Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Electoral Process Can Be Dignified

Today, ballots were cast in Haifa for the election of the Universal House of Justice, supreme administrative head of the Baha'i religion. Every five years, members of all national administrative bodies of the Baha'i community, representing 166 countries, gather to elect the religion's Supreme Institution.

This process begins at the grassroots level, when Baha'is from every region elect their delegates who gather annually to elect their national spiritual assemblies. Subsequently, every five years, these national institutions are the ones that elect the Universal House of Justice. No electioneering and no lobbying.

Regarding the Baha'i electoral process, the following description was once given:
"The fundamental difference between the system of candidature and the Bahá’í system is that, in the former, individuals, or those who nominate them, decide that they should be placed in positions of authority and put themselves forward to be voted into it. In the Bahá’í system it is the mass of the electorate which makes the decision. If an individual ostentatiously places himself in the public eye with the seeming purpose of getting people to vote for him, the members of the electorate regard this as self-conceit and are affronted by it; they learn to distinguish between someone who is well known as an unintentional result of active public service and someone who makes an exhibition of himself to merely attract votes."
(From a communication dated 16 November 1988 written by the Universal House of Justice to the International Teaching Center)
As to the treatment of minorities according to the principles of the Baha'i teachings, the Guardian of the Baha'i religion, the late Shoghi Effendi, wrote:
"...If any discrimination is at all to be tolerated it should be a discrimination not against, but rather in favour of the minority, be it racial or otherwise. Unlike the nations and peoples of the earth be they of the East or of the West, democratic or authoritarian, communist or capitalist, whether belonging to the Old World or the new, who either ignore, trample upon or extirpate, the racial, religious or political minorities within the sphere of their jurisdiction, every organized community enlisted under the banner of Bahá’u’lláh should feel it to be its first and inescapable obligation to nurture, encourage, and safeguard every minority belonging to any Faith, race, class, or nation within it. So great and vital is this principle that in such circumstances, as when an equal number of ballots have been cast in an election, or where the qualifications for any office are balanced as between the various races, Faiths or nationalities within the community, priority should unhesitatingly be accorded the party representing the minority, and this for no other reason except to stimulate and encourage it, and afford it an opportunity to further the interests of the community...."
(Shoghi Effendi: The Advent of Divine Justice, pp. 28-29; Lights of Guidance, p. 527)
In order to get a glimpse of this unique process, please refer to the attached article, just published on the Baha'i World News Service. In this news coverage, one can read firsthand account of the proceedings of the convention as well some photographs documenting this momentous occasion.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Mideast Youth Launches Global Village TV

Mideast Youth network has just launched a beta version of Global Village TV. This is indeed an important and significant initiative intended to promote interfaith understanding and collaboration. Posted below is the formal announcement by Mideast Youth:

MEY launches Global Village TV in beta!
Author: Esra'a (Bahrain) - April 19, 2008

After months of hard work, Mideast Youth, with the enormous help of ByteSense, finally launched Global Village TV (GVTV). I would especially like to thank Umar for making this opportunity for us much easier than it would’ve been without his help and guidance.

GVTV is a dynamic, educational platform, co-created by Baha’is and Muslims working hand in hand to cultivate an interfaith community.

For the past few months, we have been working diligently on this initiative, in hopes that it would contribute to improving and advancing serious interfaith.

We realized that in many forums, in the process of interfaith, the Baha’i Faith, Yezidi faith, and many other religions are left out. This community aims to change that.

You can view a brief demonstration of this network here:

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

It is Time to Issue ID Cards to the Baha'is of Egypt

International Herald Tribune (IHT)'s Daily News Egypt has just published another article regarding the status of ID cards in Egypt. The Baha'is of Egypt remain without ID cards and birth certificates, even though the administrative court had allowed them the issue of these official documents and the Ministry of Interior had decided not to appeal the ruling.

Hossam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), who has been acting on behalf of the Baha'is in their quest for their civil rights, is asking for the immediate implementation of the court's ruling.

A couple of frivolous legal challenges, filed by extremist Islamist lawyers who are not party to the case, should not interfere with the swift implementation of the ruling, particularly when the Ministry of Interior showed no interest in objecting to this solution and had already announced its intention to use dashes "--" in place of "Baha'i" in the religion field on ID cards and birth certificates.

Considering the extreme hardship experienced by the Baha'is of Egypt, the Ministry of Interior would serve these Egyptian citizens best by removing all obstacles and instructing its employees and agents to issue these essential documents promptly.

Egypt needs to show its citizens and the rest of the civilized world that it can indeed protect its minorities. After all, isn't this how a modern society judged?

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Freedom of Speech Versus Anarchy in Egyptian Society

About two years ago, a group of concerned citizens in Egypt formed an organization called MARED, an acronym for "Masryoun [Egyptians] Against Religious Discrimination." The main goal of this group is to finally bring some sort of sanity to the current state of a deeply divided Egyptian society, a division rooted in religious discrimination and intolerance.

This group (MARED) is made up of highly respected intellectual members of the Egyptian society, such as academicians, journalists, businesspeople, government officials, scientists, human rights activists, artists, philosophers, religious thinkers and many others. Most of them are Muslim, but the organization also includes Christians and representatives of other religious and secular groups in Egypt.

A few months ago, MARED decided to make plans for holding its first congress, aimed at discussing the roots of and solutions for the crisis of religious divide and discrimination in the Egyptian society. The congress carried the slogan "Could Egypt be for All Egyptians?" Several prominent representatives of society including government officials, journalists, human rights activists and academicians were invited to make presentations at this forum. Among those invited was a representative of the Baha'i community of Egypt who would make a presentation on the current status of that community in its quest to obtain its civil rights.

The congress was scheduled for 11 & 12 April 2008 and a hall at the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate in Cairo was reserved and paid for by MARED. The congress' agenda was prepared, was shared with the syndicate and was publicly announced.

Just a few days before the congress, a member of the journalists syndicate's council, who portrayed himself as a protector of Islam, went on a nationally televised program (View it here) and made direct threats to the congress and to the representative of the Baha'i community, naming her in person and accusing her of apostasy. He called for her punishment according to his own interpretation of Islamic law. He also called for her arrest on the spot if she appears at the congress. He misrepresented the purpose of the congress and went further to promise "a catastrophic event to happen on the day of the congress" if it were to be held as planned.

The night before the congress, this gentleman accompanied by a band of his supporters, later described by the Egyptian media as members of Muslim Brotherhood (MB) movement, occupied the Journalists Syndicate building and barricaded themselves inside. They posted placards on its walls with insults directed at the congress, Israel, the Coptic Christians and the Baha'is.

The following morning, the head of the syndicate arrived to open the building for the congress and had to force himself in, as shown in the above attached video depicting the events of that morning. After being verbally and physically assaulted by this barricaded group of extremists, some of whom still wearing their pajamas and others armed with sticks and bats, he was finally able to enter the building, and through intermediaries attempted to negotiate with those inside the building.

After he had encountered much shouting, he emerged from the building and apologized to the MARED group for his inability to assist them in holding their congress as planned. Consequently, representatives from Tagamoh [Unity] Party invited those planning the event to proceed to move the congress to the Tagamoh Party building. As a result, the congress was held, as scheduled, but in this new location. The Baha'is were also able to make a presentation at the congress.

Al-Hurrah TV reported on the congress in this news clip:

An unprecedented amount of extensive Egyptian media coverage ensued (see a partial list here). Some of the articles printed in English can be seen here and here. Journalists were outraged at the fact that their syndicate was violated in such a way and were infuriated by how the head of their Syndicate was treated, in such disrespectful manner, by that band of disorderly and fanatic individuals. The very freedom and integrity of the press was felt to be under siege and in great danger if such a trend is allowed to emerge and continue.

Consequently, the person--who is also a member of the syndicate--responsible for this illegal action was referred to the investigative committee of the syndicate and a few days later was sentenced, in an unrelated case, to three months imprisonment and monitory fines for insulting another member of the syndicate's council during one of its past meetings. Additionally, the head of the syndicate, as a result of the humiliation he had endured at the hands of this gang of men, has offered to resign his position.

Of great interest, a spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood who is also a council member of the syndicate, as reported in the attached newspaper article, "denied any relation of Muslim Brotherhood to the crisis" and added that "the Brotherhood is not responsible for Islam in Egypt, but rather all Egyptians are responsible for it," pointing to the fact that "this represents freedom of belief." He also "welcomes the Baha'is to the Journalists Syndicate at any time."

To this date, much more media coverage continues in leading newspapers, magazines, blogs, television and radio. The subject is indeed taking on a life of its own.

When one tries to reflect on these events, it must be said that much learning can be gained from such a crisis, for example:
1) The Egyptian society can and will resist anarchy.
2) Many well-informed Egyptians can see through injustice and will stand up for the rights of the oppressed, even though their stand can place them in harm's way.
3) The wind of change and progress is unstoppable, even by those who continue to aggressively intimidate and terrorize their fellow citizens.
4) Sooner or later, justice tends to always prevail.
5) The resistance and this crisis created by the extremists has, unintentionally, reinforced the legitimacy of MARED and had placed the issue of religious discrimination in the spotlight.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Baha'is of Egypt Still Waiting for ID Cards

Since the 29 January 2008 court ruling and its subsequent acceptance by the Ministry of Interior, no Baha'i in Egypt has been able to receive an ID card or a birth certificate.

The Ministry, through the media, has declared its decision not to appeal the ruling and its intention of allowing dashes "--" in place of "Baha'i" in the religion field of these official documents.

Baha'is in Egypt continue to face a variety of hardships on a regular basis because of being deprived of holding these important official documents that are required for their daily living.

It is expected and hoped that the Ministry of Interior will want to avoid all current distractions and proceed with the implementation of its decision expeditiously. After all, it is entirely up to the Ministry to proceed without delay in applying this--mutually acceptable--solution to all Baha'is in Egypt, and not only to those three individuals who were involved in the lawsuit. Clearly, the Ministry has the power and authority to do so. Delays can only add to frustrations and would not reflect well on the image Egypt is trying to portray to the rest of the world.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Egypt's Interior Ministry Decides on "Dashes" for Baha'i IDs

In its 2 April 2008 edition, Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper reported that the Ministry of Interior has just decided that the only option that will be given to the Baha'is of Egypt is to insert dashes "--" instead of leaving the religion field blank or writing "other" on ID cards.

The Ministry clarified that "leaving the religion field blank might open the door to inappropriate manipulation of official documents."

This decision was expected since the Ministry has been considering its options on what choice it would make following Cairo's Court of Administrative Justice ruling on 29 January 2008 to allow the Baha'is obtain ID cards and birth certificates.

The court permitted three options for registering their religious affiliation. These options were: 1) "other," 2) dashes "--" or 3) to leave the field blank. As to which choice would eventually be used, the court had left the final decision for the Ministry of Interior to make.

This announcement is an indication that progress is being made by the Ministry in its efforts to proceed expeditiously with granting the Baha'is of Egypt their identity documents and birth certificates.

In a related case involving Egyptians who have returned to Christianity after having been declared Muslims at some point in their lives, the Ministry has decided to enter "formerly declared Muslim" on their ID cards that will be issued stating that they are currently "Christian."

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Egypt's Ministry of Interior Will Not Appeal Ruling on Baha'is

Egypt's Ministry of Interior has announced, through its sources, that it will not appeal the 29 January 2008 administrative court ruling that allowed the Baha'is of Egypt the issue of ID cards and birth certificates.

Based on its interview with sources in the Ministry of Interior, an article in Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper revealed the news today. It states that the Ministry has approved the ruling and decided not to appeal even though the law permits it to do so.

Its opportunity for appeal had already lapsed since, under Egyptian law, the defendant is entitled a period of two months to file an appeal. The Ministry had elected not to do so based on its assessment of the merits of the case and that the ruling has provided the government with a reasonable option to solve this complex matter.

The Ministry will issue ID cards without religious identification indicated, or with "--" in the religion field. The Ministry affirmed that "this does not imply that it recognizes the Baha'i religion."

At this point, the responsible government agency will start issuing ID cards to those whom the ruling applies to. It did not research yet the possibility of granting ID cards to others who request no mention of religion in their documents.

The same article reported also on the issue of religious identification on official documents required for high school graduation exams. The Ministry of Education source stated that the students will be given the choice to be either examined on Christianity or Islam. The question of what the students will be allowed to enter--as religion--in the application forms remains to be resolved.