Monday, July 28, 2008
The Egyptian identification card controversy resulted from a ruling of the Supreme Administrative Council of Egypt on December 16, 2006 against the Bahá'ís stating that the government may not recognize the Bahá'í Faith in official identification cards. The ruling left Bahá'ís unable to obtain the necessary government documents to have rights in their country unless they lied about their religion, which conflicts with Bahá'í religious principle. Bahá'ís cannot obtain identification cards, birth certificates, death certificates, marriage or divorce certificates, or passports. Without those documents, they could not be employed, educated, treated in hospitals, or vote, among other things. The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) stated that the press release issued by the Chief Judge of the Supreme Court did not respond to any of the evidence and legal arguments presented by the EIPR in the case and that instead the press release discussed only the tenets and beliefs of the Bahá'í Faith, which should have had no effect on the decision of the court. On January 29, 2008 Cairo's court of Administrative Justice, ruling on two related court cases, ruled in favour of the Bahá'ís, allowing them to obtain birth certificates and identification documents, so long as they omit their religion on court documents. The ruling accepted the compromise solution offered by the Bahá'ís, allowing for them to obtain identification papers without the Bahá'í Faith being officially recognized, however as of April 22, 2008 the Egyptian Ministry of Interior has yet to implement the ruling, and Bahá'ís remain without identification cards.
In 1924, Egypt became the first Islamic state to legally recognize the Bahá'í Faith as an independent religion apart from Islam. Despite a historically active Egyptian Bahá'í community during the early twentieth century, Bahá'í institutions and community activities are currently banned by Law 263. This law came into being in 1960, seven years after the declaration of the Arab Republic of Egypt, at the decree of then-President Gamal Abdel Nasser. All Bahá'í community properties, including Bahá'í centers, libraries, and cemeteries, were confiscated by the government. The current Egyptian Bahá'í community, estimated to number between several hundred and two-thousand, has also had fatwas issued against it by Al-Azhar's Islamic Research Center, which charges Bahá'ís with apostasy.
The Egyptian identification card controversy stemmed from the Egyptian government's decision, now being implemented, to computerize the national identity card system. The system had been set up to exclude Bahá'ís, depriving them of valid ID cards, making them virtual non-citizens, without access to employment, education, and all government services, including hospital care. Individuals without a valid ID card would even be unable to buy groceries from state markets. A number of Bahá'í young people are without valid ID cards, a situation that has forced them out of universities and the army, placing them on the margins of society.
All Egyptian citizens must carry ID cards, which must be presented not only for any type of government service, such as medical care in a public hospital or processing for a property title or deed, but also to obtain employment, education, banking services, and many other important private transactions. ID cards are also required to pass through police checkpoints, and individuals without such cards are accordingly deprived of freedom of movement.
In Egypt, ID cards require a statement of religious affiliation. Moreover, the system allows for one of only the three recognized religions of Egypt — Islam, Christianity, or Judaism — to be entered. Bahá'ís have long refused as a matter of principle to falsely list themselves as Muslim, Christian, or Jew. Not only would such a step constitute committing fraud against the state, but also such a denial of faith would effectively play into the hands of those who seek to eliminate the Bahá'ís in Egypt. Accordingly, Bahá'ís have simply left the religious affiliation slot blank, made a dash, written "other," or even sometimes listed "Bahá'í." With the old paper ID cards, Bahá'ís were thus able to obtain cards and survive as individuals in Egyptian society.
In the 1990s, the Egyptian government announced it would be upgrading its identification card system by issuing computerized cards that would be less susceptible to forgery. This, the government indicated, would help to combat militant Islamic unrest, and improve data collection and access. The government indicated the shift to the new system would be gradual, but set January 2005 as the deadline for everyone to have the new cards — a deadline which has apparently been extended to 2006.
The system had apparently undergone modifications since it was set up. In 2003, for example, four Bahá'ís sought and obtained new computerized cards in which the religious affiliation field listed "other" — a designation to which the Bahá'í community does not object. More recently, however, the software had been updated so that only one of the three recognized religions can be entered. If the field is left blank, the computer refuses to issue the card.
The Bahá'í community of Egypt had approached the government on numerous occasions to plead for a simple change in the programming, if not the law, so that they could be issued valid ID cards under the new system. Such pleas, however, had been met with rejection and refusal.
Accordingly, all members of the Egyptian Bahá'í community faced the prospect of being left wholly without proper ID cards by 2006 — a situation in which they would essentially be denied all rights of citizenship, and, indeed, would be faced with the inability even to withdraw their own money from the bank, get medical treatment at public hospitals, or purchase food from state stores.
As the new cards were being issued, the government had asked young people to start coming in for the new cards, and a number of Bahá'í youth had accordingly been stripped of paper identification cards. Once stripped of ID cards, the Bahá'í youth essentially become prisoners in their own homes, since the authorities often set up evening checkpoints to verify the identity of young men. Individuals without proper ID face detention. Likewise, young people without ID cards are denied entrance and continuing enrolment in colleges and universities, as well as service in the armed forces.
On April 4, 2006, a three-judge panel of the Egyptian Administrative Court upheld the right of a Bahá'í couple to lawfully state their religion on their ID cards. The cards had been confiscated by the government after the couple sought to have their passports updated to include their daughters. The couple, Husam Izzat Musa and Ranya Enayat Rushdy, sued, stating that the confiscation of the cards was illegal under Egypt’s Constitution and international law. The court ruled for the couple, citing existing precedents and Islamic jurisprudence that allow for the right of non-Muslims to live in Muslim lands "without any of them being forced to change what they believe in." and ordered the civil registry to issue new documents that properly identify them as Bahá'ís.
The court wrote:
It is not inconsistent with Islamic tenets to mention the religion on this card even though it may be a religion whose rites are not recognized for open practice, such as Bahá’ism [sic] and the like... On the contrary, these [religions] must be indicated so that the status of its bearer is known and thus he does not enjoy a legal status to which his belief does not entitle him in a Muslim society.
In the aftermath of the court ruling, various news media in Egypt and the Arab world reported on the ruling. Human rights groups in Egypt were supportive of the decision, while representatives of the Al-Azhar University and government were negative. Newspapers in Bahrain, Kuwait and elsewhere in the region also wrote about the case, with many going into long explanations about the Bahá'í Faith. Some statements by other organizations after the initial ruling include:
▪ IRIN, a news service of the United Nations serving the region, wrote, "Human rights activists have welcomed a landmark ruling by the Administrative Court recognizing the right of Egyptian Bahais to have their religion acknowledged on official documents."
▪ Al Arabiya, an online service of the television network, carried the headline, "They were forcing them to register themselves as Muslims; An Egyptian court recognizes the Bahá’í religion despite refusal by the Azhar."
▪ Al-Watan (Homeland), a newspaper of Kuwait, carried the headline: “They described it as the Greatest Setback; Al-Azhar scholars demand that the Egyptian judiciary review the ruling of acknowledging ‘Al-Bahá’íyyah’ [the Bahá'í Faith] as a religion.” The lead of the article says: "A number of Al-Azhar scholars condemned the ruling of the Egyptian judiciary that acknowledged the Bahá’í creed, stressing that it is considered a great legal setback and a tragedy that must be drawn back, emphasizing that Bahá’ís are not Muslims, rather, they are agents of Zionism and colonialism and are enemies of the country; they demanded a review of the ruling that acknowledges this creed."
▪ Al-Ahram, one of Egypt’s leading daily newspapers, carried the headline: "Crisis in Parliament Over a Judicial Ruling About the Bahá'ís; The Deputies: ‘Al-Bahá’íyyah’ [the Bahá'í Faith] is not a Divine religion … and the ruling contradicts the constitution." The article also stated that the government had decided to appeal the ruling.
On 28 April 2006 after reading that the Egyptian government has asked for information on the Bahá'í Faith from members of Al-Azhar University, and knowing that much misinformation about the Bahá'í Faith has been published in the Egyptian media, the Bahá'í International Community’s United Nations Office wrote to leaders of the Al Azhar Islamic Research Council to explain the essential principles of Bahá'í belief. The letter, which contained a brief statement of basic Bahá'í principles and doctrine, also asked that facts about the Bahá'í religion be obtained from trustworthy sources that were "uninfluenced by the misconceptions" that are being spread about the Bahá'í Faith.
The Egyptian government formally appealed the Administrative Court's ruling on 7 May 2006. The appeal came after attacks on the ruling in the Egyptian parliament and by representatives of Al-Azhar Islamic Center. According to the IRIN news service, an Interior Ministry official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said: “We presented an appeal to revoke the previous ruling on the basis that neither the Egyptian constitution nor Islamic law recognize Bahaism [sic] as a religion unto itself.” Then on 13 May 2006 Kifayah, a loosely organized group of civil society organizations, journalists, writers, artists and academics, issued a collective statement calling for an end to discrimination against Bahá'ís. The group which is composed of the Popular Group for Change, the Egyptian Democratic Centre, the Centre for Socialist Studies, Socialist Horizons, the Arabic network for Human Rights Information, and Civil Watch for Human Rights, along with some 40 journalists, writers, artists and academics wrote:
"We confirm that this is not a case of the followers of the Bahá'í denomination only; it is the case of all minorities and faiths that are suffering from discrimination in Egyptian society for decades... Our attitude springs from a deep belief that calls for constitutional and political reform cannot be separated from demands for the guarantee of freedom of belief and expression equally for every citizen, regardless of religion, ethnicity, gender or color, otherwise, reform would become merely ink on paper and lose all meaning ... Today, the followers of a small denomination are sacrificed to fanaticism, but whose turn will it be tomorrow….if we be silent now?"
Egypt's Supreme Administrative Court on 15 May suspended the implementation of the earlier lower Administrative Court ruling that allowed Bahá'ís to have their religion recognized on official documents. The court agreed to hear the appeal starting on June 16, which continued to September 16. During this time, the state-sponsored National Council for Human Rights held a major symposium on the issues surrounding religious affiliation and identity cards, at which the Bahá'í community offered some testimony. The hearing was, however, postponed by the Supreme Administrative Court on 21 September 2006 until 20 November, to await the completion of an advisory report by the State Commissioner’s Authority.
During the court's wait, the Egyptian newspaper Rose al-Youssef published a story on October 14, 2006 stating that the advisory report was completed, and that the State Commissioner’s Authority is urging the rejection of the lower court’s ruling. Then on 2 December a final hearing was held; the court indicated that its judgement would be issued in the case on 16 December. The Supreme Administrative Court issued its final judgement in the case of Husam Izzat Musa and Ranya Enayat Rushdy on 16 December, upholding the government’s policy of allowing only three religious affiliations on state ID cards and government documents.
After the ruling, various Egyptian human rights organizations, such as the Cairo Centre for Human Rights Studies, issued statements of support for the Bahá'í community of Egypt in their struggle for basic civil rights. The Universal House of Justice, the highest governing body of the Baha'i Faith on 21 December addressed a message to the Baha'is of Egypt in the wake of the Supreme Administrative Court's decision stating that they should continue in striving to continue to uphold the principle of the oneness of humankind and other Bahá'í principles.
On January 29, 2008 Cairo's court of Administrative Justice, ruling on two related court cases, and after six postponements, ruled in favour of the Bahá'ís, allowing them to obtain birth certificates and identification documents, so long as they omit their religion on court documents; the government may, however, still appeal against the judgement. The director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, who has brought the two cases to court, stated "This is a very welcome decision. It addresses a great injustice suffered by Bahai citizens who face arbitrary and discriminatory practices based on their religious beliefs. We urge that the authorities implement the Administrative Court's decision." The chief judge in the court case stated that while the Baha'i Faith is still not recognized as one of the three officially recognized state religions, they will enjoy the right to refuse to identify oneself as one of those three religions, and will have access to state religions. As of April 22, 2008, however, the Egyptian Ministry of Interior has yet to implement the ruling, and Bahá'ís remain without identification cards.
Other court cases
Since the December 16, 2006 decision by Egypt's Supreme Administrative Court, two other court cases addressing the rights of Egyptian Bahá'ís to obtain basic identity documents and education have been brought up. The first case, which was filed on February 2007, was brought forward by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) on behalf of a Bahá'í university student, Hosni Hussein Abdel-Massih. Abdel-Massih was suspended from the Suez Canal University's Higher Institute of Social Work since he was unable to obtain an identity card due to his religious affiliation. The Court of Administrative Justice in Cairo was to decide on this case on September 5, 2007 but postponed the decision to October 30, 2007. The case was further postponed, for the fifth time on January 22, 2008, for an anticipated verdict during the 29 January 2008 court session. On January 29, 2008, Cairo's court of Administrative Justice ruled in favour of the Bahá'ís, allowing them to obtain identification documents, so long as they omit their religion on court documents.
The second case involved two 14-year old twins who were unable to obtain birth certificates unless they converted to a recognized religion. While the father of the twins had originally obtained birth certificates when the children were born in 1993 with their religious affiliation as Bahá'í, he was unable to obtain new birth certificates which contain the national number. Without the national number on the birth certificate, the children were unable to enrol in public schools. Since the Supreme Administrative Court's decision in 2006 found that the government had the right to deny Egyptian Bahá'ís identity documents recognizing their religious affiliation, the EIPR modified the requested remedies in the case; the issue before the Court of Administrative Justice is whether Bahá'ís can obtain documents without any religious affiliation or without falsely identifying oneself as one of the recognized religions. This court case was also set to be decided up on September 5, 2007, but the decision has also been postponed to October 30, 2007. As with the other court case, Cairo's court of Administrative Justice also ruled in favour of the Bahá'ís, allowing them to obtain birth certificates, if they omit their religion on the documents. The EIPR stated that they will immediately seek to obtain papers for the twins.