CAIRO: Egyptians affiliated with the Baha i Faith are celebrating a legal victory after the country s Administrative Court ruled their religion can legally be recognized in official documents. The ruling stems from a 2004 lawsuit filed by an Egyptian Baha i couple after their children s documents were seized, allegedly by the Civil Status Department (CSD). The couple claimed the CSD refused to issue the family new identification documents unless the family officially recognized themselves as Muslim. Authorities told the married couple the children would not be reissued new birth certificates and thus would be kicked out of school, unless they registered the children as Muslim. We warmly welcome this verdict, says Hossam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR). The Egyptian judiciary and particularly the Administrative Court have shown their commitment and support for constitutional freedoms including freedom of religion in this. One of the newest religions worldwide, the Baha i Faith is based on the teachings of Bahá u lláh in the early to mid-19th century. The faith aims for the unity of all religions and recognizes the teachings of Mohammed, Moses, Jesus, Krishna, Buddha and Zoroaster.
Egypt was among the few places open to practicing the Faith during the ministry of Bahá u lláh. Baha i merchants migrated to Alexandria and Cairo from Tehran in the 1860s, looking to establish themselves along the Mediterranean. They lived in Egypt as a tolerated community for decades until the promulgation of Law 263 of 1960, which dissolved Baha’i spiritual assemblies.
In March 1975, a case of Baha i rights went before Egypt s Supreme Court, questioning their right to practice religion. The court ruled, “The Baha i belief has been considered by all religious imams as not a heavenly religion and any Muslim that believes in Baha i will be declared an apostate, hence, the constitution did not provide the protection for it or its rituals.
The ruling has subjected Egypt to much scrutiny, however, as it is a member country of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Article 18 of the ICCPR does not state the necessity of belief in any of the Heavenly religions as a condition for the freedom of religion; even it was contradicting the state’s religion.
In Egypt, it is mandatory to have your religious affiliation listed on all official documents, explains Bahgat. So, it is a person s right to self-identify properly and have their religion recognized by society, but the failure of the Baha is to enjoy this right leads to a host of consequences in their daily life.
Without such documentation, Baha is could not receive marriage licenses or birth certificates for their children. Often, Baha is fail to receive inheritance because they cannot issue death certificates for deceased loved ones. Bahgat cites incidents where university students gearing up for graduation get suspended because they cannot complete graduation registration.
* This is really a big problem for the younger Baha is, he says. Some university students get suspended because they cannot complete their military registration papers.
Today, there are approximately five million Baha’is worldwide. While no official statistics exist on the number of Baha’is in Egypt, it is estimated to be around 2,000. Although the ruling is viewed as a major step for religious freedom, some of Egypt s Baha is remain skeptical.
“I won’t be certain this makes a difference until I go and try to get a birth certificate and a passport, says a local Baha i who requested anonymity. At least it is a first step that should bring us justice that has long been missing here.