Rights or wrongs


نشرت جريدة الاهرام الاسبوعية 12-6-2008  ص 3 فى مقالة للاستاذ جمال نكروما عن ندوة الحريات الدينية التى اقيمت بمنتدى الشرق الاوسط للحريات يوم 4 يونيو الجارى  وذكر مشكلة البهائيين المستمرة بالرغم من حصولهم على حكم من محمكة القضاء الادارى بوضع شرطة فى الاوراق الثبوتية فى 29 يناير الماضى .

A heady mix of religious and sexual equality, secularism and citizenship rights has become a major preoccupation for many human rights organisations in Egypt. The separation of religion and the state, the right to choose and freely practise one’s own religion and the right not to practise a particular religion in which he or she was born into were also publicly debated.

On Wednesday, 4 June, a seminar on religious freedom in Egypt was convened under the auspices of the Middle East Freedom Forum. More than 200 people — mainly activists and academics — attended, including representatives of the various ethnic minorities who aired their own particular grievances. Speakers included Christians, Bahaais, Shia Muslims and leading human rights activists.

“Religion is a private affair. Religious affiliation, or lack of it, should be an entirely private matter. The state has no business prying and citizenship rights ought to be enjoyed by all citizens, regardless of religious affiliation. Yet today no one dare confess to being an atheist or an agnostic in public. Such an admission would be considered a serious crime and would result in the wrath of the public, lynching not excluded,” Magdi Khalil, head of the Middle East Freedom Forum, told Al-Ahram Weekly.

The seminar, which touched a raw nerve in Egypt, was followed by a meeting on 5 June at the Egyptian National Council of Human Rights, headed by former United Nations secretary- general Boutros Ghali. Presided over by Coptic MP Georgette Qellini, it also focussed on the theme of religious freedom, especially the predicament of the Bahaais.

Even though the Egyptian constitution guarantees freedom of belief, in practice the situation could not be more different. Members of religious minorities repeatedly complain of alledged discriminatory government policies and legal rulings that negatively impact their lives. The Coptic Christian community, for instance, deeply resents laws that make it extremely difficult to construct new churches or repair existing ones. Until quite recently it was impossible to build a new church without presidential approval. Christians of all denominations what they claim are the stringent conditions applied to the issuing of permissions to construct places of worship.

The Bahaai community complains of a different set of problems. In January this year Cairo’s Administrative Court ruled in favour of two Bahaai families, allowing them to obtain birth certificates and personal identification documents as long as they omitted stating their religion on court documents. This was widely seen as a minor, albeit qualified, triumph in the Bahaais’ long struggle to win legal recognition. On 15 May 2006, Egypt’s Supreme Administrative Court had suspended the implementation of an earlier lower court ruling that allowed Bahaais to enter their religion on official documents. Since official computerised identification cards in which an individual’s religion is stated are now essential for any transaction, including the buying of property and vehicles and as a prerequisite for enrolling at university and other institutions of higher learning, Bahaais claim the ruling turns them into invisible citizens.

The verdict was baffling. Rarely has a judicial ruling in a civil court set off such controversy in the country. “The problem with the Bahaais is that they are moved by Israeli fingers,” warned a prominent member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mustafa Awadallah. “We want the Ministry of Interior not to yield to the cheap blackmail of this deviant group.” Awadallah’s views, say Bahaais, are sadly typical.

Syllabuses often misrepresent religious minorities, reinforcing misleading and confusing myths about their religious convictions and their practices. Small, weak and vulnerable as they are, religious minorities in Egypt are increasingly finding the courage to articulate their grievances in ways that were inconceivable just five years ago. It is a development that holds great promise.

As they gird their loins for long, protracted legal battles, Egypt’s religious minorities are standing up for their rights. At the seminar Mina, a Coptic monk from Abu Fana Monastery, spoke about the recent violence that erupted in the vicinity of his monastery in the Upper Egyptian governorate of Minya. He stressed that there was no repository of arms in the monastery, as had been claimed in the sensational media coverage that accompanied the incident.

“The Bahaais of Egypt cannot open a bank account, register a car in their own name or purchase or sell property because of their religious affiliation. Our situation is tragic and we must wait until 1 November when the courts will once again review our case,” says Bahaai activist Basma Moussa. She concedes that there have been some gains, the most important of which is the publicity surrounding the Bahaais’ predicament in Egypt today.

Participants agreed that playing politics with religion is a dangerous game. Magdi El-Naggar and Hamdi Al-Assiuti, the self-styled “freedoms lawyer”, stressed that the current situation is untenable. Ahmed Rasem El-Nafis, a religious intellectual, and Sayed El-Qimni spoke of the difficulties faced by Egypt’s Shia Muslim minority. El-Qimni, among the most prominent Shia scholars in Egypt today, points out that the Shia in contemporary Egypt are not permitted to build mosques.

Bahieddin Hassan, head of the Cairo Centre for Human Rights Studies, concurred. Ramsis El-Naggar, the lawyer representing the Copts who converted to Islam and were keen on reverting to their original religion, defended the rights of those who wished to re-embrace Christianity. He pointed out that the media portrays minorities unfairly, highlighting differences in culture and rituals, and accusing minorities of collaborating with foreign powers, especially Israel and the United States. Indignant religious minorities, he insists, must be placated and encouraged to take part in the decision-making process and enjoy full citizenship rights. That, more or less, was the premise of a seminar at which participants agreed that unless action is taken, and soon, the stage is being set for a conundrum of Wagnerian dimensions.

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