February 21, 2007 / 3:14 AM / 12 years ago

Baha'is in Egypt fight for recognition as people

CAIRO (Reuters) - If Egyptian dentist Raouf Hindy would only deny his Baha’i faith, he could get his children the identity documents they need to enrol in Egyptian schools and later to marry, drive a car or open a bank account.

But Hindy has insisted on telling the truth.

His decision has thrust him to the forefront of a legal battle over Egypt’s identity politics by Baha’is, who are seen as heretics by many Muslims and whose faith is not recognized by the state.

Hindy is suing the government for the right to omit religion from his children’s official documents — a bold act in this deeply religious, majority-Muslim country where the tiny Baha’i community is said to number between 500 and 2,000.

If he wins, lawyers say the case may set a precedent that would help other Baha’is get identity papers largely denied them since 2004. Discrimination against Baha’is is entrenched in Egyptian bureaucracy, they say.

“I don’t like any person to force me to write a religion I don’t believe in. You know why? Religion is between your heart and God,” Hindy told Reuters.

The Egyptian constitution guarantees religious freedom but in practice officials are reluctant to recognize religions other than Islam, Christianity and Judaism.

Rights activists say Baha’is face systematic persecution in Egypt. Rules, rigidly enforced since Egypt computerized its identity card system, require that people’s official documents show a religious affiliation, and it must be chosen from among the three recognized faiths.

So Hindy’s 14-year-old twins Emad and Nancy, without proper documents, have fallen into an underclass of unrecognized people whose identity Egypt finds troubling.

“If this policy continues, Baha’is will be in a way fifth-class citizens, or even non-citizens, in their own country,” said Diane Ala’i, the Geneva-based Baha’i representative to the United Nations.

Hindy has depleted his savings so his Egyptian-citizen children, born in Oman while he was working in the Gulf, can study abroad. Egyptian schools, even private ones, refuse to admit them. Egypt has been unwilling to recognize their birth certificates because they list the twins as Baha’is.

BAHA’I UNDERCLASS

As a result of the new rules, life for Baha’is has become increasingly difficult in recent years.

The Baha'i faith, which originated in Iran, arrived in Egypt in the 1860s when Baha'i merchants settled in Alexandria and Cairo, according to the official Baha'i Web site, www.bahai.org.

A century later, the Baha’i community had swollen to about 5,000, the largest in the Arab world. Egyptian Baha’is had their own libraries and cemeteries. Baha’i governing assemblies were operating in seven cities, the community says.

In 1960, Egypt dissolved Baha’i institutions and seized community assets. Land on the banks of the Nile bought to build a house of worship on was sold at public auction.

Baha’is have sometimes been seen in the Arab world as disloyal citizens because the faith has its world center in what is now Israel. After the 1967 Middle East war, the community says, some Egyptian Baha’is were held in detention camps for six months. Sporadic arrests have followed.

Many analysts say a more likely reason for anti-Baha’i sentiment in Egypt may be theological differences with Islam. Baha’is regard the faith’s founder, Baha’u’llah, as the latest in a line of prophets including Abraham, Moses, Buddha, Jesus and Mohammad.

Hala Mustafa, editor of al-Ahram Quarterly Democracy Review, said the new restrictions were imposed as Egypt was becoming more religiously conservative, and said she saw no signs that the government would change its view of Baha’is soon.

An Interior Ministry spokesman said: “Rulings were issued in this matter that there are to be no identity cards issued for this Baha’i religion. I mean that’s forbidden. It’s a court ruling, not us. We are just implementing it.”

Orthodox Muslims consider Baha’is heretical because they call their faith’s 19th-century founder a prophet — anathema to Muslims who believe Mohammad was God’s final messenger.

NO IDENTITY

Baha’is say many of their number avoid going out at night or to places where there might be police checks, for fear of being asked for identity papers they increasingly cannot produce.

Egyptians over the age of 16 are required to carry identity cards at all times. Some Baha’is carry now-invalid cards issued before 2004. Others have passports or other documents that have not yet expired and use them.

“I never even tried to get one (an ID card) because I knew I couldn’t...Why go through the hassle?” said Basem Wagdy, a Baha’i in Cairo. “I carry my driving license. Even before that I thought if they stop me I will just give them my college ID.”

Wagdy, a maths and science teacher, said he was fired from a job at the German University in Cairo after he was unable to provide bank account details — leading the school to discover he did not have an identity card and terminate his employment. He has since obtained work at an American-style high school.

An official at the German University declined to comment.

For a few months last year, Baha’is were hopeful: after a two-year fight, a court ruled in April that members of a Baha’i family whose documents had been seized by the state could identify themselves as Baha’is in official papers.

But a higher court overturned the ruling in December in a decision that cannot be appealed.

As a result, the Baha’is have shifted tactics. Now they are no longer seeking to be identified as Baha’is on documents, they simply want ID cards without any mention of their religion.

“It is a step backward for the Baha’i community,” said Hossam Bahgat, a lawyer for the Baha’is who was hopeful about the outcome of Hindy’s case. “But it will be a solution that will enable them to conduct the most basic everyday functions.”

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