Interior Ministry Refuses to Recognize Citizens' Religious Affiliations
Today the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) accused the Interior Ministry of violating the rights of Egyptian citizens wanting to adopt Islam or Christianity. Despite the fact that a number of them have obtained final court rulings in their favor supporting their conversion, the Ministry continues to fail to recognize their new religious affiliations.
The EIPR's Right to Privacy Program has documented at least 54 lawsuits involving citizens who have had to resort to courts because of an arbitrary refusal by the Interior Ministry's Civil Affairs Department to recognize their religious affiliations by printing them on their identity cards. Identity cards in Egypt inform a citizen's daily life, defining the rights availed to them in the realms of marriage, inheritance and beyond.
The lawsuits in question include three cases of Christians who had converted to Islam, 32 cases of Christians who had returned to the Christian faith after having converted to Islam and 18 cases involving adults complaining that the Civil Affairs Department had altered their religious affiliations from Christianity to Islam without their knowledge or consent due to their fathers' conversion to Islam before they had reached the age of legal competence.
"The government has consistently ignored all calls that religious affiliation be removed from identity cards. The absolute minimum they can do for citizens is recognize their religious affiliations according to their beliefs and not simply according to the whims of Interior Ministry officials," said Hossam Bahgat, Director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.
Since April of 2004 Egypt's Administrative Court has issued final rulings in at least nine of these lawsuits. In each of these rulings the Court has affirmed the following conclusion:
This position of the administration constitutes an impressible interference and a use of coercion to compel [the plaintiff] to choose a certain religion or creed against his [or her] liking.
In spite of these court rulings ordering the Interior Ministry to alter the religious affiliation in the plaintiffs' identity cards, the EIPR knows of at least three cases in which Ministry officials have refused to implement such rulings; Gihad Hosni Maher, Ghada Sayed Badawi and Hanan Samir Eqladios have all had rulings in their favor categorically ignored. On 6 July 2005 the lawyer for the three plaintiffs, Mr. Ramsis Raouf El-Naggar, filed complaint no. 242/2005 at the Office of the Prosecutor General requesting investigation into the Interior Ministry's arbitrary conduct.
In one of the most disturbing cases documented by the EIPR's Right to Privacy Program, the Civil Affairs Department refused to issue a new identity card for a woman who had converted from Christianity to Islam at Al-Azhar 19 years ago. The Department refused to acknowledge the woman's conversion to Islam, while her lawyer says the officials there "informed her of [new] instructions against recognizing the Muslim religious affiliation for any person who was once Christian."
Another troubling case documented by the EIPR manifests the Civil Affairs Department's refusal to acknowledge the right of return to Christianity by a citizen who had briefly converted to Islam, despite the fact that he had obtained a decision from the Coptic Orthodox Church attesting to his rightful return to Christianity 27 years ago. This person had to resort to the Administrative Court, which issued a ruling on 26 March 2005 with the following conclusion:
It is not permissible in any manner for the administration to use the administrative power vested in it by law as a vehicle to force the plaintiff to remain in Islam.
The EIPR notes that the large number of lawsuits filed by citizens whose conversions have not been observed by the Interior Ministry – currently over 50 - is an indicator that these lawsuits are not isolated cases, but rather an outcome of the Ministry's overall policy of addressing religious affairs from a narrow security perspective.
Moreover, the refusal to recognize the religious affiliations of these individuals has often taken place at not only the civil registration offices in the provinces but also the main headquarters of the Civil Affairs Department, suggesting that this is in fact part of a larger systematic policy carried out by the Department. The EIPR has received information that the Department has recently started referring people wanting to convert to Islam or Christianity to security directorates first for initial investigation.
"People's rights to privacy and to freedom of religion are guaranteed under both the Constitution and the legally binding International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights," said Bahgat. "The Interior Ministry must immediately remedy this scandalous situation which blatantly violates both Egyptian and international law."