06 Apr 2006 16:01:39 GMT
Source: IRIN

CAIRO, 6 April (IRIN) - Human rights activists have welcomed a landmark ruling by the Administrative Court recognising the right of Egyptian Bahá'ís to have their religion acknowledged on official documents.

The decision, announced on 4 April, "sent a strong message that it is the right of every Egyptian citizen to adopt the religion of their choice", said Hossam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Private Rights (EIPR).

The ruling is the result of a lawsuit filed by a married Bahá'í couple against Interior Minister Habib al-Adly in June 2004. According to an EIPR statement, officials from the Civil Status Department (CSD) confiscated the couple's official documentation because it cited their religious affiliation as Bahá'í, an obscure offshoot of orthodox Islam unrecognised in this majority Sunni Muslim country. "The CSD refused to issue new identification documents unless the family agreed to identify themselves as Muslim," the EIPR statement reads.

According to activists, the ruling in favour of the family was partly a result of intense lobbying efforts by rights groups. "This is a landmark case. We feel our efforts have paid off," said Gamal Eid, director of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information. "The authorities felt so threatened with exposure that they backed down and ruled in favour of the Bahá'ís' inherent rights."

The ruling reaffirms a similar decision on the right of Bahá'ís to identify themselves as such on formal records and certificates, issued in 1983. "However, in 2004, the interior ministry's CSD reinstated the policy of forcing Bahá'ís to identify as Muslim or Christian," notes the EIPR statement. The plaintiff in the 1983 case eventually backed down after his daughters were threatened with expulsion from school if they did not have birth certificates issued identifying them as Muslims.

It is estimated that some 2,000 Bahá'ís currently live in Egypt. Followers of an independent religion that emerged in the nineteenth century, they have been subject to routine harassment by the authorities ever since the passage of a 1960 law officially dissolving Bahá'í institutions, according to the EIPR. Although the legislation did not criminalise followers of the faith, it enabled the authorities to promote official discrimination against them, say rights activists.

On a social level, too, the Bahá'í community has faced innumerable obstacles. "These stem from an intolerance of the Bahá'í faith by the Muslim religious establishment, which seeks to portray them as apostates," said Eid. While the Bahá'í community has been frequently slandered in the press, however, Eid noted that "some independent newspapers – such as Al-Dustour and Al-Karama – have recently worked to raise awareness of Bahá'í rights".

The ruling is of particular significance in that it corroborates Bahá'ís' right to freedom of belief in the eyes of the state. As for their place in society, however, the fact that the Bahá'í community constitutes such a tiny minority will continue to expose its members to endless challenges.

"It's unlikely that the ruling will, in itself, transform the situation of Bahá'ís," said Eid. "But it does constitute a step on the long road to the creation of a more religiously tolerant society."

© 2006 Reuters