Egyptian court to rule on new religious freedom cases

20 December 2007

CAIRO — A court is expected to rule early next week on two cases related to the government's policy on religious affiliation and national identity papers, an issue that has been hotly debated here in recent months and a focus of international human rights concerns.

The first case involves a lawsuit by the father of twin children, who is seeking to obtain proper birth certificates for them. The second concerns a college student, who needs a national identity card to re-enroll in university.

Both are set for "final judgment" by the Court of Administrative Justice in Cairo on 25 December 2007. In both cases, the individuals involved are unable to obtain government identification papers because they are Baha'is.

"The world has increasingly come to understand the basic injustice imposed by the Egyptian government's policies on religious affiliation and official documents -- and the court has before it in these two cases the chance once again to right that wrong," said Bani Dugal, the principal representative of the Baha'i International Community.

"Last year, under pressure from Muslim fundamentalists, the Supreme Administrative Court rejected a lower court decision that had required the government to include the word 'Baha'i' on official documents. These two new cases offer a compromise solution, asking merely that the religious affiliation field be left blank or filled in with the word 'other,'" added Ms. Dugal.

The government requires all identification papers to list religious affiliation but then restricts the choice to the three officially recognized religions -- Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. Baha'is are thus unable to obtain identification papers because they refuse to lie about their religious affiliation.

Without national identity cards -- or, as in the case of the twin children, birth certificates -- Baha'is and others caught in the law's contradictory requirements are deprived of a wide range of citizenship rights, such as access to employment, education, and medical and financial services.

These problems were highlighted in a report issued in November by Human Rights Watch and the Cairo-based Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR).

"Employers, both public and private, by law cannot hire someone without an ID, and academic institutions require IDs for admission," said the report. "Obtaining a marriage license or a passport requires a birth certificate; inheritance, pensions, and death benefits are contingent on death certificates. The Ministry of Health has even refused to provide immunizations to some Baha'i children because the Interior Ministry would not issue them birth certificates accurately listing their Baha'i religion."

The issuance of birth certificates is at the heart of the first case, which concerns 14-year-old twins Imad and Nancy Rauf Hindi. Their father, Rauf Hindi, obtained birth certificates that recognized their Baha'i affiliation when they were born.

But new policies require computer generated certificates, and the computer system locks out any religious affiliation but the three officially recognized religions. And without birth certificates, the children are unable to enroll in school in Egypt.

The second lawsuit was filed by the EIPR last February on behalf of 18-year-old Hussein Hosni Bakhit Abdel-Massih, who was suspended from the Suez Canal University's Higher Institute of Social Work in January 2006 due to his inability to obtain an identity card because of his refusal to falsely identify himself as either a Muslim, a Christian, or a Jew.

In both cases, lawyers representing the Baha'is have made it clear that they are willing to settle for cards or documents on which the religious affiliation field is left blank or filled in, perhaps, as "other."

This solution is what makes these two cases different from the lawsuit that was rejected by the Supreme Administrative Court last year, said Hossam Baghat, director of the EIPR.

"The negative ruling by the Supreme Administrative Court has forced us to file these new cases," said Mr. Baghat, whose organization has been at the forefront of defending Egyptian Baha'is in this controversy. "The facts are extremely similar to the case that we lost last year, but we are calling this time for documents without any religious affiliation.

"For us, this is really the test for the government and the judiciary on this issue. Because if the main problem is the fact that the Baha'i Faith is not recognized in Egypt, then there should be no grounds for them to deny these Egyptian citizens documents that are necessary for their daily life without any reference to religion."

Mr. Baghat said the cases also have implications for religious freedom in general in Egypt.

"So far, the problem only affects Egyptian Baha'is, but the same problem could arise in theory with Egyptians who are adherents of Buddhism or Hinduism," said Mr. Baghat. "But it is also important for people who do not wish to be identified with any religion, which is a right guaranteed by both Egyptian and international law."

For Egyptian Baha'is, the facts of life on the ground continue to deteriorate in the absence of a solution, said Labib Hanna, a spokesperson for the Egyptian Baha'i community.

"We are not able to do anything without valid identification papers," said Dr. Hanna, who is a professor of mathematics at Cairo University. "We cannot renew a driver's license, we cannot obtain permanent employment, and we cannot send our children to school."

He said many Baha'is are able to meet the needs of daily life by taking temporary positions, dealing with banks, schools, or other institutions where they have an established relationship, or by continuing to use old, paper-based identification cards that allowed for other options in the religious affiliation field.

"We are trying to survive," said Dr. Hanna. "But it is difficult. We are struggling."