Archive for 23 مارس، 2009

Egypt’s step towards freedom of belief


Brian Whitaker, Middle East Editor for The Guardian. The full article is published in The Guardian’s Comment is Free section

Egypt took a small but important step towards freedom of belief and equal rights yesterday when a court ruled that the “religion” section on national identity cards can be left blank.

In 1995 the Egyptian government began introducing computerised ID cards which forced everyone to identify themselves as belonging to one of the three “heavenly” religions: Islam, Christianity or Judaism. Cards could not be issued to anyone who refused to accept this, with the result that they effectively became non-citizens, unable to work legally, study beyond secondary school, vote, operate a bank account, obtain a driver’s licence, buy and sell property, collect a pension, or travel.

The practice of restricting religion on ID cards to three officially approved choices had no basis in Egyptian law but was derived from the interior ministry’s own (possibly erroneous) interpretation of Islamic teaching. It was challenged in the courts by several members of the Baha’i faith, which is thought to have around 2,000 followers in Egypt.

The Baha’i originated in Iran during the 19th century and by the early 20th century also had a flourishing community in Egypt.

Although the Baha’i faith is often regarded as a heretical offshoot of Islam, the Egyptian community was initially tolerated, but its position worsened in the 1950s – partly because of its accidental connections with Israel. In 1868, after being banished from his native Persia, the founder of the faith, Baha’u’llah, was exiled with his family and a small band of followers to the Turkish penal colony of Acre. As a result of this, the faith’s international headquarters was established in the Acre/Haifa area, which later became part of Israel.

In the 1960s, President Nasser issued a decree which, in effect, withdrew state recognition from the Baha’i community and confiscated their property. Nasser’s decree was reaffirmed by the supreme court in 1975 in a ruling which said that only the three “revealed” religions were protected by the constitution: the Baha’is were entitled to their beliefs but practice of the Baha’i faith was a “threat to public order” and therefore fell outside the constitutional protection for freedom of religion.

Yesterday’s victory by the Baha’is in the supreme administrative court appears to mark the end of a five-year battle over the ID cards, since there is no route for further appeals by the Islamist lawyers who have been fighting them since the government dropped out.

“The significance of [yesterday’s] decision goes far beyond the direct remedy it provides for hundreds of Baha’i Egyptians who have been the immediate victims of this arbitrary and discriminatory government policy,” said Hossam Bahgat, pictured, executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. “This final ruling is a major victory for all Egyptians fighting for a state where all citizens must enjoy equal rights regardless of their religion or belief.”

Read the full article here