforts to find "a radical solution" for the elimination of discrimination and the implementation equal opportunity. He also asserted that Copts living abroad will be provided with the opportunity to participate in this project.

This is a huge step forward for Egypt in its efforts to find "radical solutions" for the civil and human rights crises that have plagued the country recently. The intentions of this project clearly conform to the high standards expected from such a nation that is endowed with the world's most ancient great civilization. If Egypt embarks and remains on such a path, its future will definitely be brighter and it can become again a beacon of light for the rest to admire.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Boutros Ghali Concerned With Egypt's Image in the World

Dr. Boutros Boutros-Ghali, former Secretary-General of the United Nations and currently the President of Egypt's National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) was interviewed recently by Egypt's government-owned weekly magazine Al-Mussawar. The article was published in the Magazine's 6 July 2007 issue.

The interview revealed Ghali's deep concern for the status of the Baha'is in Egypt. He pointed out that Egypt recognizes three religions only: Islam, Christianity and Judaism; that 51% of the world's population does not belong to any of these three religions. This creates a huge problem for Egypt when confronted with matters concerning some citizens of Egypt, such as the Baha'is, other residents of Egypt such as the Chinese, and visitors in Egypt such as Japanese tourists. He stressed that Egypt's current position implies that it does not recognize the religions of 51% of the world's population.

He also indicated that Baha'is in particular face major challenges in Egypt because of their inability to obtain ID cards, and that he has been in close contact with three attorneys from California who are working with him on finding a solution to the Baha'i case. This has led to his negotiations with Egypt's Minister of Interior Habib El-Adly. One solution would be the elimination of religious classification from Egyptian ID cards.

He expressed his concern with Egypt's image in the outside world because of its treatment of Baha'is, whose "large numbers in America cannot be ignored." It appears that he was misquoted when the magazine reported that he said that there are "about 6 million Baha'is in Chicago."

This appears to be a significant development regarding the Baha'i case in Egypt. Ghali's views, however, have been the same since this crisis began approximately a year ago, and that opinion did not seem to influence the government's position thus far. Egypt's National Council for Human Rights is a consultative body appointed by the Egyptian government, but it is not empowered with decision-making authority. It advises the government and the President who subsequently have the final say in whatever recommendations are put forth by the Human Rights Council.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Defense of Baha'is: New Site Up, Running & Active

The authors of the new site named "The Muslim Network for Baha'i Rights" have fixed the technical error with Internet Explorer (IE), which was encountered when clicking on any one of its links or comments tabs that caused the link to hang and not to respond. Partly because of that issue, apparently many readers were unable to make comments on the posts so they resorted to make comments on the parent site "MIDEAST YOUTH" instead, which thus far has 62 comments on the post announcing the initiation of the new site. In order to read these comments, which are quite interesting, you may click here.

Furthermore, in order to know more about the authors, the background and the motives behind this new site, you may want to read the FAQ section at this link.

In it, they write: "This network is composed of Arab and Iranian Muslim students and interfaith activists who do not approve of Baha’i human rights abuses within the Arab and Muslim world. We took it upon ourselves to do something about it, and we accept the risks and responsibilities behind setting up such a network to help and support our Baha’i brethren."

With the technical error now fixed, accessing the comment page is quite smooth, regardless of the type of browser one uses. The authors of the site are to be thanked for their efforts in maintaining and upgrading their site, which is now drawing heavy readership that includes strong support as well as some attacks and opposition from Islamist extremists. Their work demonstrates their unrelenting dedication to righteousness and justice, and it confirms their tenacity and courage in carrying out what they believe to be the right path.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Egypt: the Other Side of the Coin!

Yesterday, I received a comment on one of the videos posted on my YouTube site. The comment is about a news report by AlHurra Television regarding Egypt's National Council for Human Rights' symposium that examined the issue of ID cards for Egyptian Baha'is. The symposium was reported on last August in this blog and in this previous post.

The comment on YouTube, even though is insulting, can be seen to be quite amusing because it clearly betrays the sentiment of some extremists in the region and serves to expose the serious challenges facing Egyptian Baha'is in their homeland. For that I thanked the person making the comment!

The comment, submitted by a person named Abosooka, is quoted below in its entirety:

"Does tatooing a seen cross or wearing one, and writing "Christian" in religion-entry in an ID card differ?
Blow in ashes,plan evil,try to divide our nation, yet growth of non-muslim minorities centuries ago is an enough witness.
Game of Bahais and others,game of no-religion-entry in ID cards,use of weak faiths and disloyals, no rational beliver accepts that about muslim Egypt. Try in Iraq through "Horra" and your american servants ... Your end is the bottom of the sea!"

After reading this and comparing it to the material posted on the new site named The Muslim Network for Baha'i Rights, one can clearly see what this new Muslim Network is up against and get to truly appreciate how courageous and righteous this group of enlightened Muslims is!

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Twin Children Must Wait Longer Without Birth Cretificates

The case of the twin children Nancy and Emad got postponed until 4 September 2007 for a court decision on their fate. The question at hand is whether or not these Egyptian 14-year-old twins can obtain Egyptian birth certificates.

On 2 July 2004, Seeking Justice blog has posted a very well argued article regarding this case.

The children's Father, Dr. Raouf Hindy Halim is requesting, as a compromise, that in place of entering "Baha'i" in the religion section of the certificate, he would be content with entering "dashes" or leaving it blank.

Here is a piece of the "Seeking Justice" article:

"Several legal principles are at issue here. At the international level, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which Egypt is a signatory, states in Article 15 that “everyone has a right to a nationality.” Moreover, Article 2 provides that this right is guaranteed irrespective of one’s religious belief. The denial of birth certificates to these children, solely on the basis of their family’s religious affiliation, effectively denies them of their Egyptian citizenship and nationality, and the rights that accompany it, all in violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

One of the internationally-recognized human rights that these children are being denied because they cannot obtain birth certificates is the right of access to public education. More specifically, Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees that “everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages.” Without their birth certificates, Emad and Nancy are unable to attend public school, thus depriving them of a right that is clearly guaranteed to them through Egypt’s ratification of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The enlightened principles regarding education contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are directly echoed in Egypt’s own Constitution, Article 18 of which states: “Education is a right guaranteed by the State.” More generally, Egypt’s Constitutional Proclamation states:

The dignity of every individual is a natural reflection of the dignity of his nation, for each individual is a cornerstone in the edifice of the homeland. This homeland derives its strength and prestige from the value of each individual, his activity and dignity.

Emad and Nancy were born and raised in Egypt. Their parents and grandparents are Egyptian. What clearer example of a cornerstone of the edifice of the homeland could there be? What effect might the erosion of this cornerstone, through the denial of access to basic rights of citizenship, including education, have on the development and ultimate dignity, strength, and prestige of Egyptian society? Let us hope that the Egyptian Court rectifies this injustice on July 3."

It appears that, rather than expect another postponement on 4 September, there will be indeed a decision rendered by the court on that date. Hopefully this court will be inspired by its duty and responsibility to do justice to innocent children.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Iran Examined by the Muslim Network for Baha'i Rights

In its latest post today, The Muslim Network for Baha'i Rights addresses the persecution of the Baha'is of Iran. In its post titled "Iran must end its mistreatment of Baha’is," the Network states the following:

"On behalf of all the other Muslims who allowed for this to happen, by either being silent or by directly contributing to this human rights abuse, we would like to apologize. The Baha’i Faith in many ways remains to be a forbidden one in our societies until we officially recognize it as a religion, which its members should be able to practice as a right to religious and individual freedom. We stand by our Baha’i brothers and sisters through this struggle, and demand that this right be recognized by our governments, our people, and our school systems. We would like to see the day that our friends can say “I am Baha’i” with pride without facing any consequences or discriminative behavior. Muslim activists within Iran in particular must help the Baha’is within the country take this much needed step forward."

The post is accompanied by a video of the 20/20 TV program, regarding the systematic persecution of the Baha'is of Iran, which was broadcast in 1983 on ABC television. It also links to a 110 page report compiled by the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center.

To read the full article, please click here....

Sunday, July 01, 2007

New Site: The Muslim Network for Baha'i Rights

A new site, still in a draft form, has just been created. It is titled "The Muslim Network for Baha'i Rights." It's authors are "Muslim interfaith activists who are deeply concerned with the treatment of Baha’is within the Middle East." The authors host the well-known MIDEAST YOUTH and the ME Faith websites. In this site's first post, it states the following:

Why this website?
June 29th, 2007 by Admin

Many of you are probably wondering why a Muslim network in defense of Baha’i rights exist. The answer is very simple - the best way to promote tolerance, human rights, religious freedom and respect is to rally for a cause that doesn’t necessarily affect you. When you strongly believe in a value, you should apply it to all people equally regardless of their faith, cultural differences, political stance or nationality. If within your country this doesn’t happen, as a loyal citizen you should actively enforce that such rights be met for the sake of a better and more productive society.

In this network, there are a few things that one should keep in mind:

. The authors are Muslim interfaith activists who are deeply concerned with the treatment of Baha’is within the Middle East.
. We don’t believe in the Baha’i faith. But there are minorities within our societies who are practicing Baha’is and for that, their rights are very rarely recognized, simply because of their religious differences.
. We created this site to demand that the rights of Baha’i minorities is recognized by not only people, but by law.
. We respectfully demand that all governments within the Arab and Muslim world allow Baha’i citizens to have equal opportunities in all fields and to practice their faith freely without facing any threats or discrimination whatsoever.
. We would like to make the general public of the region be aware of Baha’i human rights abuses in order to take effective action against it. We can only successfully achieve the goals of this website if we move our citizens towards real action, no matter what our religious differences are. We are all civilians in need of basic rights, and thus we should join forces regardless of our differences and unite in a celebration of our diversity. Join us in this worthy struggle and make our goals a greater possibility in the name of freedom.

These authors are to be recognized and appreciated for their courage, clarity of vision, audacity and intellectual honesty. They truly reflect the pure essence and nature of Islam.

On another note, this blog "Baha'i Faith in Egypt" celebrates its one year and one month anniversary. The first post, entitled "Independent Religion," was published on 1 June 2006. One might ask: why one year and one month? the answer is quite simple: as I am not much into celebrations, it was simply forgotten to commemorate the one year anniversary, but was reminded today that this landmark had already passed, hence the anniversary is remembered now....