|The Right of Belief in Egypt: Case study of Baha’i minority|
by Youssef Wardany
This right is supported by the international human rights instruments such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR article 18), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR article 18), the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR article 9), the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (article 8).These documents provide the framework for human rights and are validated by their signatories, each of whom makes a dedication to adhere to the agreed upon principles. Egypt, despite its obligation to respect these documents, has been criticized by many international reports for its poor record in respect to religious freedom; particularly concerning the Christian Copt and Baha’i minorities. These criticisms have relied mainly on claims that Egypt is circumscribing the freedom of belief and practice, with contradiction to the international treaties ratified by the government, and the constitutional guarantees of equality between citizens and respect for their freedom of belief.
The objective of this paper is to clarify the Baha’i community’s deprivation of basic rights and to examine the state’s strategy in dealing with this minority group in light of Egypt’s international and constitutional obligations. The paper will not only refute the opinion that violation of Baha’i community rights is due to the Islamic legislation (Shari’a), but it will also explain how this strategy is developed as a result of internal political dynamics, which vary from one Muslim country to another.
Another example of their challenges can be seen in the difficulty for Baha’i practicing individuals to obtain the required identification. The requirement of a computer generated document by the Central Civil Registry office of the Ministry of Interior in 1995 triggered the suffering of Baha’i as it only admits the three heavenly religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) to denote the identity of an individual in the religious affiliation section of the Identity Card (ID). Possessing an ID is a basic requirement for obtaining any public service, official document such as birth certificates, marriage licenses, and death certificates, and even to partake in simple monetary transactions like opening a bank account or trading on the stock market. The Baha’i obliged because they had few options. They could register with another religion, live without an ID, or forge the document to reflect their Baha’i identity at the risk of imprisonment. While some Baha’is have been able to persuade local civil registry offices to leave the religion space blank on their ID’s or to register them under different names, many have faced great difficulties.
These discriminatory measures deprive Baha’i and their children from the rights of citizenship stated in several articles of the amended 1971 constitution of Egypt, including article 1 that states, “Egypt is a democratic state based on citizenship,” article 40, which guarantees equality for all citizens before the law without any discrimination in regard to race, ethnic origin, language, religion or creed, and article 46 obligating the state to “guarantee the freedom of belief and the freedom of practice of religious rites.” Moreover, these measures are in contradiction with some international human rights treaties ratified by Egypt such as ICCPR, Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), Convention on the Elimination of all Forms OF Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) which ensure the freedom of religion and prohibit any discrimination based upon it.
As a result of these violations, many international organizations have included the Baha’i issue in their comments about human rights violations in Egypt. Prominent among these institutions are the US Department of State and Commission on International Religious Freedom, the EU parliament, and the United Nations Human Rights Committee.
Since the year 2002, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom has begun to mention the Baha’i situation in their annual reports. The Egyptian government was accused, in the subsequent commission reports since 2002, of using article 98 of the penal code that prohibits citizens from “ridiculing or insulting heavenly religions or inciting sectarian strife” as a tool to “prosecute alleged acts of proselytism by non Muslims.” The commission simultaneously asked the U.S government to urge the Egyptian government to cancel the 1960 presidential decree banning Baha’i members from practicing their faith, end messages of hatred and intolerance towards them in government controlled media, promote understanding and respect for the Baha’i community, and to reform the ID either by removing religious affiliation from identity documents or making it optional to identify.
On January 17, 2008, The European Parliament acknowledged in its resolution on the situation of human rights in Egypt that Baha’i are still severely disadvantaged by sectarian isolation and called upon the Egyptian government to support measures that would guarantee them freedom of private religious belief. Moreover, in 2002 The United Human Rights Committee evoked concerns about the inability of Baha’i to practice their faith and the pressure exerted by Islamists on the judiciary organ to adhere to Shari’ a in interpretation of articles 14.18 and 19 of the ICCPR.
These pressures, however, have not been sufficient to make the government change its policy towards Baha’i. First, the Baha’i issue is understood by Egypt as a subject of internal political dynamics rather than international affairs. Secondly, the impact of these pressures is very minor in light of the United States’ dire need of Egypt’s support in war against terrorism and the priority of other issues of concern for the international community, such as slow democratic reforms within Egypt and the discrimination against Copts.
The government strategy in dealing with Baha’i can be traced through two major overlapping strategies. The short term strategy deals with Baha’i suffering as a legal issue that is best handled through courts rather than political bodies and within the framework of citizenship itself. The long term strategy takes into consideration the political cost analysis and the amount of strain the Egyptian government would bear if it recognized the Baha’i right of belief despite its contradiction to the second article of the Constitution; that stipulates that Islamic law is the principle source of legislation and that the opinions from religious institutions such as Al-Azhar and Dar Al-Ifta (the house of Fatwa’s) are “binding.”
In April 2006, a lower administrative court gave a couple of Baha’i the right to identify their religion in ID cards, stating that “even if the government did not recognize the Baha'i faith, adherents should still have their religious status properly stated on official documents.” This rule was appealed by the government, and in December the same year, the Supreme Administrative Court ruled that it is not allowed for Baha’i to mention their belief in any official document.
The rule was based on three main arguments. Firstly, allowing Baha’i to mention their faith on ID cards will imply a recognition of the Baha’i religion in contrast to opinions of Scholars (Fukih) and fatwa’s from official religious institutions that consider Islam as the most complete of all religions with Muhammad as the seal of Prophets. Secondly, this rule conformed to the article 18 of the UDHR and article 46 of the Constitution, taking into consideration that the word ‘religion’ is basically confined to the only three heavenly religions recognized in the Quran. Thirdly, the notion of public order, which is mentioned clearly in the 1956, 1958, 1964 Constitutions, prevent Baha’i from being considered a religion. With this understanding, the Supreme Administrative Court adopted a unilateral interpretation of the word “religion,” thus depriving post Islamic faiths such as Baha’i and other
The government found itself in a contradictory situation as some Baha’i were deprived of their right to register their religious affiliation in official documents and punished at the same time in accordance with law number 143 from 1994, which requires every Egyptian citizen to have an ID. The government failed to persuade all Baha’i to use their passport as documentation in their daily transaction, as passports do not state religious affiliation and some Egyptian governmental agencies were hesitant in accepting passports in lieu of IDs. In December of 2006, this dilemma led the National Council for Human Rights, a quasi governmental agency, to ask the Egyptian Prime Minister to either omit the religious affiliation space of the ID card or to add the word ‘others’ to the already three recognized religions.
In January 2008, the Court of Administrative Justice, a lower administrative court, allowed the Baha’i to leave the religious affiliation field blank on all identification documents. This rule was reinforced by another ruling from the same court in November, which gave a Baha’i university student the right to obtain an ID card with dashes "--" in place of religious identification. The Ministry of Interior did not appeal the two rulings, which may be taken as a sign that the government would like to find a solution.
Solving the ID problem does not mean that the Egyptian government is able to recognize the Baha’i religion as a distinct one. It can only be seen as a tactic or a short term strategy to solve a citizenship dilemma and dilute international pressures in this regard. The maneuverability of the government in granting Baha’i the right to practice their belief in public and to annul the 1960 presidential decree is very limited and dependent mainly on two factors. First, the government’s readiness to bear internal pressures, heightened by Islamists and religious institutions who consider any improvement in other religious minorities’ status a loss on their behalf. Second, the potential threats that Baha’is can pose to the public order and stability of the regime in regard to preserving the existing status quo.
The government’s political legitimacy is built on the respect of Islamic Shari’a and the opinions of official religious institutions who consider Baha’i faith as a “heretical sect of Islam rather than an independent religious movement.” Since 1910, Al Azhar has issued a lot of opinions prohibiting the recognition of the Baha’i religion, naming its adherents as a threat to the public order, and calling the government to use its authority to ban Baha’i in the country. Moreover, some prominent Muslim sheikhs linked Baha’is to Zionism and imperialism with the aim of delegitimizing their case and mobilizing public opinion against them. These opinions of certain religious leaders find a suitable environment to spread in a country where 95.4% of the population appreciates the status of religion in the society. Adding to this, the Muslim Brotherhood is very strong in the country, controlling 20% of the Parliament’s total seats and having a wide spread outreach in the streets with the services they provide and a clear Islamic agenda.
Moreover, the government believes that its current strategy in dealing with the Baha’i will not lead to a break in the public order inside Egypt. This is supported by the existence of a small Baha’i Community in Egypt, totaling 2,000 individuals out of 80 million citizens in July 2008 and the Baha’i’s abstention from conflict and contention as a result of their faith’s request to “obey the government in power at a given time, and to refrain strictly from any attempts to subvert or undermine it.”
Despite these estimations, the potentiality of clashes between the Baha’i and the state of Egypt exists as Muslim conversion to Baha’ism could become a trend. This possibility of conversion is understandable as “Baha’ism is considered the second-most widely spread independent religion in the world, after Christianity.” The government’s reaction to Muslim conversion to Christianity has historically been very harsh, threatening those individuals to “refrain from acknowledging their actual religious affiliation or any rights related to their conversion.”
Egypt’s stance on Baha’ism is in conformity with the long traditions adopted in most Muslim countries where Baha’i faith is not recognized legally as a separate autonomous religion and its followers do not have the right to practice Baha’ism in public. This treatment is substantiated by the claim that Islam does not realize any post Islamic faiths and the freedom of worship is granted only to the “people of the Book” (Muslims, Christians, and Jews). However despite this trend, the specific rights of the Baha’i community vary dramatically from one country to another.
In Pakistan and Bangladesh, the Baha’i have the right to hold their public meetings, establish academic centers, teach their faith, and elect their administrative councils. In Indonesia, the Baha’ism is legally recognized and the followers have the ability to elect their administrative councils. In Bahrain, the Baha’i constitute 1% of the population and the government does not intervene in their worship and gathering; moreover, it recently authorized the publication of a book about the life of the Baha’is. In UAE, the Emirate of Abu Dhabi donated land for a Baha’i cemetery.
However, in contrast to these many freedoms, in Iran the Baha’i are viewed as “heretics”, and may face repression on the grounds of apostasy. The Iranian parliament approved on September 9, 2008, with an overwhelming majority, a new penal code “calling for a mandatory death sentence for apostates, or those who leave Islam.” The Iranian treatment of the Baha’i as a non-heavenly religion can be contrasted with article number 12 of the Iranian constitution, which recognizes Zoroastrians as a religious minority with the right to “perform their religious rites and ceremonies, and to act according to their own canon in matters of personal affairs and religious education.” This contradiction may be accounted for because Zoroastrianism was the main religious in Iran before Islam, unlike the post-Islamic faith of Baha’ism.
The rights of the Baha’i community to practice their religion are determined mainly in Muslim countries by internal political consideration, rather than by a sole Islamic opinion. This was reinforced by the different interpretation of Islamic texts, and the severe variation within the community of Muslim scholars. Egypt adheres to a more moderate approach, giving citizenship rights and freedom to practice in private, in spite of the internal religious opposition. Cairo’s violation of international human rights instruments can be seen from a cultural relativist view that takes into consideration the societal underpinnings within the country, the absence of a strong international pressure, and the notion of “public order.”