Friday, February 1, 2008

Major victory for freedom of religion in Egypt

An administrative court in Egypt has rejected an official state policy based on Sharia that denies official identity documents for those who do not wish to be identified as Muslim, Jewish or Christian.

However, Hindus or Budhists will not be able to declare their religion on the documents, just leave it blank. So it's half a loaf.

Bahaai community in Egypt, local and international human rights organisations warmly welcomed an Administrative Court ruling this Tuesday (29 January), which reversed the official state policy of denying essential identity documents to Egyptians who do not wish to be identified in official documents as adherents of the three Monotheistic religions recognised by the state.

Bahaai Egyptians, leading a legal battle over the past few years to be certified as Bahaais on official documents, won a first step court ruling to that effect in April 2006. The 2006 court ruling, however, was overturned later by the Supreme Administrative Court.

This week's new sentence seems to meet the Bahaais' demand half way, since while rejecting the demand that the Bahaai faith is a religion, it allowed those who do not wish to be identified as followers of Islam, Christianity or Judaism to have official documents in which the religion category would either be filled by a "hyphen" or the word "without".

"This is not just a victory for the Bahaai community of Egypt, but it is also a victory for all those Egyptians who do not adhere to the three monotheistic religions," Hossam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) told Al-Ahram Weekly. "For the first time in contemporary Egyptian history, an individual who professes Hinduism or Buddhism, or even those wishing to call themselves non-believers, could enjoy full citizenship rights. That in itself is a great advance of human rights and will tremendously enhance the country's human rights record," Bahgat explains.

Basma Moussa, a leader and spokeswoman of the Bahaai community of Egypt, concurs. She was ecstatic. "This ruling is what we have been struggling to achieve for years. At last our prayers have been answered. We are extremely grateful that justice has been served and that finally we can lead normal lives as Egyptian citizens," Moussa says.

Labib Iskandar, a leading Egyptian Bahaai, and a professor of engineering at Cairo University laments that, "we used to move about without personal identification cards. That is a criminal offence in Egypt. We could be stopped by police at any moment, anywhere and asked for our ID."

"Inability to produce an ID card entails a five-year prison sentence,"
Moussa, a dentist and an assistant lecturer at Cairo University says. "The civil status law makes it obligatory for every Egyptian citizen to carry on his or her personal ID card".

"These documents are essential to obtain education and employment, register births, immunise children, and conduct basic transactions such as opening a bank account, obtaining a driver's licence, or collecting a pension," Bahgat extrapolates.

"A previous ruling by the Supreme Administrative Court in December 2006 had upheld the state policy of refusing to recognise the religious affiliation of Bahaais in official documents, arguing that such recognition would violate public order and Sharia [Islamic law] requirements," Bahgat explains.

The December 2006 ruling prompted Bahaai Egyptians to file two other lawsuits -- the subject of Tuesday's ruling -- requesting documents that do not list any religious affiliation. "The new cases, filed by EIPR lawyers, argued that forcing Bahaais to identify falsely as Muslim or Christian violated their rights to freedom of conviction, privacy, equality and full citizenship rights," Bahgat notes.

Bahaais began to experience grave difficulties beginning in 1995, when the authorities insisted that all Egyptians had to acquire or replace personal documents with computerised ones from the central Civil Registry Office in the Ministry of Interior.

It is hoped that this week's ruling would finally allow Bahaai Egyptians to obtain birth certificates and computerised identity cards leaving the religious category void.

Bahgat, Iskandar and Moussa hope that the state would implement the ruling as soon as possible. "We urge the government to implement the decision without delay, and not to appeal this clear verdict of the court," Bahgat says.

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