Court denies Bahais legal recognition

Since there's been some interest in today's protest to give Egyptian Bahais full recognition under the law, I am pasting below a press release from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, one of the NGOs that has campaigned on the case (they also campaign on behalf of Egyptian Shias as well as anyone else who is discriminated against because of personal belief or condition, as well as work on public health issues.)

The Supreme Administrative Court has unfortunately refused to force the Ministry of Interior to recognize Bahais, echoing the opinion of the Mufti of Egypt Ali Gomaa that Bahais do not deserve recognition -- this from a supposedly more open-minded cleric. It's sad to see such a confluence of bigotry and gestapo mentality: the sheikhs cling on to some abstract idea of what's a religion or not while the security types are too attached to their system and too obsessed with religion to change the system. Just look how nervous this regime is about the whole Muslim-Coptic thing.

(Update: Don't miss this story by the wonderful Jailan Zayan or this post by Hossam, who was at the demo had experience a bunch of nastiness first-hand.)

I think it's worth highlighting that this is not the first time the issue goes to court. In 1924 an Egyptian appeals court recognized the Bahai faith as independent of Islam and therefore worthy of its own categorization:

"The Bahá'í Faith is a new religion entirely independent.... No Bahá'í therefore can be regarded as Muslim or vice versa, even as no Buddhist, Brahmin or Christian can be regarded as Muslim."
There's more info about that at the Bahai World News Service and this page in particular.

The public debate about this is rather narrow-minded, unfortunately. I had noted a few months in my personal notes that an al-Gomhouriya columnist, Mohammed Abdel Hafez, had written:

According to the Constitution, the main source of legislation is Islamic law, which recognises only the religions of the book: Christianity and Judaism. If Bahaism is officially recognised, worshippers of cows, the sun and fire will want to jump on the bandwagon.
This is both an attempt to belittle Bahais and take a jab at "pagans" -- Hindus, Zoroastrians, Yazidis and others. Not very classy, Mr Abdel Hafez. I hope the rest of the discussion of this issue is a little bit more enlightened -- to be fair I may have happened upon an unusually obnoxious commentary.

Incidentally Bahais are sometimes reproached in the region because they have a major presence at Mount Carmel, in Israel. Aside from their attachment to Jerusalem and its environs -- surely understandable to Egyptian Muslims and Christians -- it's hardly their fault if they are mistreated elsewhere in the region, is it?

Anyway, here's the EIPR press release.

Government Must Find Solution for Baha'i Egyptians

Egypt's Supreme Administrative Court today found the government may not recognize the Bahai'i faith in official identification documents, leaving Baha'i Egyptian citizens unable to obtain necessary documents that must include a citizen's religion, such as birth or death certificates and identity cards.


"Today's regrettable decision throws the ball in the government's court," said Hossam Bahgat, Director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), which represented the Baha'is in the case. "The government must find a solution now for the hundreds of citizens who used to be able to obtain official documents recognizing their faith for more than five decades until the government decided recently to change its policy and force them to choose between Islam and Christianity."

The EIPR said the press release issued by the Chief Judge of the Court today did not respond to any of the legal arguments and evidence submitted by the EIPR in the case. The press release only discussed the tenets of the Baha'i faith, which fell outside the scope of this lawsuit. The question before the court was about the legality of forcing Egyptian citizens to falsely adopt Islam or Christianity in order to obtain official documents that are necessary in their daily lives.

Today's decision overturned an April 2004 ruling by the lower Administrative Justice Court in favor of Baha'i Egyptians. The decision also reversed the position of the Supreme Administrative Court whish had found in 1983 that Baha'is had the right to have their religious affiliation included in official documents even if the Baha'i faith was not "recognized" in Egypt as a religion.

The EIPR will wait for the written decision to be issued in the coming days before determining its new legal strategy in the fight for Baha'i Egyptians citizenship rights.
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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.