Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Egypt's New Constitution: No Religious Freedom for Minorities

In today's post, The Muslim Network for Baha'i Rights, indicated that Baha'i Rights in Egypt will be gravely violated by Egypt's newly passed controversial constitution, which was passed by an Islamically dominated constituent assembly.

The post is titled: "What Would Egypt's New Constitution Mean for Baha'i Rights?" For ease of access, the full article is re-posted below.

It should be noted though that, in reference to the fourth paragraph of the post which addresses prosecution under [contempt of religion] article-44 of the constitution, it must be made very clear that Baha'is never engage in "insult or abuse of [all] religious messengers and prophets." Thus, any accusations or claims that might arise under such a "prohibition" or an "article" would be blatant fabrications. And according to recorded recent revelations by some of those participating in drafting the constitution, its wording is specifically intended to alienate religious minorities and put a final stop to any minimal freedoms or rights the Baha'is of Egypt might have left.

Here is the post:

“Article 43: Freedom of belief is an inviolable right. The State shall guarantee the freedom to practice religious rites and to establish places of worship for the divine religions, as regulated by law.”
-Egyptian Draft Constitution 
On December 15th and 22nd, Egyptians turned out to decide whether they would adopt their new constitution. Although the results have not been formally announced, the draft charter seems to have passed, despite the protests and intense debates that surrounded it. Many aspects of the constitution were discussed, including the role of religion in the state, what powers are granted to the military, and how well the constitution upholds the ideals of the Jan 25 revolution.
However, one conversation has been given little room in the context of the larger debate; should this constitution be passed, what would its effects be on the status of Egypt’s Baha’i minority?
Despite the fact that the constitution proudly declares “The individual’s dignity is an extension of the nation’s dignity”, the general consensus is that the Egyptian constitution fails to protect many individuals, mainly its minorities. There are no explicit protections against legal discrimination against women, and although the authority of Christians and Jews is recognized “for their personal status laws, religious affairs, and the selection of their spiritual leaders” (Article 3), it is still established that “principles of Islamic Sharia are the principal source of legislation.

” (Article 2).
In the case of the Baha’is, they are not recalled in the constitution at all. Without even the minimal protections granted to Christians and Jews, the implementation of the constitution would likely continue the present marginalization of the Baha’i community. This lack of formal recognition has far reaching consequences. The Muslim Network for Baha’i Rights already revealed the Minister of Education’s remarks about denying Baha’i children education in government schools. In addition, because the constitution does not grant protections to the Baha’i community, any Baha’i religious activity could potentially be prosecuted under Article 44, where “insult or abuse of all religious messengers and prophets shall be prohibited.”
The constitution in general gives much more room for established Islamic institutions such as al-Azhar to influence judicial decisions. Despite the presence of Article 43, which affirms “freedom of belief”, the constitution repeatedly establishes the role of the government in promoting Islamic and family values. At the very least, religious practices other than Islam will receive no support from the government, and likely will even be actively suppressed. For example, the phrasing of Article 215, which lays out the guidelines for the National Media Council, explicitly says that it will “observe the values and constructive traditions of society.” When mainstream Islamic scholars and long-standing institutions are the ones who influence the values and traditions of society, Article 215 leaves open the possibility that Baha’i media may be subject to censorship for failing to uphold the “constructive traditions of society.”
In essence, the draft constitution follows the lead of the Mubarak era in that it does nothing to protect the rights of Egypt’s Baha’i citizens. Unless all groups are explicitly allowed to fully function in society as equals, with the full right to Egyptian schools, media, and religious practice, then the demands of the January 25 revolution, for freedom and dignity for all, will go unfulfilled.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Egypt's Minister of Education will forbid schooling of Baha'i children

According to a recent article in Egypt's Al-Sabah (Morning) newspaper, the current Education Minister, Dr. Ibrahim Ghoniem, who is also a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, stated that he would not allow admission of Baha'i children into public schools.

The interview was about his vision for the future of education in Egypt, and his intentions regarding the operations of his Ministry and the administrative structure of the educational system and his relations to the various authorities and systems relating to his administration.

When he was asked "what is the position of the Ministry regarding the 'sons' of Baha'is' right to admission to the Ministry's schools?" He responded, "The law of the nation, based on the civil status laws, is that it does not recognize more than three religions, Baha'i is not one of them, therefore their sons have no right to admission to the Ministry's schools."

When reading this, one is left in a state of shock, and clearly there is so much to say and do to prevent such hideous acts from ever coming to fruition, but one's first response is to try to point out the injustice and some of the obvious and flagrant facts:

1) depriving innocent children their right to education merely because of their belief, or their parents' belief in this day in a so-called "modern country" cannot happen without major consequences.
2) only using the word "sons" and completely ignoring the "daughters!" Don't they exist? Is this the new language to be expected of this esteemed educator who is charged with the education of Egypt's next generation? Where is gender equality? Or should we assume that "daughters" are exempt from this exceptional and enlightened vision of the Minister, and they will be permitted admission to his prestigious schools?

Monday, October 15, 2012

Latest Media Coverage on Baha'is in Egypt

Yesterday, Daily News Egypt, Egypt’s Only Daily Independent Newspaper In English, published a comprehensive story about the life of the Baha'is in today's Egypt. As the article speaks for itself, it would only be fair to quote it in its entirety here:

Baha’is in Egypt

Lucy Provan  /   October 14, 2012  /   1 Comment
The 25 January revolution gave everyone hope for change, and the Baha’i hope for acceptance.
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Baha’s cheerful smiling face belies his family history. When Baha’s father, a Quranic sheikh in a village in Upper Egypt, converted to the Baha’i faith, their neighbours accepted his choice and the small community lived in peace. This changed early one morning in 2001, when armed men in army fatigues took away his father, mother, two uncles’ and one uncle’s wife. His father was sent to Tora prison for nine months, his mother for seven.
After this event and his father’s public admittal to being a Baha’i, “the village started to get a reputation for its Baha’is,” Baha remembers. “People from the other districts would gossip and it hurt the pride of the people in the village.”
All this came to a head in 2009, when Baha’s father and Baha’i activist, Basma Moussa, went on the TV show “Al-Haqiqa.” Gamal Abdel Rahim, a journalist on the show, accused them of being apostates. “You are an infidel and should be killed,” he told the two. “Go build a country in Israel.”
Soon afterwards, the Baha’i homes in Baha’s village were looted and torched. The Baha’is had to flee and have not returned since. Rahim, this year appointed editor-in-chief of Al-Gomhuria newspaper, congratulated the attackers.
Whether living accepted in communities around Egypt or being attacked for being Zionists spies, the fortunes of Egypt’s estimated 2,000 Baha’is have fluctuated since their arrival in the 1860s. Today, the draft Egyptian constitution only recognises three state religions; Islam, Christianity and Judaism, meaning the Baha’is could be written out of Egypt’s future. So who are the Baha’is and what are they going to do about it?
One Thursday night in Cairo, Baha is sitting on a large grey sofa, it is one of many gathered in a circle in the white apartment. Young men and women trickle in to the room, greeting each other warmly. In what seems an unwritten rule, no one questions each other’s religion; attendees have come from all faiths. “We have come to discuss our similarities, not our differences,” announces the host as the session starts. Slips of paper are handed out, printed with sayings from the Torah, Quran, Bible and other holy books. Sitting here you might not even guess it is a Baha’i devotional meeting, save for the framed photograph standing in the corner; a portrait of a turbaned man with violet coloured eyes.
The violet coloured eyes belonged to a Persian named Abdul Baha. He was the son of Mirza Hussein Ali, or Baha’u’llah, prophet of the Baha’i religion. Hussein Ali claimed to be the latest in a line of prophets including Abraham, Moses, Buddha, Krishna, Zoroaster, Christ and Muhammad. He believed humans were progressing towards a global society without conflict or prejudice. He promoted gender equality, universal education and the elimination of poverty. Baha’is believed in the independent seeking of truth, abrogation of the clergy, and election of Baha’i representatives. For these beliefs, Baha’u’llah was persecuted in his birthplace of Iran and imprisoned in Acre, modern-day Israel, where he died.
Abdul Baha toured the Middle East after his father’s death, spreading word of the new religion. While in Lebanon he met a kindred spirit; the Egyptian Mohamed Abduh. Abdul Baha would go on to spread a faith which now has seven million followers and is the second most geographically widespread religion after Christianity. Abduh would become the father of the modern idea of an Islamic state and a great influence on Hasan Al-Bana, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood. Their friendship indicates Egypt’s openness to Baha’is at the time.
Picture of Abdul Baha as a young man.
Picture of Abdul Baha as a young man.
“They discussed matters which concerned the east; how to progress and develop while protecting eastern and religious values and principles,” says historian Suheil Bushrui. “It was not an issue that he [Abdul Baha] was not a Muslim; at that time in the culture of the Arab world, and especially Egypt, there was a great deal of discussion and especially dialogue opening up and investigating new ideas.”
Early acceptance
By 1924, a Baha’i National Spiritual Assembly, the elected governing body of the Baha’i faith in Egypt, was established. It was the fourth in the world. Egypt became a hub for Baha’i pilgrims travelling to Acre. In 1925 in Beba, Upper Egypt, a Shari’a appellate court annulled the marriages of three Baha’i men who had married Muslim women. However, in so doing the judge legitimated the Baha’i faith, declaring it “a new religion, entirely independent with principles and laws of its own.” The Baha’i faith was officially recognised in 1934. By the late 1950s, there were approximately 5,000 Egyptian Baha’is, local Baha’i assemblies in 13 cities and towns and the community had purchased 17,000 square meters of land on the banks of the Nile for a Baha’i house of worship.
Basma Moussa, the Cairo University professor who appeared on television with Baha’s father, sits in her garden looking through photos. In one, her mother peers excitedly from behind a large crowd inside the National Spiritual Assembly building in Cairo.  She remembers her mother’s stories of the assembly, “there were always people coming and going, visits from different countries and an equal number of men and women, which was quite unusual at the time. People in the area accepted the assembly as something normal.”
This acceptance was not to last. Forty years after Saad Zaghloul led a revolution under the slogan, “religion belongs to God and the homeland to all,” Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser became concerned about the rise of Baha’is and their links to a nascent expansionist Israel on his borders. In 1960, he issued Decree 263, paragraph six of which proclaimed “all Baha’i assemblies and centres [are] hereby dissolved, and their activities suspended.” Baha’is were allowed to practice in their homes, but all official Baha’i properties, funds and assets were confiscated. They have still not been returned.
Nasser’s actions were driven by a desire to reinforce secularism, but subsequent administrations would target Baha’is for their perceived heresy. The 1971 constitution promised, “the state shall guarantee the freedom of belief and the freedom of practice of religious rites.” Four years later, however, the Supreme Court upheld the legality of Decree 263 and ruled constitutional protections only extended to the three “heavenly” religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
From 1965 to 2001 there were 236 arrests of Baha’is, charged under Article 98(f) of the Penal Code which proscribes “disparaging contempt of any divinely-revealed religion or its adherents, or prejudicing national unity or social harmony.” It was rare for these cases to be followed by prosecution; most were simply released after being detained. Albert-Ludwig University of Freiberg’s Professor of Islamic Studies, Johanna Pink, has suggested the government was not so much concerned with the Baha’i being a real threat, but was attempting to “legitimise” its authority in the eyes of the people, presenting themselves as “defenders” of Egypt as an Islamic state.
Public attitudes
The government’s opportunistic discrimination against Baha’is was based on the fact public perception was generally negative and based on rumours. After the 1960s, “the tone of the press became much more negative and even polemical,” wrote Pink in a 2005 paper on freedom of belief. She added that by 2005, a connection between the Baha’i faith and Zionism was taken for granted in the media. In 2008, the Andalus Institute for Tolerance and anti-Violence Studies noted many national newspapers’ reports “implie[d] direct incitement to hatred against Baha’i.” Baha’is were also often seen as a security threat, and the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, cites claims made most frequently by conservative clerics such as Abdel Moneim Al-Shahat, a prominent Salafi leader, that “Baha’is deserve no rights in a new constitution and…should be tried for treason.” From 1910 to 2010, 15 fatwas(Islamic religious rulings) labelled Baha’is heretics, based on the fact that Baha’is believed in a prophet after Muhammad.
All this affected the personal lives of the descendants of those converted by Baha’i Iranian traders years ago. Sumaya Mohamed Ramadan, winner of the Naguib Mafouz prize for literature, remembers her introduction to the Baha’i faith in England. “I saw a picture of this oriental man with a turban and I thought what is he doing in this living room in Brighton? I started to ask and I missed the train home that night.” Coming back, Ramadan’s conversion was accepted by her family, although occasionally her religion would cause others embarrassment. “One time we were talking about equality, everyone was agreeing with what I was saying and then I mentioned some of my ideas were based on the fact I was a Baha’i, and the whole room went silent,” she recalls.
Moussa graduated in the top ten of her class in dental medicine and started working in Cairo University. When her colleagues questioned her different fasting patterns, she revealed her religion, “some started not to speak to me or eat with me.” Some started to accuse her of missing work, she says. Moussa was continually overlooked for promotion and spent a long time fighting the administration of her university. “I lost five years of my life and career complaining about it and I had to do it alone,” she says. “I couldn’t mention the discrimination was because I was Baha’i.”
A more positive wave of support followed a court case in 2009, when Baha’is won the right to declare their religion on their ID card. Not declaring their religion would have removed their entitlement to a range of rights including education, housing and franchise. Their only other option was to commit fraud or lie about their religion. Many media outlets highlighted the case, helping create more public understanding. “The media was biased before… in 2009 there was a legitimate and neutral report,” a reporter in Masry Al Youm told Daniel Perrell, author of a 2010 study on Baha’i rights. Many non-governmental organisations (NGOs) also got behind the case. Despite this, Pink says other “Egyptian human rights groups have been reluctant to take up the case of unpopular minority religious groups like the Baha’i Faith… fear[ing] that this might compromise their ability to speak out on other issues which they consider more important.”
The revolution
The 25 January revolution gave everyone hope for change, and the Baha’i hope for acceptance. The Baha’is of Egypt released an open letter to the nation enthusing about the possibilities for the future.
Baha'i National Spiritual Assembly before 1950. Basma Moussa / Daily News Egypt
Baha’i National Spiritual Assembly before 1950.
Basma Moussa / Daily News Egypt
“Media concentrates on the negative aspects to Baha’is… but we want to help build the country, all Egyptians together, and since the revolution we are more able to do that,” says Baha’i NGO worker, Shady Samir.
Moussa noticed a great difference in her treatment since the revolution. “People started stopping me in the street and saying ‘I’m not a Baha’i but I respect your struggle.’ Before they were scared to speak about religious freedom, after the revolution everyone started to speak about his opinion.”  Her employer’s attitude also changed, “last March they promoted me to professor… and I didn’t have to push for it,” she smiles.
Where to now? The constitutional question
The current debate about the new constitution raises many issues of concern for the Baha’i community. For example, the proposed Article 8 which states, “freedom of religion is absolute and practices shall be conducted in accordance with public order. The state shall ensure freedom to establish places of worship for adherents of Abrahamic religions in accordance with the law.”
The clause would mean Baha’is would not be able to practice their religions in public or build places of worship. Nor does it suggest that the state would be involved in protecting freedom of religion.
Much depends on how the constitution is interpreted by the new legal system. “Anything written in a constitution is only as valuable as the enforcement of it,” says Perrell. “Constitutions have tremendous normative value and by listing only a few religions… they inhibit legitimate conversation about what constitutes a religion and validates those who would discriminate against any unlisted religion.”
Mohsen Kamal, deputy director of the Andalus Institute for Tolerance and Anti Violence Studies, suggests further implications. The 2009 ruling on ID cards could be nullified, he says. It could be even harder for Baha’is to go to the media and talk about their rights. “If they are talking about their religion they could be accused of insulting Islam.” The article of the new constitution implementing “the principles of Shari’a law,” could result in Baha’is being punished as apostates.
“In plain words,” wrote Baha’i blogger Bilo, “and according to the current rhetoric, promulgated by Islamists and many of those participating in drafting Egypt’s new constitution, if you are a Baha’i in Egypt, you are not recognized or protected under the constitution or any laws that enforce equal rights because only adherents of the three religions are entitled to such protections.”
Mahmoud Ghozlan, spokesperson of the Muslim Brotherhood and a member of the new Egyptian National Council of Human Rights, defends the implementation of Article 8. “Baha’ism is not a religion,” he asserts, before describing how the constitution will not negatively affect Baha’is. “They will have the freedom to worship but they will not be recognised as a religion.”
This sentiment was echoed by a Constituent Assembly member, Farid Ismael, in a recent broadcast television programme, Akher Kalam. Ismael claimed this article should not cause Baha’is to fear for their safety, stating the assembly did not condone attacking anyone because of their religion and if Baha’is were threatened then the government would protect them.
“There is something called the general order. We won’t let a minority promote their religion, which would go against the general order, and jeopardise social peace,” justifies Ghozlan. This attitude was similarly recorded in a paper by academic Daniel Cantini in 2009, “the view of Egyptian jurisdiction is that public interest, even as vaguely defined ones [such] as Shari’a, respect of recognised religions, social peace or national unity, have priority over the individual right of freedom of belief.”
The importance of the Baha’i case for Egypt rests on what it tells us about the attitude of Ghozlan and other decision makers. Their fate indicates how much fundamental change Egyptian institutions have undergone since the revolution.
“Why do we point to what has happened to the Baha’is?” asked Faraj Fuda, a renowned secularist, before his assassination by Islamists in 1994. “What happens to the Baha’is today may happen to others tomorrow and that the chain [of events] that starts with the Baha’is will inevitably end with enlightened Muslims.”
The future
The Constitution remains in draft and much debated. What can Baha’is do to influence its provisions?
Fundamentally, the problem Baha’is have always faced is ignorance and prejudice in a society in which religion is often a crucial aspect of identity. Legal changes are essential, but the importance is in the implementation, and this is grounded in the attitude of the people. As recorded in an interview with the former UN secretary general, Boutros Boutros Ghali in 2010, “there is still a lot of work to be done socially…according to Boutros Boutros-Ghali, there is still limited success, ‘when the small administrator may consider the Baha’i the devil.’”
Baha reflects three years on from when his family’s houses were torched. “Even the people who attacked [my family] were usually nice people” he says, “friends of friends, I think people did not know about the religion. They believed rumours… if there has been a misunderstanding, as a Baha’i it’s my fault. I need to clear that misunderstanding.”
Shady Samir is the grandson of one of the Baha’i men whose marriage was annulled in the Beba case in 1925. He works for an NGO which helps young people learn how to use information technology. It is a job he has chosen, he says, as part of the “service” all Baha’is must perform in order to promote unity and peace. Samir says Baha’is should not just focus on their rights, but wider issues, such as the position of women. By demonstrating their positive contribution to society inclusive of all Egyptians, Baha’is might gain the trust and change attitudes of those around them. “When I was growing up, the community was more afraid and enclosed,” he says, “more of a minority mentality. Now especially we are being more open.”
Running youth groups, volunteering in their community, helping their neighbours are all ways in which Baha’i are encouraged to foster understanding and acceptance of their faith.
Ramadan suggests, “evolution can be a revolution. Plant a seed and it will cost you, but with work and perseverance and faith there will be fruit. There is no point revolting to try to make the tree grow in a second. The revolution is a learning process for everyone, just because it has aspects that don’t suit me doesn’t mean it is not a good thing… you choose to be grateful and work with what there is.”
The Baha’is appear determined to keep on preparing for the time of unity predicted by their holy books. At the end we have to “grin and bear it” says Ramadan. She intends to “build little circles of influence and big circles of concern… so you can influence your circle and change society.”
Back in Zamalek at the inter-faith meeting, the slips have been read out and people gather in groups to discuss the subject of “peace.”
What is peace, we are encouraged to ask ourselves. How could we achieve it? Some think that you should understand yourself, others reject this. “Just being at peace with yourself is selfish. We need to think about world problems.” Some quote Martin Luther King Junior, others religious texts. “What’s so great about peace anyway?” grumbles one participant, initiating a string of refutations and strong admonitions from the Martin Luther King fan.
Afterwards, I ask people what the session means for them. One attendee tells me it helps him to think about his life. He goes back to the people at work, his family and talks about the other perspectives he’s heard. “Many people here come to learn about others and have the freedom to express ideas,” notes the organiser. “It might be the first time they read the Bible for example,” and certainly the first time to gain an understanding of Baha’i texts.
In 2009, Baha’s father was being accused on television of being an infidel and threatened with death. His words then reflect a hope which continues with Baha’is today. “I would like to tell the nation, [quoting from the Quran] ‘if a wicked person brings any news to you, you shall first investigate, lest you commit an injustice towards some people out of ignorance and become sorry and remorseful for what you have done,’” he said. “I ask the Muslims and Egyptians to seek the truth.”

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Draft Egyptian Constitution Takes Away Religious Liberties Stipulated in Former Constitutions

With the drafting of Egypt's new constitution by a "Constituent Assembly," mostly led by Islamists, religious freedom is becoming an exclusive right rather than an inclusive one.

A case in point is the debate over Article-8 of the draft of the constitution, which is restricting absolute religious liberties only to the three recognized religions in Egypt, i.e. Islam, Christianity and Judaism. All the rest, will have the freedom to "belief" but not the freedom to practice or to construct houses of worship. This clearly poses a contradiction in logic, interpretation and in application: how could one believe, but not practice?

According to this draft, and as an example, Buddhists, Hindus, Baha'is and others cannot freely practice their belief in Egypt, even though Egypt's government does deal and rely on large-scale investments and commerce with governments of countries with religious majorities representing most of these beliefs (Hindu & Buddhist). Since there are hardly any organized Hindu or Budddhist communities in Egypt, the influence on such populations in Egypt is only theoretical. That leaves the Baha'is--the most significant religious minority in this category--to be singled out for lack of civil rights and wide open to more discrimination.

Furthermore, in plain words, and according to the current rhetoric, promulgated by Islamists and many of those participating in drafting Egypt's new constitution, if you are a Baha'i in Egypt, you are not recognized or protected under the constitution or any laws that enforce equal rights because only adherents of the three religions are entitled to such protections. Very similar to the rhetoric used in Iran when its leader is asked about the persecution of Baha'is, his usual response has been "we do not persecute any religious minorities...then he would continue to respond by saying "what Baha'is?" Thus their mere existence is denied, and according to him there is no problem! The same trend seems to be prevailing in Egypt when the "party line" is always "we do not discriminate against any religious minorities," but what they really refer to is the Egyptian Christian minority and nothing else, even though Christians in Egypt continue to face much discrimination and persecution.

Egypt's Baha'is, even under the more liberal constitution of 1971, which allowed for freedom of belief and practice, have been constantly struggling for their civil rights, being deprived of identity cards, marriage certificates, birth certificates and death certificates, as well as discrimination in employment, health care and education. One can only imagine what it would be like, and the magnitude of hardships that would influence their daily living, if this new constitution is passed!

In its 2 October 2012 issue, Ahram Online, the English version of Egypt's leading semi-official newspaper, published a balanced report, by Osman El Sharnoubi, on this very question, including interviews with an Egyptian human rights lawyer, a scholar, a representative of Egypt's Baha'is, and another religious leader. The entire article, titled "New Egyptian constitution offers fewer religious freedoms, critics allege," and subtitled, "Article 8 of Egypt's draft constitution may take away religious freedoms stipulated in previous constitutions," is posted below:
Members of Egypt’s Constituent Assembly, the body tasked with drafting Egypt’s post-uprising constitution, are purportedly finished with drafting the chapter on the freedoms, rights and duties of citizens.
The assembly is largely seen as being dominated by Islamist forces, which have won large gains in legislative and presidential elections after the 2011 January Revolution. 
Liberals and secularists have expressed concerns about the impact an Islamist-dominated drafting body will have on the character of the future charter, in particular in relation to key freedoms. 
Article 8 of the draft constitution is at the heart of the debate, as it stipulates citizens’ religious freedoms. Religious rights and freedoms, and the issue of sectarian tensions between members of Egypt’s majority Muslim population and its Christian minority, remain controversial. 
One of the many problems that Egypt’s Christian minority complains of are the difficulties of building and repairing churches, as both acts are subject to state control. A law was drafted in 2011 to address the problem but is yet to be put into effect. 
Facing even graver difficulties than Christians are followers of the Bahai faith, a monotheistic religion established in the nineteenth century by the religion’s prophet Bahaaullah. The Egyptian state does not recognize the faith, leaving its Egyptian followers to face discrimination and difficulties in the most rudimentary aspects of civil life, such as registering marriages. 
Article 8 
Article 8 is the constitutional article on freedom of belief and religious practice, the mother clause stipulating the freedoms and rights of all matters religious within the Egyptian state. 
The article was recently revised, and its multiple revisions published on the official website of the constituent assembly for public scrutiny. 
“In the current draft, the state is not tasked with protecting freedom of belief,” political researcher and director of the Arab Forum for Alternatives Mohamed El-Agati said. El-Agati contends that the Mubarak-era 1971 constitution fares better on this point. 
Article 8 of the current draft starts by stating: "Freedom of belief is absolute, and religious rights are practiced if not in contradiction with public order." 
El-Agati says that the article withdraws from the state the duty of protecting religious freedoms, which was required of it as stipulated in Article 46 of the 1971 constitution, which read that “the state shall guarantee the freedom of belief and the freedom of practice of religious rites.” 
The new draft article adds the condition “if not in contradiction with the public order” to the practice of religious rites, said El-Agati, putting further limits compared to the last constitution. 
In the Turkish constitution, the state restricts putting limits on worshiping and in Indonesia the constitution gives the state the duty to guarantee the freedom of practicing religion, said El-Agati. This won’t be the case if the current draft article is enshrined in Egypt’s constitution. 
The problem didn’t exist in an earlier version of Article 8, written earlier in the drafting process and amended to its present form. 
Human rights lawyer Ahmed Seif El-Islam, founder of the Cairo-based Hisham Mubarak Law Centre, points to the form of the previous version, which had stated that the freedom of belief and the freedom of practicing religion is granted. 
“The freedom of belief and practicing religious rights is safeguarded,” the article had said before being amended. 
Seif El-Islam criticised the amended phrasing, saying that it deals with freedom of belief only in a private, personal way, rendering it useless. "The freedom of belief must be followed by the freedom of practice, otherwise it loses its essence," Seif El-Islam said. 
Nevertheless, Seif El-Islam sees a positive - albeit limited - development in the article’s current form, which stipulates that the state guarantees the freedom to construct places of worship for Abrahamic religions (Islam, Christianity and Judaism). 
“This is a step forward for Christians and Shiites, yet not so much for members of other religions,” said Seif El-Islam. “A community of expatriate Chinese Buddhists for example wouldn’t be able to establish a temple,” said Seif El-Islam, adding that since Egypt doesn’t have large expat communities from other religions the problem remains only theoretical. 
“In reality, it is members of the Bahai faith who would suffer under this article,” Seif El-Islam asserted. 
El-Agati sees a further implication to the restriction of building places of worship to the 3 major religions by the article, related to Egyptian Muslims living abroad. 
“The article weakens the positions of Muslims living in non-Muslim countries and suffering under certain forms of discrimination such as restrictions on building mosques,” says El-Agati. 
“Egyptians wouldn’t be able to object to restrictions on building minarets in Switzerland, or wearing the veil in France,” he told Ahram Online. 
El-Agati believes the article is generally detrimental to the concept of citizenship and opens the door for discrimination on the basis of religion. 
Constitution vs. reality 
Labib Iskandar, a Bahai professor of engineering at Cairo University, highlights what he says is a contradiction in the draft article - “how can you say freedom of belief is absolute and then only mention main religions?” he asked. 
To Iskandar, however, it is not the constitution that matters but what happens in reality. The 1971 constitution hadn’t limited the religions which have the right to practice their rituals, and yet Bahais still struggled for recognition and rights. 
Still, for Iskandar, what’s more important than the state recognizing the Bahai religion is to enjoy civil rights, which the state so far does not grant. 
The state continues to pose many obstacles for Bahais, including not recognising their matrimonial contracts and thus refusing to give them a “married” status on their national IDs, as well as refusing to issue electronic copies of their death certificates, causing legal hurdles and risks for members of the faith. 
“Implementing constitutional laws is key. In the 1971 charter freedom of religion was protected yet it is up to officials to interpret it, easily deciding that the Bahai faith is not a religion to begin with,” Iskandar explained. 
Seif El-Islam took up this point, saying that “a state could have a wonderful constitution and shelve it,” a situation wherein practices on the ground would be in complete contradiction to the spirit of the constitution. 
A good case in point is the position of Egypt’s Shiites, which contradictory sources say range from just over 10,000 to more then 1 million Egyptians. Many pundits don’t consider the constitutional article to be a threat to Shiites, since Shiism is a Muslim sect. 
However, as Seif El-Islam points out, what is written on paper could differ by leagues from the case in reality, where the mainstream Sunni stance on Shiism isn’t favourable. 
“There will never be a struggle between Sunnis and Shiites in Egypt,” El-Tarek El-Hashimi, a leading Egyptian Shiite told Ahram Online, saying Shiites are keen on preventing sectarian strife. 
El-Hashimi stresses that Shiites follow the same school of Islamic theology, the Ashaarite theology, as does the leading Sunni institution of Al-Azhar, foreseeing no problem concerning freedom of belief and religious practice. 
“Religious rights between both sects are the same,” argues El-Hashimi. 
Despite El-Hashimi’s optimism, a Shiite was sentenced to a year in prison in September for allegedly starting a fight due to his mode of prayer - or “his actions that violate the Sunni sect” - in a village mosque. 
The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights appealed the sentence of Mohamed Fahmy Asfour, the Azharite teacher, saying he was handed it due to his belonging to the Shiite faith and expressing its concern regarding attacks on freedom of belief and expression. 
The court said some of Asfour’s practices during prayer which are different from Sunni’s “incited discomfort” among other worshipers, which caused the scuffle. 
Constitution vs. law 
Seif El-Islam raised yet another concern about the constitution, saying it doesn’t necessarily follow that laws are based on the constitution, explaining that a constitution could be drawn up but the legal structure preceding it could remain unchanged. 
Seif El-Islam is wary that the laws would not respect the new constitution, saying it would be left for individuals on a case-by-case basis to change laws, as courts may decide the unconstitutionality of certain laws according to each case, a long and tedious process. 
“As soon as the constitution is drafted, there should be a period of 5 years within which the process of amending laws to conform to the constitution should be institutionalised,” Seif El-Islam suggested. 
Institutions such as the parliament, trade unions, NGOs and others should be tasked with this process, he said, allowing the country’s social forces to make sure their constitution is being followed. This is assuming the current draft would be viewed favourably by Egypt’s citizens.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Case of the Baha'is in Egypt: a scholarly legal essay

Here is another well-researched legal brief on the case of the Baha'is in Egypt that explores their history in that land, their trials and tribulations, and their current struggle in post-Mubarak Egypt.

This article was written by Naseem Kourosh and appeared in the International Law News Volume 41, Number 3, Summer 2012, a publication of the American Bar Association (ABA). It is posted here with the permission of the author.

A Cold Winter in North Africa:The Case of the Bahá’ís in Egypt
By Naseem Kourosh

For Egypt’s tiny Bahá’í community, the coming winter may be an especially cold one. The Bahá’í Faith is an independent religion with an estimated 500 to 2,000 followers in Egypt, many of whom have faced significant discrimination in recent years. In early 2011, many expected that the Arab Spring, blooming most visibly in Egypt, would usher in a new era in the region. However, more than a year on, amidst fears that Spring in the Middle East may be turning frosty, the status of Egypt’s Bahá’í community provides an important if unflattering metric of the progress of Egyptian society towards freedom, democracy, and human rights.

The History of Egypt’s Bahá’í Community
The Bahá’í community in Egypt was established in the mid-1800s and, with a few notable exceptions, developed largely undisturbed for nearly a century. However, in 1960, the government issued Presidential Decree 263, which dissolved all Bahá’í institutions, seized all Bahá’í properties, and made engaging in public Bahá’í activities a criminal act punishable by imprisonment. In subsequent years, several dozen Bahá’ís were arrested and detained on the basis of the law, though none were ever found guilty.

While Article 40 of the 1971 Egyptian Constitution protects equal rights and prohibits religious discrimination, and Article 46 guarantees freedom of belief and freedom to practice religious rites, the legal status of Bahá’ís in Egypt has never been deemed equal to that of Muslims, not only because of the 1960 Presidential Decree, but also because of two important structural issues.

First, in the Egyptian legal system, matters of personal status are governed not by civil law, but by religious law— specifically the family law systems of the only three staterecognized religions: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Because Bahá’í law is not recognized and Islam is the official state religion, personal status for Bahá’ís has often been determined according to shari’a (Islamic family law), which does not recognize Bahá’í family relationships, or fatwas (Islamic judicial rulings), many of which are hostile to the Bahá’í Faith. Indeed, at least 15 fatwas have declared the Bahá’í Faith to be heresy and blasphemy. In 2003, the Islamic Research Center of Al-Azhar University—one of the oldest and most respected centers of Islamic learning in the world—issued a fatwa stating that Bahá’ís are apostates and that the Bahá’í Faith is a “lethal spiritual epidemic” that the state must “annihilate.”

As a result of the nonrecognition of Bahá’í family law and the influence of anti-Bahá’í fatwas, Bahá’ís are not accorded equal treatment under the law: Bahá’í marriages are not recognized, Bahá’í children are regarded as illegitimate, and Bahá’ís have no means of controlling matters such as family allowances, pensions, inheritance, divorce, alimony, and custody of children.

Second, the free exercise of religion has traditionally been permitted only insofar as it has not been deemed to disturb public order and good morals—both of which have historically been defined according to Muslim clerics who believe that the Bahá’í Faith inherently violates public order and good morals because it is heresy or apostasy against Islam. Thus, a 1975 decision of the Supreme Constitutional Court held that the constitutional freedom of belief guaranteed by the constitution protected only the Bahá’ís’ right to inwardly believe in their religion, and not their right to practice it.

The ID Card Controversy
The Egyptian government requires all citizens to possess standardized government ID cards, which are necessary for obtaining basic services. These ID cards, like other official documents, require the individual to list his or religious affiliation. Bahá’ís do not, as a matter of principle, misrepresent their religion. Thus, although the government only recognizes three “heavenly” religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—Bahá’ís will generally not misidentify themselves as a member of one of these religions. Historically, this was not problematic, as Bahá’ís were permitted to write “Bahá’í” or insert a dash in the religion field of official documents. However, following the issuance of the 1960 Presidential Decree, many government officials refused to register Bahá’ís as such, and ID card registration for each Bahá’í became dependent on the actions of the particular clerk in a given government office. This led to serious inconsistencies, with Bahá’ís being variously identified as Christian, Muslim, Bahá’í, or no religion at all—or being denied ID cards altogether. In 1983, an administrative court affirmed that Bahá’ís should be allowed to list “Bahá’í” or “other” on their ID cards, but it held that a Bahá’í student who had been expelled from university for not possessing a valid ID card could still be rightfully expelled, even after receiving a valid ID card, as he was an apostate, and apostates should not be allowed to pursue education.

In 2004, the Ministry of the Interior issued Circular 49/2004, a directive that instructed government officials not to issue a new ID card or any other new government document to any individual unless she or he identified as a member of one of the three recognized state religions. Bahá’ís were explicitly denied the right to write in “other,” insert a dash, or leave the religion field blank. Bahá’ís were therefore forced to either falsely identify their religion or go without documents. Because they would not willingly misrepresent their religious identity, many Bahá’ís were unable to obtain ID cards and other official documents, which resulted in a denial of access to many essential government services. Bahá’í children were denied birth certificates and were therefore unable to attend public school or receive immunizations; Bahá’í youth and adults were denied national ID cards and were thus unable to obtain employment, attend university, obtain medical treatment at public hospitals, acquire driver’s licenses, or engage in financial transactions such as opening a bank account or acquiring title to property. Bahá’ís were also unable to obtain death certificates for deceased family members,leaving their heirs unable to legally acquire inheritance.

Soon after the policy was implemented, a Bahá’í couple, unable to obtain ID cards or register their daughters for school, challenged the 2004 policy. Represented by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (“EIPR”), an independent Cairo-based NGO, the couple obtained a favorable ruling in the Court of Administrative Justice. The court’s April 2006 ruling held that Bahá’ís must be allowed to identify their religion properly on government forms and that the government cannot deny them official documents if they do so. The Ministry of the Interior appealed the ruling, which was publicly decried by Al-Azhar and the Muslim Brotherhood, a conservative political movement. In December 2006, the Supreme Administrative Court overturned the lower court’s decision and upheld the 2004 policy, holding that only individuals identifying themselves with Islam, Christianity, or Judaism were eligible to receive government documents.

These decisions received intense media coverage in Egypt and also garnered international attention. The U.S. State Department and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom noted the December ruling with concern. In a 2007 report, Human Rights Watch and EIPR documented in detail the genesis and implementation of the new government policy; the Egyptian government’s violation of its own constitution and international human rights norms, including several rights enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Egypt has been a state party since 1982; and the personal stories of Bahá’ís, Copts (Egyptian Orthodox Christians), converts from Islam, and others whose lives have been negatively impacted by the policy.

In 2007, a second Bahá’í couple, who were unable to obtain birth certificates for their twin daughters, challenged the policy. Once again represented by EIPR, the couple obtained another favorable ruling in the Court of Administrative Justice. The lower court’s January 2008 ruling stated that, while Bahá’ís could not list “Bahá’í” as their religion on government documents, they must be permitted to insert a dash in the religion field. In March 2009, the Supreme Administrative Court dismissed an appeal, allowing the lower court’s ruling to stand. The following month, the Ministry of the Interior implemented a new policy consistent with the court’s ruling: government officials must place a dash (–) in the religion field of official documents of citizens who show they are followers of a religion other than the three recognized by the state. In August 2009, five years after the problematic new policy was introduced, the government issued the first new ID cards to Bahá’ís with a dash in the religion field.

Bahá’ís in Post-Mubarak Egypt
Much has happened since 2009. On January 25, 2011, motivated by Tunisia’s success in ousting President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, millions of Egyptians took to the streets, participating in an 18-day popular uprising that ultimately led to the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak. The wave of uprisings that swept the Middle East beginning with Tunisia in late 2010 and continuing through Egypt and several other Arab countries throughout 2011 was initially dubbed the Arab Spring, in reference to an anticipated renewal of freedom, democracy, and human rights throughout the Arab world as a result of the revolutions.

In the last several months, however, some commentators have rejected this label, quipping that the movement may be more aptly referred to as the Arab Winter. There has been violent, bloody, and brutal repression of uprisings in countries such as Libya, Bahrain, and Syria. And even in Egypt, where the revolution was relatively brief, largely nonviolent, and initially deemed quite successful, the year after the revolution has raised serious doubts about the democratic future of Egypt.

In this context, the future of Egypt’s Bahá’í community remains particularly uncertain. First, the 1960 Presidential Decree, which criminalizes many aspects of the practice of the Bahá’í faith, remains in effect. Second, while the 2009 accommodation with respect to ID cards was a positive development, delays and complications have arisen in the implementation of the new policy. Ultimately, Bahá’ís are still denied the right to do what members of the three staterecognized religions are able to do: truthfully list their religion on government documents. Third, Bahá’ís have been the target of recent social hostilities, including a 2009 incident that remains uninvestigated in which several Bahá’í homes in a village were vandalized and a February 2011 incident in which several Bahá’í homes in the same village were torched. Finally, and perhaps of greatest concern, there are indications that Bahá’ís may be excluded from, and perhaps even specifically targeted by, the new political order. Leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, which won the highest number of seats in the recent parliamentary elections, have stated that they have no plans to amend Article 2 of Egypt’s current constitution when they draft its new one. Leaders of the Salafi movement, a fundamentalist group that won the second highest number of seats in the parliamentary elections, have made similar statements. Article 2 currently provides that Islam is the state religion and principles of Islamic law are the chief sources of legislation. Apparently, it will be incorporated into the new constitution. In addition, in February, Abdel Moneim alShahat, a spokesperson for the Salafi movement, publicly stated that Bahá’ís are not entitled to rights under Islam and are a threat to national security. Citing the 2003 AlAzhar fatwa, al-Shahat asserted that Bahá’ís “do not exist” by virtue of their faith and should be prosecuted for treason. Thus, at present, the legal status of Egyptian Bahá’ís does not seem likely to improve, and may in fact worsen. If there is to be a winter in Egypt, it may be a long and cold one for the Bahá’ís.

A society’s treatment of its minorities is often a barometer of its general level of freedom and equality, and its persecution of its religious minorities frequently foreshadows wider repression. Thus, those concerned about the democratic future of Egypt would do well to keep a close eye on the situation of religious minorities such as the Bahá’ís under the new régime.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Arab Spring becomes Cold Winter for Egypt's Baha'is!

Wahied Wahdat-Hagh, a Senior Fellow with the European Foundation for Democracy in Brussels, just published a clear analysis of the question of freedom and equality in the new Egypt, using the Baha'i case as an example and a barometer for what direction events have taken its governance. The entire essay, titled "A barometer for freedom and equality in Egypt: The persecution of minorities in an Islamic society is truly a barometer of the lack of freedom and equality that prevails there," is quoted below:

Can the discrimination and persecution of the Baha'is serve as a barometer for freedom in an Islamic society such as Egypt? This answer is yes.
At the beginning of August 2012, the U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addressed the human rights abuses committed against religious minorities in Egypt, remarks that were promptly rejected by Mahmoud Ghozlan, spokesman for the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. He accused Clinton of lying and claimed that “non-Muslims in Egypt have the same rights as Muslims”.
However, Mahmoud Ghozlan has clearly stated that the Egyptian Baha'is are forbidden from practicing their religion freely according to the Egyptian English-language newspaper, Daily News. Ghozlan erroneously assumes that theBaha'i faith “stems from Zionism”. The Baha'i faith sees itself more as a religion in favour of equality of the sexes and of all people. In addition, Baha’is support universal human rights, something that is a thorn in the side for some fundamentalist Muslims.
Persecution of the Baha'is in Egypt
There are about 2,000 members of the Baha'i faith in Egypt. This is not a large number compared to an estimated 170,000 Baha'is in the United States, 300,000 in Iran and more than two million in India. Yet the treatment of this minority is significant in gauging the freedom of other minorities in an Islamic country like Egypt.In fact, for theBaha'is the Arab Spring has turned into a cold winter – particularly in Egypt.
It is worthwhile taking a brief look at the history of the persecution of Egyptian Baha'is. Already in 1960, as a result of the so-called Presidential Decree number 263, all Baha'i institutions were dissolved and the property of the Baha'iwas confiscated. Under the decree Baha'i public activities were prosecuted and this was strictly enforced. In the sixties, dozens of Egyptian Baha'is were arrested, solely because of their religious affiliation, according to NaseemKourosh in the journal of International Law News (Volume 41, 2012).
As in the “Islamic Republic of Iran”, in Egypt not even Baha'i marriages were recognised, with tragic consequences for many families. In 1975, another law was passed that banned Baha'is from practicing their faith, even in private.
In 2003, the scientific centre of Al-Azhar University (the most important theological school of Sunni Islam) issued a fatwa against the Baha'i faith, which constituted an additional basis for discrimination and persecution of the Baha'is. It stated that the Baha'i religion was a “deadly spiritual epidemic”, which must be destroyed by the state. Even in the face of this, the Baha'is advocate peace between religions on the grounds that all religions have the same divine origin.
Egyptian identity card
In the journal of International Law News, Nasseem Kourosh highlights the fact that Baha'is do not deny their religious identity. This made it especially problematic when they had to declare a religious affiliation.
A person’s religion must be specified on Egyptian identity cards, but there are only three categories: Jew, Christian and Muslim. Those who do not want to put themselves in any of these categories are, from the point of view of the state, theoretically non-existent and must deal with myriad consequences.
Since the Presidential Decree of 1960, the Egyptian state has decreed that the Baha'is are not allowed to register as Baha'i. Therefore, if Baha'is got identity cards, they were involuntarily registered as Christians, Jews or Muslims, and sometimes atheists.
Only in 1983 did the Baha'is have permission from the Egyptian government to identify themselves either as Baha'i or “other” on their passports. However, problems remained. For example, Baha'is are considered apostates and as apostates they are not allowed to study.
In 2004 the Egyptian state withdrew permission for the Baha’is to state their faith on their identity cards. Now, when an Egyptian applies for a new identity card, he or she can only belong to one of the three recognised religions. The Baha’is were also not allowed to identify their religion as “other” or simply leave the field blank.
The problems of the Egyptian Baha'is are growing
As the Baha'is refused to deny their religion, they were no longer entitled to an identity card. This had tragic consequences. Baha'i children had no birth certificates and therefore could not attend school. They were even denied vaccinations.
Baha'i youth and adults also did not have identity cards, which meant that they could not work, could not study and could seek care in public hospitals. They also could not apply for a driving license. They were even not entitled to a death certificate if a family member passed away.
Because of this, they lost their right to inheritances. The possession of Baha'i money, goods and property thus passed into state ownership. The persecution of the Baha’is was certainly a comfortable situation for those in power.
In April 2006 Egyptian Baha'is were given the right to a religious identity, which could be officially registered in state documents. However, as the Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Azhar University protested against the government decision, it was reversed in December 2006.
In 2007, several human rights organisations denounced the situation in Egypt, as well as the U.S. government in an annual report on religious freedom. So far this has had little actual effect. It’s not only the Baha’is who are negatively affected by religious prejudice, but also Copts and newly converted Christians.
It was only in August 2009 that the Baha'is were granted the right leave blank the box for religious affiliation on their identity cards. This was a step forward as they could now apply for passports, even if their religion was not registered and was only denoted with a hyphen.
With the “Arab Spring”, the situation of the Baha'is has not improved. In fact, the opposite is true. The “Arab Spring” that began in Tunisia and toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak does not seem to be bringing democracy and human rights to the region. Especially considering the bloody chaos and violence in Libya, Bahrain, Syria, and also Egypt, it can be surmised that positive developments in the Arab world are unlikely in the medium-term.
The situation of members of the Baha'i religion in Egypt is indeed a litmus test for the overall development of an Islamic society such as Egypt’s.
As Nassim Kourosh notes, the positive steps forward in 2009 regarding the treatment of Baha'is are currently being rolled back. In the “Arab Spring” that is rapidly turning into a winter, the Baha’is are still not being treated equally alongside members of the other three religions. As far as the “Arab Spring” is concerned, civil rights are non-existent.
Attacks and arson
If the State acts as an ideological arsonist, one need not wonder whether the citizens of such a state will become arsonists themselves. In Egypt, an increase in attacks on the Baha'is has been recorded and in some villages, their houses have been attacked and set on fire.
The Muslim Brotherhood, who got the most votes in the general election, will not take it upon themselves to improve the situation of the Baha'is. Neither the Brotherhood nor the Salafists have any inclination to change Article 2 of the Egyptian constitution, according to which Islam is the state religion and Islamic law is to the fore.
The Salafist Abdel Moneim al-Shahat demonises the Baha'is and describes them as a “threat to national security”. This Salafist even referred to a fatwa issued by Al-Azhar University, according to which the Baha’i should be prosecuted for “high treason”.
It is very likely that the situation will deteriorate for the Egyptian Baha'is. The persecution of minorities in an Islamic society is truly a barometer of the lack of freedom and equality that prevails there.
Wahied Wahdat-Hagh is a Senior Fellow with the European Foundation for Democracy in Brussels.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Baha'i Case in Egypt: as seen by an independent observer

Yesterday, an article written by Dwight Bashir, Deputy Director for Policy and Research at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, appeared in the Cairo Review of Global Affairs, a publication of the American University in Cairo, School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. This article appears to be, by far, the most comprehensive, accurate, unbiased and concise review of the status of the Baha'is of Egypt as they are influenced by the recent developments and the prevailing political & religious environment in their country.

The full article can be accessed at this link, and, for convenience, is posted below as well:

Dwight BashirAugust 22, 2012 
In 2006, Saad Eddin Ibrahim – the revered Egyptian human rights advocate and former political prisoner – commented to the press on the precarious situation of Baha’is in Egypt, who were forced, at the time, to use the court system to obtain identity cards which the state had denied them. 
The Baha’i faith is an independent world religion whose adherents seek global peace and unity for humankind through the promotion of central tenets, including the full equality between women and men, the elimination of all forms of bigotry, the abolishment of extremes of wealth and poverty, universal education, and the establishment of a world federal system based on collective security. The estimates vary widely for numbers of Baha’is in Egypt, from several hundred to more than five thousand. There are approximately 170,000 in the United States, more than 300,000 in Iran (the country’s largest non-Muslim religious minority), at least two million in India (by far the largest concentration in one country), and nearly six million worldwide. Today, Baha’i communities are established globally and are recognized as an independent religious community in most countries in the world, with the exception of a number of Arab and predominantly Muslim countries, including Egypt, where varying forms of discrimination continue. 
Historically, Baha’is were persecuted most severely in the land of the faith’s birth, Iran, where, in the mid 1800s, approximately 20,000 Baha’is were killed because they were deemed by Muslim clerics as heretics from Islam.  Since the Islamic revolution in Iran in the late 1970s, more than 200 Baha’i leaders have been killed and thousands of others have been arrested or imprisoned by authorities for no other reason than their identity as Baha’is. 
Ibrahim said the contested status of Bahai’s in Egypt was as important as anything else going on in the country and its outcome would demonstrate “where the government is heading on the issue of freedom.”  Members of the community eventually won the right to have dashes (--) on official ID cards but not their religious affiliation in the mandatory section which permits only “Muslim, Christian, or Jew.”  While an improvement from not having ID cards at all, Baha’is still were being denied the rights of other Egyptian citizens. 
Now more than 18 months removed from the January 25 revolution, as many Egyptians still seek full freedom and equality, the plight of Egypt’s Baha’i community remains a powerful litmus test for where things might be headed.  A recent spate of public statements and actions about the Baha’is by various entities in society provides a compelling indicator of the trajectory. 
The religion dates back to the 1860s in Egypt.  It formed a national governing body in 1924 and suffered only periodic verbal attacks by extremist clerics until president Gamal Abdel Nasser, allegedly under Islamist pressure, issued a decree in 1960 banning all Baha’i activities.  For decades since, Baha’is have been harassed, vilified, discriminated against, and imprisoned because of their beliefs.  
Over the years, Egypt’s government-controlled media has been a key propagator of false and inflammatory information about Baha’is.  In a new Egypt, could things actually be changing for the worse?  The appointment this month by the Shura Council of Gamal Abdel Rahim as chief editor of the state-controlled newspaper, Al-Ghomhurryia, bodes ill for Baha’is.  Rahim was accused in 2009 of calling for the murder of a Baha’i activist on live television and inciting residents in Sohag to burn Baha’i homes.  Three days after the program aired, arson destroyed several Baha’is houses in a Sohag village. The denigration and repression of Baha’is in Egypt has been fueled by bogus and inflammatory accusations that state media and political and religious leaders have perpetuated for generations.  They can be boiled down to three myths.  
Myth #1: Baha’is are a Zionist entity and, therefore, not entitled to any rights.  Last month, Mahmoud Ghozlan, a spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood, said Baha’is are of “Zionist origin” and, thus, should not be protected under the constitution to practice their faith publicly.  What “origin” has to do with constitutional protections for any of Egypt’s citizens is anyone’s guess. Leaving this point aside, the particular accusation is baseless.  It is leveled solely because the Baha’i world headquarters is in Haifa, Israel.  This, however, was clearly not the preference of Baha’i leaders at the time.  The faith’s founder, Baha’u’llah, was imprisoned and exiled throughout the region during Ottoman rule in the 1800s: from Iran and Iraq to Turkey and Palestine. Baha’u’llah died while under house arrest in 1892 in Acre, Palestine.  It was his family and followers who established the administrative center of the faith there, more than a half century before 1948, the year the state of Israel was born.  Moreover, based on the logic of his position, Ghozlan would be forced to call every resident of Palestine or Israel a Zionist.  Clearly, that’s not what he meant, but this demonstrates the absurdity of his claim about the Baha’is.  Of the nearly six million Baha’is in the world today, fewer than 1,000 reside in what is now Israel.  They serve as temporary volunteers at the Baha’i World Center and eventually return to their home countries after a short period.  
Myth #2: Baha’is are a threat to national security.  Like Myth #1, this dubious claim hinges on the location of the Baha’i world headquarters in Israel.  This claim is made most frequently by conservative clerics such as Abdel Moneim al-Shahat, a prominent Salafi leader who reportedly once said that Islam forbids playing or watching soccer.  In February, he stated that Baha’is are a security threat, claimed that Baha’is deserve no rights in a new constitution, and asserted that Baha’is should be tried for treason. Such irresponsible statements promote the further demonization of Baha’is in society and pour fuel on the fire of extremist attacks on Baha’is.  
Myth #3: Baha’is are apostates from Islam and, therefore, should be eliminated by the state.  Al-Shahat, and others like him cite Al-Azhar’s fatwas declaring Baha’is as apostates.  This accusation is based on numerous fatwas issued by the Islamic Research Academy at Al-Azhar University over the years, most recently reiterated in 2003.  The gist of the argument is a theological one, that Baha’is claim divine revelation after the Prophet Muhammad, which makes them apostates from Islam because, in their view, Muhammad was the last of the Prophets from God. 
However, religion experts explain that the Baha’i faith emerged out of Islam similar to the way Christianity sprang from Judaism and is separate and distinct.  In fact, in 1925, Egypt became the first predominantly Muslim state to recognize the Baha’i faith as an independent religion after an Egyptian court ruled that the faith indeed was separate from Islam, and consequently, Baha’is could not be deemed heretics or apostates.  This ruling led to greater emancipation for the Egyptian Baha’is in the decades thereafter, and they were legally recognized in the 1930s until the 1960 ban.  Since then, conservative clerics and political leaders alike have used Al-Azhar’sfatwas and Nasser’s ban to justify discrimination, vilification, and incitement. 
The Egyptian Baha’i community appears destined toward experiencing another generation of marginalization and, perhaps, outright persecution.  To be sure, no one expects the state-controlled press, Al-Azhar, the Muslim Brotherhood, or the Salafists to agree with Baha’i views, or for that matter, cease from criticizing its theology.  However, the burden rests on them to refrain from inciting violence and hatred, justifying repression on the basis of their faith, and calling for restricting Baha’i rights by insisting that only the “heavenly religions” (Islam, Christianity, and Judaism) be protected by law.  If all these entities truly espouse the principles of the January 25 revolution, they would champion the rights of all Egyptian citizens, regardless of religion or belief. 
The burden is also on Egyptian human rights defenders and independent media to debunk the myths about the peaceful, law-abiding Baha’is and demand that they, along with their fellow Egyptians who are Muslims, including Sunni, Shi’a, Sufi, and Quranist, Christians, Jews, atheists, and other persuasions, be protected under the same laws that apply to all citizens.  There should be no distinction when it comes to the inalienable right of religious freedom. 
Judging by Saad Eddin Ibrahim’s sage words in 2006, Egypt’s democratic transition appears to be headed in the wrong direction.  It doesn’t have to be that way. 
Dwight Bashir is the Deputy Director for Policy and Research at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. The views expressed here are his own, and may or may not reflect the views of the Commission. He can be followed on Twitter @DwightBashir.