Egypt hearing highlights ID card discrimination for Baha'is

23 August 2006

The Egyptian government's controversial policy that requires citizens to list their religion on national identification cards, while also limiting the choice to one of just three official religions, was the focus of a major symposium here in August.

The event drew considerable attention to the plight of the Baha'is in Egypt, who endure discrimination under the policy. It forces them to either lie about their religion and illegally falsify their religious affiliation -- or go without ID cards, which are necessary to access virtually all rights of citizenship here.

Held on 8 August 2006 by National Council for Human Rights (NCHR), a state-funded, advisory body to the government on human rights issues, the symposium heard testimony from a wide variety of civil society groups, official governmental agencies and ministries, as well as the Baha'i community of Egypt.

"Baha'is face a daily struggle now," said Dr. Basma Moussa, the Baha'i representative, explaining that without valid ID cards Baha'is cannot register for school, attend university, address questions on military service, apply for jobs, process banking transactions, or properly receive salaries.

Dr. Moussa said both international agreements and Egyptian law, however, guarantee freedom of religion or belief, and that the administrative issues surrounding the ID card limitations could easily be solved by adopting alternatives, such as leaving the section blank or simply allowing a fourth choice of "other" in the religion identification field.

Some 160 people were present at the symposium, representing not only some 57 civil society and non-governmental organizations, but also prominent thinkers and various representatives from the government, including the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of External Affairs, the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Legal Affairs, and the Egyptian Parliament. Eighty participants presented testimony.

The event was introduced by former UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who is currently president of the NCHR, and it drew wide publicity in Egyptian news media.

"The purpose of the event was basically to put the issue on the agenda, and in this sense it was successful," said Hossam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), an independent Egyptian human rights organization. "It is a highly symbolic gesture, and a positive development."

In April, the issue of religious affiliation on identification cards became the focus of increasing controversy when an administrative court ruled that Baha'is should also be allowed to state their religion on government documents.

Fundamentalist Islamic groups decried the April ruling, while human rights organizations praised it. The Supreme Administrative Court is now set to hold a hearing on the government's appeal of the Baha'i case in September.

At present, government policy allows only the listing of Islam, Christianity and Judaism, the three officially recognized religions, on ID cards and other documents.

The NCHR symposium sought to address this limitation -- and it was also marked by an airing of all sides of the issue. Representatives of fundamentalist Islamic groups urged the government to keep its current policy, saying "public order" might be adversely affected if other religions were allowed to be listed or the listing was abolished entirely.

Among the concerns expressed by Islamic groups was a fear that any change would affect various issues relating to marriage, divorce, and inheritance, which are governed by each religious community here.

Other groups, including representatives of the Coptic Christians and various national human rights organizations, urged a change in the policy, saying the current policy is at odds with international law -- and moral conscience -- relating to the freedom of religion or belief.

Dr. Gamal el-Banna, an Islamic thinker and scholar, said for example that "the case of religious belief is a personal matter, which has no connection to public order, and that no one should interfere with it.

"We should be examining the standards of ignorance and prejudice, as well as the publications that darken our lives," he said, according to published accounts. "Omitting religion from ID cards would neither lead to progress nor regress."

Dr. Boutros-Ghali, in an opening statement, noted that "the three major religions represent less than 50 percent of world religions, but other religions account for 51 percent of recognized religions."

"In the upcoming years Egypt will face further conflicts in religious relations, and newer religions will require recognition as they appear, so we should either approve and recognize all religions or eliminate religious classification from ID cards," said Dr. Boutros-Ghali, according to published accounts.

The recent introduction of a computerized card system that locks out any religious identification other than the three officially recognized religions has made the problem worse for Baha'is, who were previously able to find clerks who might at least leave the religion field blank in old style paper ID cards.

Not only are Baha'is prohibited by their beliefs from lying, but it is a crime to provide false information on any official document here. Thus, unable to morally or legally list one of the three recognized religions, Baha'is are now prevented from obtaining new cards, and they are as a community gradually being deprived of nearly all the rights of citizenship.

In her presentation of the Baha'i view, Dr. Moussa, an assistant professor of oral and maxillofacial surgery at Cairo University, read six pages of testimony before the Council. [Read Dr. Moussa's testimony in Arabic]

Her testimony focused on the degree to which international law and the Egyptian constitution uphold the right to freedom of religion or belief. In particular, she said, Articles 40 and 46 of the Egyptian constitution both grant the freedom of religious practice and belief, as well as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Egypt has signed.

In view of these laws, Dr. Moussa said, "it is obvious that limiting the religions on the ID card to the three [official religions] interferes with the freedom of those who believe in religions other than those.

"In these cases, it is as if you are forcing a religion on the ID card holder, which is counter to what the law and the constitution state, and it goes against international human rights."

Dr. Moussa also said there have been cases in other official documents, such as birth and death certificates, where Baha'is have been identified as Baha'is -- or where the field has simply been left blank. "These alternatives prove to us that it can be done."

She added that in other countries where Muslims are not in the majority, "they expect, and rightfully so, that their rights will be fully provided for. This, and no more, is what Baha'is are asking for."

"We are asking that, on official papers, you either list 'Baha'i,' or 'other,' or a 'dash' -- or just leave it blank," said Dr. Moussa. "This is actually all that we have asked of governmental agencies over the last few years."

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