Ignoring the dead continues: The Administrative Court refuses to obligate the Alexandria Governorate to allocate graves to non-followers of the three religions. EIPR condemns the ruling and challenges it before the higher administration court

Press Release

28 December 2021

The Alexandria Administrative Court ruled yesterday, December 27th  2021, by refusing to oblige the Alexandria Governorate to allocate lands to be used as cemeteries for people other than followers of the three religions and for the benefit of citizens whose ID does not specify a religion; while they are a fourth category of religious diversity registered in official papers, but still they cannot bury their dead in Muslim, Christians or Jewish cemeteries, as the places of burial are divided and allocated according to religious affiliation.

The EIPR lawyer, representing a group of citizens residing in the governorate of Alexandria whose official papers have a sign (-) in the field of religion, had in January 2021 filed Case No. 7060/75J against the Prime Minister, Minister of Local Administration, Governor of Alexandria and Director of Cemeteries Department in Alexandria, in their official capacity, requesting the annulment of the negative decision to refrain from allocating land for the cemeteries for this group of citizens.

State agencies ignore the demand and evade their obligations

The lawsuit was preceded by requests submitted by the plaintiffs to the Department of Cemeteries in Alexandria and the Burg Al Arab City Authority. The officials in these departments refused to receive the requests. The EIPR lawyer, acting on behalf of the plaintiffs, submitted a complaint to the Unified Complaints Portal of the Council of Ministers in July 2020, and the complaint was received and studied under No. 2903473. The response by the Alexandria governorate came in November 2020 stating that the governorate did not have jurisdiction in this regard, despite the provisions of the Cemetery Organizing Law No. 5 of 1966 that the allocation of cemeteries is made by a decision of the competent governor, after a study by the local councils of the needs of different religious groups and a presentation of the proposed sites and spaces, and that in the absence of local councils, the governorate forms a special committee to look into cemeteries, in accordance with Articles 6, 42 and 43 of the aforementioned law.

According to the report issued by EIPR under the title “Ignoring the Dead: Where did the cemeteries of free people of belief and believers of unrecognized religions go?”, the Egyptian state allocated around 1850 plots of land to bury the dead of people not affiliated to any of the three religions, residing in Egypt, and they were named “Cemeteries of the Free Thinkers” or “civil cemeteries”. A number of Egyptian Baha’is were buried there from the beginning of the twentieth century until the sixties, when the burial stopped in this cemetery, which was re-allocated for the benefit of a Christian association. Since that time, Baha’is have been trying to apply to the competent authorities to allocate an alternative plot of land to bury their dead, and these requests were ignored.

The EIPR lawyer relied in the memorandum of the case on the Minister of Interior’s decision No. 520 of 2009 to register a blank or a (-) sign next to “religion” for citizens who are not followers of the three religions, and that this decision is an acknowledgment by the state that religious diversity includes a fourth category other than those belonging to the three religions, and that state authorities must take into account this category in the legislation and organizational decisions related to religious affiliation. Since the allocation of graves is carried out according to religious affiliation, the governors must issue decisions to allocate graves to this category in proportion to their need in each governorate, and that this is one of the basic rights of citizens, the obstruction of which constitutes a violation of the constitution, which guarantees freedom of belief and leads to religious discrimination and a denial of the most basic rights of citizenship.

The State Litigation Authority responded that recognized religions in Egypt are Islam, Christianity and Judaism only, and that these were the religions for which the constitution guaranteed freedom of practice and allocation of places of worship, and demanded that the court reject the case. EIPR responded that this argument was unconstitutional, because the Egyptian constitution restricts these freedoms and rights specific to the owners of the three officially recognized religions, and If this can be accepted despite its violation of equality and involving discrimination on the basis of faith, the right to burial and the allocation of graves is a different basic right from practicing rituals or taking places of worship, which is a right that does not accept disruption and must be available to all categories of citizens and residents without any exceptions, and that the fourth category of religious diversity is not specific to religion or belief, but includes all who do not follow the three religions. Thus, allocation of cemeteries for this category of people does not contradict the constitution or public order.

The EIPR lawyer submitted a memorandum containing documents proving the historical precedents in which the Egyptian state, in its various eras, allocated cemeteries to non-followers of the three officially recognized religions, in addition to the ancient civil cemeteries in Alexandria, such as the royal decision regarding the cemeteries of followers of the free creed in Cairo in 1930, and the allocation of cemeteries to non-followers of recognized religions in Qassasin al-Sharq in the Sharkia District in 1944 and in Port Said in 1949, as well as the presidential decision to allocate similar cemeteries in Suez in 1954, the Republican decision to lease land to the Indian Embassy to cremate the bodies of the dead Hindus in 1964, and the Cairo Governorate’s decision to transfer the sites of cemeteries for Hindus and Baha’is in 1965, which is evidence that this practice is not contrary to public order or the constitution and that the practice of allocating cemeteries to all categories of citizens and residents is a tradition of the Egyptian state, regardless of officially recognized religions.

Al-Azhar refuses

Major General Muhammad al-Sharif, the governor of Alexandria, requested the consultation of the Al-Azhar institution regarding the case, and Ahmed Al-Tayeb, Sheikh of Al-Azhar, responded with a memorandum prepared by the Islamic Research Academy of Al-Azhar in June 2021, in which it concluded that “it is not permissible to allocate a plot of land to bury the dead who bear the (-) sign or any other, because it leads to discrimination, further division, fragmentation, and rupture of the fabric of one society.”

The Research Academy justified its opinion that “It is well known in Sharia that burial is a fixed right for every human being after death, without discrimination between one person and another (...) however, this right may not be a pretext for religious discrimination, announcing a religious and ideological identity, or a means of promoting certain ideas or specific doctrines, because this discrimination violates the principle of general equality in the inalienable human rights of a person during life and after death, and also leads to the exploitation of the human right to burial to promote and publicize what violates that equality, and is inconsistent with the right of burial and the dignity of death”.

The memorandum of EIPR responded to the opinion of the Islamic Research Academy in Al-Azhar that it was confused and contradictory and was not based on any evidence from Sharia, but on a political assessment that was rejected by the fact that this allocation is indeed one of the traditions of the Egyptian state as it is confirmed by previous allocation decisions, and this did not threaten the fabric of society and did not lead to discrimination or division, and that it is not understood that allocating cemeteries to a group of citizens would lead to discrimination, as the law allocates specific cemeteries for each religious group, and is currently allocating cemeteries for Muslims and others for Christians, as well as different burial grounds for each of the churches. Moreover, Islamic Sharia stipulates that non-Muslims may not be buried in Muslim cemeteries, and this allocation according to each category cannot be considered to be discrimination and tearing apart the fabric of society, but rather an expression of religious diversity guaranteed by law and required by Sharia regarding Muslims.

The memorandum added that allocating cemeteries to the fourth category or to non-followers of the three religions, with an ID carrying the (-) sign for religious affiliation is a continuation of the tradition of civil cemeteries and that this specification does not include a religious title or propaganda for a sect or doctrine, and thus the opinion of Al-Azhar is an arbitrary response that violates logic and goes beyond the limits of a religious opinion to a political evaluation that contradicts reality. 

The EIPR memorandum indicated that Al-Azhar’s opinion differed from a previous opinion of the Egyptian Grand Mufti in 1939, which he sent to the Ministry of Justice regarding a request by Egyptian Baha’is to allocate plots of land to bury their dead in Cairo, Alexandria, Port Said and Ismailia. His opinion was founded within the limits of Sharia jurisprudence, and regarding burials he only said “it may not be permissible by Sharia to bury their dead in the cemeteries of Muslims”; he left the rest of the matter to the discretion of the state agencies. As a consequence, the state decided to inform the Baha’is to bury their dead in the Civil cemeteries of the free thinkers in Cairo and Alexandria, which were already present. Then decisions were issued to allocate cemeteries to non-holders of recognized religions in Qasasin al-Sharq dedicated to the use by the Baha'is in Ismailia in 1944 and then in Port Said in 1949. For more details, you can refer to the report "Ignoring the Dead".

The court requested the opinion of the State Commissioners Authority in the case, and the authority’s response supported and was based on Al-Azhar's opinion. The authority recommended rejecting the case and refusing to oblige the Alexandria Governorate to allocate graves to non-followers of the three religions.

EIPR is appealing the ruling before the higher administrative court

EIPR intends to appeal the ruling before the Supreme Administrative Court, and calls on the state to review its policies and fulfill its obligations towards citizens of all groups, including the fourth category of religious diversity approved by its decisions and regulations, the first of which is the right to burial and the allocation of cemeteries in different governorates according to the needs of each governorate.