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In Egypt, you're better off Jewish than Bahai
Published in Daily News Egypt on 07 - 12 - 2006

CAIRO: At the heart of every bureaucratic function of government in Egypt is the National Identity card. Whether access to education, employment, financial services, health care or assorted government dealings the bitaqa is an absolute necessity.
Egyptian law decrees that every citizen should carry the ID on their person at all times. Police are allowed to ask anyone at any time for it, and are permitted to detain those who don t present one when requested.
In the early nineties, the government digitized the whole National ID system, in an effort to counter the then looming terrorism threat and also because it was about time.
An identity card is issued with a person s religion clearly marked but the state recognizes three religions only: Islam, Christianity and Judaism, and it is only those that can be recorded on the card. With the old IDs this could be left blank.
This is no longer possible with the newer, electronic versions.
This has posed serious challenges to followers of religions other than the three main monotheistic faiths.
The Bahais, followers of a nineteenth century Persian nobleman named Baha u llah who they consider to be a messenger of God, are one such community facing increasing political and socio-economic entanglements in Egypt.
On principle, the Bahais have refused to affiliate themselves to any of the state-recognized religions on the IDs and therefore do not carry the new cards.
They don t have birth certificates either or any other official documents that require one to state their religious affiliation.
In April, the Egyptian Administrative Justice Court ruled in favor of two Bahai parents who requested birth certificates for their three daughters because their original ones were confiscated by the Interior Ministry for having them documented as Bahais.
Sharia (Islamic law) prohibits discrimination against non-Muslims, the court decreed.
In addition, it was imperative for the state to recognize the real beliefs of its citizens to administer the appropriate rights and laws unto them. This recognition does not mean that the state endorses Bahaism, the court stated.
The Interior Ministry appealed this ruling, and the First Circuit of the Supreme Administrative Court considered the appeal on Dec. 2. Arguments were heard on Saturday and the court will give a final judgment on Dec. 16th.
Former Deputy Head of Al Azhar and Member of the Islamic Research Council Seif Mahmoud Ashour, backed the government standpoint in an interview with The Daily Star Egypt.
"Bahaism is not a religion, he said, "what we recognize are Islam, Christianity and Judaism. Bahaism is a worldly belief, and not a heavenly religion, it is a man-made creation. We recognize only the heavenly religions.
Ashour added that from an Islamic standpoint "They are allowed to believe what they want, and to exercise their beliefs as they see fit, but the state will not recognize them.
Ashour then launched into a critique of Bahaism saying "We hear they permit incest, that a man can marry his sister, pray with nineteen raq'aa (prostrations), fast nineteen days a year and pray towards Acre (in Israel, resting place of Baha u llah's remains) and not Mecca.
Dr. Labib Iskandar Hanna, a professor of Engineering at Cairo University and a follower of the Bahai faith, disputed much of this rumor-mongering as babble propagated by an ignorant media. In an interview with The Daily Star Egypt he challenged anyone to present one case of incest amongst the Bahai community. He also dismissed the idea of nineteen prostrations in their prayer.
He said: "If you want to know about Muslims, you don't ask a Jewish Rabbi, you ask Muslims themselves. People should ask us if they want to know something. He added that there are official Bahai sites on the Internet, in English and Arabic among other languages, where one can find out about the faith.
However, Bahais do fast nineteen days, and according to Hanna this is in accordance with their religious calendar, likening it to the lunar Islamic calendar and the Gregorian Christian calendar. Also true is the fact that they direct their prayers towards Acre, where their prophet's remains are located.
Concerning the court case Hanna told The Daily Star Egypt: "We don't want to mix recognition of the Bahai faith with required official paperwork. We want to be accurately portrayed. I don't want to feel like I forged something, but this is what the government seems intent on forcing me to do.
"I'm filling out a form. The ID and birth certificate are required by the government. This is a civil issue and civil laws are made to protect minorities. My name is Labib. Do they ask me why my name is Labib? Do they tell me to write Nabil instead?
Hanna added that his sister died a year ago and he has not been able to obtain a death certificate for her till now. His 20-year-old son does not have an ID card although Egyptians are required to posses one from the age of 16.
He continued: "If Islam recognizes Judaism as a prior religion, does that mean that Judaism recognizes Islam? Does Islam need legitimacy from Judaism? These matters are about God and the state should not be involved.
According to a statement released by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, which is legally representing the Bahai couple, The question before the Supreme Administrative Court is whether or not Egyptian Bahai citizens have the right to obtain official identification documents that listed their religious affiliation, left the religion line blank or inserted the word others instead of the three officially recognized religions of Islam, Christianity and Judaism.
"These three options were available for Egypt s Bahai citizens for decades before the Interior Ministry s Civil Status Department decided in the last four years to force them to follow one of the recognized religions only.
President of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights Hossam Bahgat told The Daily Star Egypt that the relevance of the Supreme Administrative Court's final ruling extends beyond the interests of the Bahai community.
"This case is very significant, Bahgat said, "not only for the Bahais, but for all Egyptians. We are hopeful that the Supreme Administrative Court will echo its 1983 ruling that Bahais may not be forced to claim any other religious affiliation.
In an open letter from members of the Bahai community in Egypt (to which Hanna was a signatory) sent to the Minister of Justice Mahmoud Abu El Leil after the Administrative Court s ruling, the Bahais asked for an accurate implementation of the ruling.
As you know, many Muslims live in countries where the majority of their residents do not recognize the divine origin of Islam. Those Muslims aspire to obtain their rights under the laws of those countries and international covenants related to human rights.
"All the Bahais of Egypt are asking for is to be given citizenship rights and not to be noted falsely and fraudulently in our identification documents. Our ardent hope is that you, as the Minister of Justice, will be trusted to execute the court's ruling in letter and spirit.


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