Sunday, September 09, 2007

Egypt's Identity Crisis in Dutch Media

On 4 September 2007, the Dutch national newspaper "NRC Handelsblad" published an extensive article on the crisis of identity documents and religious classification in Egypt.

The translation of this article from Dutch to English was graciously provided by Dr. Martijn Rep, an academician from the Netherlands.

The article contains one error referring to future Prophets which was corrected in brackets.

NRC Handelsblad
4 september 2007
By Alexander Weissink

“According to Egyptian law we cannot even die”

An Egyptian is a Muslim, Christian or Jew; a Baha’i or Qur’anist does not exist

In Egypt there is no place for people who deviate from the three recognized religions. Everybody must be Muslim, Christian or Jew. And preferably the first. There is no freedom of choice. Unless you want to become Muslim.

Today, Raouf Hindi (51) appeared before the judge with his 14-year old twin Emad and Nancy. “Initially I did not want to expose them to the resentful Muslims and hostile press in the court”, he said. “But they must witness this experiment. We are going to write history.” They are Baha’i, a religion that is not recognized in Egypt. Because of that, the children have still not received their birth certificates.

Egyptian citizens are obliged to state their religion when applying for birth certificates and identity cards. There are three possibilities: Muslim, Christian or Jewish, the only divine religions, according to the authorities. “If you are not one of the three, you don’t exist”, Hindi says.

When he returned from twenty years working as a dentist in the Gulf, he had to change the birth certificates of his children, issued by Oman, into Egyptian documents. The original certificates mentioned that the children are Baha’i, but the authorities forced him to write 'Muslim'. He went to the judge to at least be able not to write any religion. “Then, at least we do not have to lie”, he said. “Because if we write 'Muslim' we will afterwards be accused of being an apostate. There are plenty of crazy people who believe such a person deserves death.” After four years of legal proceedings, the judge would pass judgment today.

Baha’is see their faith as a continuation of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths. They recognize the respective Prophets, but believe Muhammad was not the last Messenger from God. Baha’u’llah, who started the [Baha’i] movement one-and-a-half centuries ago in Iran, would be the ninth Prophet. A thousand years after his death a tenth and last Prophet will appear [“last Prophet” statement is incorrect…Baha’is believe that there is no end to Divine guidance and Messengers of God – MR]. In Egypt, there are at most a few thousand Baha’is. Worldwide there are an estimated five million, with Iran, India and the U.S.A. having the largest communities.

Two years ago, the government decided to exclusively issue electronically manufactured plastic identity cards. “Before that time, the authorities usually wrote ‘other’ in the religion section of our papers or left it blank”, says Hindi who showed his old, crumpled papers as evidence. “But when I came to register my children they registered me as Muslim in the computer.”

The old identity papers will no longer be valid by the end of this year. “From that moment on we are trapped”, says Hindi. “Without that card you can’t do anything. Babies are not vaccinated, children cannot go to school, banks do not want to open accounts and you cannot own a house or a car. Because we cannot get a marriage certificate, all our children are unlawful. We cannot even obtain a death certificate, because we do not exist. Officially, we cannot even die.”

The Baha’is are not the only ones who have problems with their papers because of their faith. Muslims who want to convert to Christianity have great difficulty to change their identity card. “Most, therefore, keep their old papers that mention ‘Muslim’ as long as possible. But when they want to marry or get children, they have to change their card”, tells Ramsis al-Naggar, a well-known lawyer who has specialized in cases involving conversion. “Muslim women who convert but haven’t changed their papers cannot marry a Christian. Converted men have to change their papers because otherwise the authorities will automatically register their children as Muslim.”

Hardly a week goes by without a new quarrel concerning a case of conversion in the Egyptian media. “That’s killing”, says Al-Naggar. “The trick is to attract as little attention as possible.” Of his 400 clients who have become Christian, he has been able to help only twenty-six to new papers. “A Christian who wants to become Muslim obtains a new card in only three hours. But a Muslim who wants to become Christian obtains, with a lot of luck, new papers in eight months,” says the lawyer. Even a court judgment is no guarantee. “The authorities cannot refuse, because that is against the law and international treaties, but they can delay endlessly.”

A young couple sits in the waiting room. The man wants to become Christian and marry the woman. That is all Al-Naggar allows them to say. “If their names become known, they will be harassed by fundamentalists who wish death upon them on the grounds of Islamic law. But those extremists know nothing of the law. They only yell ‘Shar’ia, shari’a, shar’ia’.”

The theoretically secular government, under fundamentalist pressure, more and more acts as guardian of Islam and in that function increasingly limits freedom of religion. But that, according to Hossam Bahgat, director of the human rights organisation “Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights,” is only part of the explanation. “It is too easy to think that those nasty fundamentalists force the government to do something annoying”, says Bahgat, whose organisation supports converts among others. “The most important cause of the discrimination is that all matters of religion are monopolized by the security service”, says Bahgat. “Any challenge to the status-quo is seen as a threat to the state. That is why the authorities are so rigid and the government responds so nervously when minorities demand recognition of their rights.”

The most recent victims of this are the Qur’anists. This movement, which has only a few dozen followers in Egypt, accepts only the Qur’an as God’s word and does not accept the hadith, the traditions on the Prophet, because the reliability of these cannot be verified. For the Sunnies, the large majority in Egypt, the hadith are an integral part of Islam. In May, five Qur’anists were arrested. They are still waiting for an official charge.

Hindi shakes his head. “We are not only viewed as apostates, but also as enemies of the state.” He paints a gloomy picture. “We call Egypt the oldest civilization of the world, but is this truly civilized? They force the people to lie and with that they create a land of hypocrites. Why do they ask for my religious faith anyway? Isn’t that something between me and God?”

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