Removing Religion from National IDs a Positive but Symbolic Step, Respect for Freedom of Religion the Only Way to Confront Problems
The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) today expressed support for the proposal to remove religion from national identity (ID) cards. The proposal will be discussed tomorrow at a workshop organized by the National Council for Human Rights (NCHR). Although a positive step, the EIPR warned it would not end discrimination faced by citizens in obtaining necessary official documents because of their religious affiliation.
"Removing religion from national ID cards would undoubtedly be a step forward as it would send a clear message that religion is a private matter and that the state is not interested in the religious affiliation of citizens except where required by law," said EIPR Director Hossam Bahgat. "But violations of freedom of religion in relation to official documents are far too serious to be solved by such a symbolic gesture."
Over the past two years, the EIPR's Right to Privacy Program has documented at least 170 cases of citizens who faced difficulties in obtaining necessary identification documents because of the Interior Ministry's refusal to recognize their chosen religious affiliation.
These cases include more than 100 Coptic Christian citizens who had converted to Islam before converting back to Christianity. Although they all obtained official certificates from the Coptic Orthodox Church sanctioning their return to Christianity, the Interior Ministry's Civil Affairs Department (CAD) still refuses to recognize them as Christian in violation of the law.
EIPR researchers have also documented more than 60 cases of Coptic citizens who were automatically converted to Islam in CAD files after one of their parents converted from Christianity while they were minors. Having reached the legal age of capacity, the CAD arbitrarily denies their applications to identify as Christian in their official documents.
In 3 cases documented by the EIPR, the CAD has also refused to recognize the conversion of citizens from Christianity to Islam despite the fact that they carry conversion certificates from Al-Azhar. Moreover, an unknown number of Muslim citizens who have converted to Christianity remain unable to have their new religious affiliation recognized by the government in violation of the constitutional and legal guarantees of the right to change one's religion.
Article 47 of the Civil Affairs Law (no. 143/1994) explicitly grants citizens the right to change any of the data listed in their CAD files, including their religious affiliation.
"Removing religion from one official identification document will change nothing if CAD officials are allowed to continue to disregard the law," said Bahgat. "Even in cases where citizens obtained court rulings recognizing their right to have their religious conversion recognized, the Interior Ministry has appealed the rulings, which proves that this unlawful conduct is an official policy."
Whether or not religion is listed on their national ID cards, these citizens remain subject to the personal status law of a religion to which they do not adhere. In the absence of an alternative civil personal status law, they face serious problems in essential aspects of their lives, such as marriage, inheritance and the registration of children.
The EIPR also said Baha'i Egyptians continue to suffer from the Interior Ministry's new policy forcing them to identify only as Muslim or Christian in exchange for issuing them any identification documents. Prior to 2004, Baha'i Egyptians had been able to obtain birth certificates, ID cards and other documents recognizing their Baha'i faith or with no religious affiliation at all. Discrimination faced by the Baha'i community has been recognized in the NCHR's annual report for 2005-6.
Research conducted by the EIPR reveals how this arbitrary conduct by the Interior Ministry has left hundreds of Baha'is unable to register their children or send them to schools without birth certificates. Some Baha'i youths have reached the age of 16 and remain without the mandatory ID cards, rendering them subject to legal penalties. Cases documented by the EIPR include that of a student who was expelled from a public university last year for failing to obtain the mandatory military service extension papers without a national ID card, a widow who has been unable to receive her late husband's pension, and even a citizen who has been unable to receive a death certificate for his deceased Baha'i sister several months after she has passed away unless he agrees to change her religious affiliation on the death certificate to Christian.
"How would Baha'i Egyptian citizens benefit from taking religion off national ID cards if they are not able to issue death certificates for their dead relatives?" asked Bahgat. "Now they are even facing difficulties issuing passports despite the fact that religion is not listed on them because it remains listed on the application forms."
The EIPR concluded by welcoming the NCHR's initiative to hold the workshop and vowing to support efforts towards the removal of religion from national IDs. The organization added, however, that dealing with the real issues at hand will not start until the Interior Ministry respects freedom of religion, as guaranteed unconditionally by the Egyptian Constitution, the Civil Affairs Law, and international treaties ratified by Egypt such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the African Charter of Human and Peoples' Rights.
"Designating Coptic Christmas as a national holiday did not end discrimination against Copts," said Bahgat. "Action is what we need now, not gestures."