Egyptian Government challenges Baha'is' civil rights on appeal -- Court hearing set for Monday, 19 June, in Cairo

15 June 2006

CAIRO — Proponents of religious freedom around the world are expected to watch closely the appeal by the government of a case on which an Egyptian court will hold a hearing next Monday.

The case concerns an administrative court's ruling in April in favor of an Egyptian Baha'i couple who sought not to have their religion falsely identified on government documents, such as ID cards, without which most rights of citizenship are unobtainable.

Under pressure from conservative elements of Egyptian society, the government has appealed that decision, taking it before the Supreme Administrative Court.

The initial ruling and the appeal have drawn extensive media attention in Egypt and the Arab world as the implications go far beyond the Baha'is who are directly involved, explained Hossam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), an independent Egyptian human rights organization.

"This case is important not only for Baha'is but for all Egyptians as it will set an important precedent in terms of citizenship, equality, and freedom of religion," said

Mr. Bahgat. "There is a huge interest in this case."

"The human rights community, the legal community and the media are closely following it," he said. "We have at least a hundred press clippings from May alone."

The attention came after a lower administrative court ruled in favor of the Baha'is on

4 April 2006, ordering the government to issue identity cards and birth certificates that correctly state their professed religion as members of the Baha'i Faith.

Elements of society here, particularly Al Azhar University and the Muslim Brotherhood, raised an outcry in the wake of the decision, objecting to any kind of recognition of the Baha'i Faith as a religious belief. That reaction, in turn, triggered a wholesale debate in newspapers and blogs throughout the Arab world over the right to freedom of religion and belief.

"People on both sides of the case are mobilized," said Mr. Bahgat. "There are people who are in support of the Baha'is, and people who see this as a threat to society or Islam."

In early May, the government appealed the lower court's ruling, and the hearing next Monday will focus on procedural issues concerning the case, which could go on in the courts for some time, said Mr. Bahgat.

The emotions stirred by the case were evident at the initial hearing on the government's appeal of the case by the Supreme Administrative Court, held 15 May.

A description of that hearing was posted by the EIPR to its website last month.

"Lawyers and other individuals seated in the courthouse interrupted and heckled defense counsel each time they tried to address the court and yelled insults at them, calling them 'infidels' and threatening them with physical violence during the hearing," said the EIPR in the statement issued on 15 May and posted on its website.

"Unable to impose order in the courtroom, the Court briefly adjourned the hearing before resuming the proceedings in camera," the EIPR statement continued. "When the hearing was adjourned, courthouse security officers refused to protect lawyers who were surrounded by members of the crowd, verbally threatened, pushed, shoved and not allowed to walk away from the area."

Bani Dugal, the principal representative of the Baha'i International Community to the United Nations, said she hoped next Monday's hearing would not be marked by similar kinds of abuse and threats. "We believe that such actions, if allowed by the Court, are prejudicial to the case," said Ms. Dugal.

"Further, our hope is that the Court will not allow the emotions that have arisen regarding this case to cloud their judgment on what is an otherwise clear-cut matter concerning the right of individuals simply to profess their own beliefs -- a right that is firmly upheld in both international and Egyptian law.

"The Baha'is represented in the case, and by extension the entire Baha'i community of Egypt, only ask that they be given the same rights as other Egyptian citizens, which in this case concerns the right not to have one's religion falsely identified in government documents. Such false reporting, in addition to being fraudulent, is for the Baha'is a denial of their Faith."

One reason the issue rose to prominence after the initial court ruling in April is because Egypt officially recognizes only three religions: Islam, Christianity and Judaism. And even though the lower court acknowledged that Islamic jurisprudence does not recognize the Baha'i Faith for "open practice," it ruled nevertheless that the religion of Baha'is should be acknowledged in official documents, rather than falsely identified as Muslim or one of the other religions, which government agencies currently insist upon.

"This is not about forcing the Egyptian government or anyone to accept or recognize the divine origin of the Baha'i Faith," said Ms. Dugal. "It is simply that Baha'is, like all other Egyptian citizens, are legally required to obtain government-issued ID cards. And without such documents, Egyptian Baha'is are unable to gain legal access to employment, education, and medical and financial services, and are deprived of freedom of movement."

Ms. Dugal said human rights organizations in Egypt and elsewhere will closely watch the appeal process.

"For Baha'is, the issue is simply a matter of obtaining the same rights granted to every other Egyptian citizen, and being allowed to live their lives in peace," said Ms. Dugal. "But there is little doubt that the issue has taken on a wider significance in Egyptian and Arab society, as evidenced by the intense discussion on issues of religious freedom and tolerance that this simple case has stimulated."

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