Volume 18, Issue 3 / October-December 2006
CAIRO — In a closely watched case that became the focus of a national debate on religious freedom, Egypt’s Supreme Administrative Court has ruled against the right of Bahá’ís to be properly identified on government documents.
The decision, handed down on 16 December 2006, upholds a government policy that forces the Bahá’ís either to lie about their religious beliefs or give up their state identification cards. The policy effectively deprives Egyptian Bahá’ís of access to most rights of citizenship, including education, financial services, and even medical care.
The ruling was immediately criticized by the Bahá’í International Community and human rights organizations in Egypt. It also received extensive media coverage in Egypt and the Arab world.
“We deplore the Court’s ruling in this case, which violates an extensive body of international law on human rights and religious freedom to which Egypt has long been a party,” said Bani Dugal, the principal representative of the Bahá’í International Community to the United Nations. “The Court’s decision threatens to make non-citizens of an entire religious community, solely on the basis of religious belief.”
The case concerns a lawsuit filed against the government by a married couple, Husam Izzat Musa and Ranya Enayat Rushdy, who had their identification cards and passports confiscated after they applied to have their daughters added to their passports, which listed the Bahá’í Faith as their religion.
In Egypt, all citizens must list their religious affiliation on state ID cards and other documents, and they must choose from one of the three officially recognized religions — Islam, Christianity or Judaism.
In April, a lower administrative court ruled in favor of the couple, saying the state must issue them ID cards that properly identified their religion. The ruling said that even if the government did not recognize the Bahá’í Faith, adherents should still have their religious status properly stated on official documents.
That ruling provoked an outcry among extremist elements in Egyptian society, who objected to any official mention of a religion other than the three mentioned in the Qur’an, opening a vigorous debate over issues of religious freedom and tolerance here.
Since April, more than 400 articles, stories, commentaries and programs have appeared in the Egyptian and Arabic news media about the case or its fallout.
The Court’s ruling
In May, the government appealed the lower court’s ruling, which brought the case before the Supreme Administrative Court. The Court held a series of hearings on the case through the summer and fall before issuing its final ruling on 16 December.
In the ruling, the Supreme Administrative Court offered a contradictory rationale to support the idea that Egypt can both uphold its commitment to international human rights covenants that uphold freedom of religion or belief, such as Article 18 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, and satisfy an Islamic interpretation that says only three religions are “heavenly,” and thus deserving of protection under that right.
On the one hand, the Court wrote, “all Egyptian constitutions [have] guaranteed the freedom of belief and the freedom of religious rites, as they constitute fundamental principles of all civilized countries. Every human being has the right to believe in the religion or belief that satisfies his conscience and pleases his soul. No authority has power over what he believes deep in his soul and conscience.”
At the same time, however, the Court wrote that “the Bahá’í belief — as unanimously concluded by the Muslim imams as well as the rulings of the Supreme Constitutional Court and the Supreme Administrative Court — is not among the recognized religions, whoever follows it from among the Muslims is considered apostate.”
Thus, “despite its guarantee in Article 18 [of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights] to give everyone the right to freedom of thought, expression and religion, ‘this latter right should be understood within the limits of what is recognized i.e. what is meant by religion is one of the three religions: Islam, Christianity and Judaism,’” the Court wrote, citing an earlier Egyptian Supreme Court decision.
As such, the Court wrote, the recording of the Bahá’í Faith or other religions “which [Islamic] scholars of the nation and the successive rulings of both the constitutional and administrative courts unanimously agreed are not among the heavenly religions...is not allowed. This is established on the grounds that the legal provisions that regulate all these issues are considered part of the public order.”
News of the decision and its impact on Egypt’s small but active Bahá’í community were carried by the Associated Press, Reuters, and Agence France-Presse, as well as on BBC radio and France24 television. It also received extensive coverage in newspapers and on television in Egypt and in Arab countries.
Egyptian human rights groups immediately condemned the decision.
The Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) issued a press release on 17 December expressing “great concern,” saying it was “unfortunate that the debate raised during the crisis was restricted to a doctrinal prosecution of Bahá’ísm [sic], while totally overlooking the core of the issue, namely, the right of each citizen to embrace the religion or beliefs of his own free choice without being discriminated against by any authority in society.”
In an unprecedented move, the international governing body of the Bahá’í Faith wrote a public letter to the Bahá’í community of Egypt a week after the ruling, casting the struggle for the rights of Bahá’ís in Egypt as part of a “peaceful” and principled “fight for justice” that contributes to the establishment of a “single global standard of human rights,” based on the principle of the oneness of humankind.
The Universal House of Justice urged Egyptian Bahá’ís to “stand firm and persevere in your effort to win affirmation” of the right to be properly identified on government documents.
“The ruling was unreasonable not only because it is contrary to prescriptions set forth in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Egypt is a signatory, but more especially because the sacred scriptures of Islam extol tolerance as a precept of social stability,” wrote the Universal House of Justice in the letter, dated 21 December 2006.
“Like other Egyptian citizens, you simply wish to be free to carry out the requirement of the civil law that you must obtain identification cards without lying about your religious beliefs. Possessing such a card is a common right to which every native-born Egyptian is entitled.”
“[H]ow strange it is that the custodians of the law would themselves oblige you to violate a government policy that all citizens without exception are expected to observe,” wrote the Universal House of Justice.
“Those groups supporting you in your current encounter are of a world-embracing vision and are themselves prepared to withstand the harsh resistance to their selfless occupation, sustaining blows of injustice in the process,” said the Universal House of Justice.
“Undoubtedly,” the letter concluded, “Egypt will rise to participate, as befits its stature, in the fruition of that destiny of world peace and prosperity of which all nations dream.”
s in their country have not only upheld their rights but in fact recognized that the Bahá’í Faith is a new and independent religion, as when an Egyptian ecclesiastic court ruled in 1925 on an issue concerning Bahá’í marriages.
“If Egyptian magistrates were capable then of such clear perception, and others in a local court have so recently shown a similar awareness, it seems reasonable to trust that this capacity will in the future reassert itself positively at the highest level of authority in your country,” wrote the Universal House of Justice.