Court Ruling in Favor of Egyptian Baha’is a Victory for Freedom of Religion
The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) today welcomed the ruling issued by the Administrative Court on 4 April, which found that Baha’i Egyptians have the right to have their religion recognized in official documents, reaffirming a similar ruling issued 23 years ago.
The ruling was issued in a lawsuit filed by an Egyptian Baha’i married couple against the Interior Minister in June 2004 after officials of the Interior Ministry’s Civil Status Department (CSD) had confiscated their identification cards as well as the birth certificates of their three daughters, all stating their religious affiliation as Baha’i. The CSD refused to issue new identification documents unless the family agreed to identify as Muslim.
Birth certificates of the couple’s three daughters, the oldest of whom is 11 years old, had been pulled out of their school files by the CSD officials who left the father a note with the school administration asking him to “issue new birth certificates recognizing [the daughters’] religion as Muslim”. The school threatened it would expel the three children if the father failed to provide the mandatory birth certificates.
“This ruling is a true victory for freedom of religion and belief as guaranteed both in our Constitution and in international human rights treaties ratified by the Government,” said Hossam Bahgat, director of the EIPR. “The Court sent a strong message that it is the right of every Egyptian citizen to adopt the religion of their choice, not the religion imposed on them arbitrarily by Interior Ministry officials.”
For the last two years the Interior Ministry has been denying Egyptians who adhere to the Baha’i faith their right to have their religious affiliation recognized in necessary official documents, such as national identification cards and birth and death certificates. This policy has had serious consequences for the everyday lives of Baha’is who, without these documents, were left unable to deal with public authorities. Efforts by the National Council for Human Rights, appointed by President Mubarak, to reach a solution to the problem with the Interior Ministry have all failed.
The Baha’i faith originated as an independent monotheistic religion in mid-nineteenth century and has approximately five million followers around the world. While no official statistics exist on the number of Baha’is in Egypt, it is estimated to be around 2,000. Baha’is lived in Egypt as a tolerated community for decades until the promulgation of Law 263 of 1960 which dissolved Baha’i spiritual assemblies and institutions. While this law did not criminalize adherence to the Baha’i faith, it has opened the door for security agencies to subject Baha’is in Egypt to harassment, discrimination and detentions in violation of the Constitution and the international human rights law.
In 2002 the United Nations Human Rights Committee called on the Egyptian Government to address discrimination against Baha’i Egyptians in accordance with the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, ratified by the Government in 1982. The UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief also has raised with the Government the problem of the Baha’is’ failure to obtain necessary official documents and the resulting consequences on their everyday lives.
This week’s ruling reaffirms a similar one issued by the Supreme Administrative Court in 1983 which had also ordered the Interior Ministry to issue a national identification card for a citizen recognizing his Baha’i faith. The Interior Ministry had then adopted the policy of either allowing Baha’is to identify as such or to insert “other” or a dash on the line reserved for entering the religious affiliation. However, in 2004 the Interior Ministry’s CSD reinstated the policy of forcing Baha’is to identify as Muslim or Christian (depending on their family names) in order to obtain any official documents.
“The idea of forcing Egyptian citizens to choose between giving up all their civil rights to have their religious affiliation recognized or to pretend to adhere to a religion they never chose and know nothing about just because they were born Baha’is is an affront to humanity, logic, laws and even Islamic Shari’a,” Bahgat added. “The Government must implement the court ruling immediately and take steps to end these arbitrary and unlawful practices.”