Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Egypt and ID Cards: Exclusion by Classification!

In its most recent edition, the Cairo weekly "Watany" newspaper published a comprehensive article on the current status of the Baha'is of Egypt. The article is titled "Bahai’s: a case of civic death."

Watany newspaper describes itself as follows: "Watani is an Egyptian weekly Sunday newspaper published in Cairo. The word Watani is Arabic for “My Homeland”. The paper was founded in 1958 by the prominent Copt Antoun Sidhom (1915 – 1995), who strove for the establishment of a civil, democratic society in Egypt, where all Egyptians would enjoy full citizenship rights regardless of their religious denomination. This remains Watani’s objective to this day, leaning neither left nor right on the political level, but following its own clear course in the press field. Those in charge of Watani view this role as a patriotic all-Egyptian vocation, especially following the increasing marginalisation of the Coptic role, issues and culture within the Egyptian society over the past half century. Watani is deeply dedicated to offer its readers high quality, extensive, credible press coverage, with special focus on Coptic issues, culture, heritage, and contribution to Egyptian society."

The article in its entirety is posted below:

Bahai’s: a case of civic death
Nasser Sobhy

Late last month the Cairo administrative court postponed, for the fifth time since 2004, ruling in the case of the Baha’is, who require their religion to be cited in their ID documents. Their case against the Interior Ministry was adjourned to 22 January. The ministry refuses to cite Baha’i as a religion in ID documents on grounds that the Egyptian Constitution acknowledges only three religions: Islam, Christianity and Judaism. Baha’is are thus required either to be officially cited as members of one of these three faiths, or to be left out in the cold with no ID documents and no rights or duties as Egyptian citizens.

The only option

Since 2004, Baha’is have undergone a serious crisis that threatens their very existence in Egypt. Even if they have IDs and birth certificates proving their belonging to the Baha’i religion, and even if their parents are or were Baha’is, they cannot be officially recognised in Egypt as Baha’is. Prior to the 2004 decision Baha’is had every right to be officially registered as such or, if they chose to, to leave the religion box in their ID documents vacant.
The only option thus left to Baha’is was to take their case to court. In April 2006 the administrative court ruled that they had the right to cite their religion in formal papers, but the State appealed the ruling and the Supreme Administrative Court ruled in its favour. The State is thus not obliged to cite Baha’i as a religion in formal papers. Noteworthy is that this ruling contradicts a previous one on the same question issued in 1983.

No education, no life

Meanwhile, the Baha’i Raouf Hindi filed a lawsuit demanding the right to birth certificates for his twin children, Emad and Nancy, citing their religion as Baha’i. The twins were born in a Gulf country and were registered as Bahai’s, but when they came back to Egypt, the Civil Registration Office refused to issue birth certificates proving their religion. To date the court has not had its say on the issue. Another case before the court was filed by the Baha’i university student Hussein Hosni Bekheit Abdel-Messih who was dismissed from college for failing to hand in, among his application documents, a computerised ID and a military service certificate. The Administrative Court issued a ruling obliging the Ministry of Defence to hand him a certificate and the Ministry of Education to allow him to attend the final exam, but the State appealed and a ruling has yet to be issued.
As for infants, if their parents do not register them as Muslim, Christian, or Jew, they can possess no birth certificate, meaning they have to go without the mandatory vaccination required and provided by the Health Ministry and, later in their lives, cannot be enrolled in school. They continue to live with no formal identity, leading to dire results. Males who reach the age of 16 could be sentenced to prison for evading the military service they can only perform if they possess Egyptian ID documents. And Baha’is can have no death certificates; their families cannot collect pensions. The only document they can have is the passport, since it contains no religion box.

Killing identities

Last November Human Rights Watch (HRW) in conjunction with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) issued a report on “Prohibited Identities: State Interference with Religious Freedoms” in which it tackled, among other issues, the question of Baha’i identity. Joe Stork, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa division of HRW met Ahmed Amr, senior assistant of the Minister of Interior. The latter defended the ministry’s policies and asserted that the insertion of the Baha’i faith in official papers would lead to a disruption of public order. Mr Stork aptly commented that officials in the Egyptian Ministry of Interior believed that they held the right to choose the religion for citizens. “Such intransigent policies are aimed at killing people’s identities, and consequently serve to persecute individuals,” he said.
The EIPR indicates that the Egyptian government uses Islamic sharia or legal code to justify banning people from enjoying the rights they are entitled to by the Egyptian law and international conventions. EIPR manager Hussam Bahgat, explained that sharia had no conclusive position vis-à-vis administrative issues such as the religion box in the formal papers of modern States. “Removal of the religion cell from formal papers would be a proof of the State’s neutrality with respect to people’s religious commitment, he said; the core of the problem lies with the State’s persistence in registering people’s religion in formal papers.”

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