Human Rights

Firing of Egyptian Baha'i draws international scrutiny, highlights rights concerns

CAIRO — The firing of a young teaching assistant at the German University of Cairo, apparently solely because he is a Bahá’í, has drawn concern from German politicians and academics concerned with human rights.

Bassem Wagdi, a 24-year-old, third-generation Egyptian Bahá’í, was dismissed from his job at the University last September, less than three weeks after he was hired.

The stated reason for his dismissal was because his “legally required documents and procedures” were “not fulfilled” — a reference to the fact that Mr. Wagdi has been unable to get a state identification card because he is a Bahá’í.

Because the university is sponsored and funded in part by the German government and allied German institutions, Mr. Wagdi’s dismissal has drawn scrutiny from members of the German Parliament and others in Germany.

In late January, Bundestag Member Lale Akgün wrote to German Foreign Minister Angela Merkel, asking her to raise the issue of Mr. Wagdi during a February visit to Cairo.

On 22 March 2007, a group of Bundestag members opened a query with the German Federal Government asking it to investigate the firing of Mr. Wagdi and whether the government can use its influence in such issues of discrimination against Egyptian Bahá’ís.

“How does the Federal Government judge the action of the German University in the case of Bassem W.?” wrote MPs Volker Beck, Marieluise Beck, Alexander Bonde, Uschi Eid, Thilo Hoppe, Ute Koczy, Kerstin Müller, Winfried Nachtwei, Omid Nouripour, Claudia Roth, Rainder Steenblock, and Jürgen Trittin along with a contingent of the Green Party. “How does the German University stand in relation to Germany, and in what way is the work of the university promoted by German organizations or institutions?”

In response to those questions, a representative of the German Foreign Ministry replied that the Federal government was “concerned” about recent court rulings against Bahá’ís and that it “will continue to monitor the civil rights situation.”

Johanna Pink, a well-known specialist on Islam and human rights in Germany, said the firing of Mr. Wagdi is “an unacceptable incident in the context of human rights, especially if an institution with a strong relation to Germany is involved.”

The dismissal of Mr. Wagdi, who has since found another job, came at a time when the issue of identity cards and religious affiliation had become a major issue in Egyptian society, following a lower-court decision in April 2006 that upheld the rights of Bahá’ís to be properly identified on government documents.

That ruling — which was overturned by the Supreme Administrative Court in December — led to a widespread debate in Egyptian society over issues of religious freedom, with more than 400 newspaper articles and other media reports about the situation of Egyptian Bahá’ís last year.

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.

Moreover, with the recent introduction of computerized ID cards that lock out the possibility of leaving that section blank, Egyptian Bahá’ís — who are forbidden by their beliefs from lying about their faith — have been unable to get or renew their cards, effectively depriving them of access to most rights of citizenship, including education, financial services, and even medical care, a situation which continues.

Such was the case for Mr. Wagdi, who was unable to open a bank account so that he could receive salary payments for his new job because he lacked a proper ID card. He told the university’s finance department about the problem.

“They were very understanding at the time,” said Mr. Wagdi in a recent interview.  A few days later, however, he was told that he was being let go “because my paper ID is not valid.”
It took months for Mr. Wagdi’s story to reach the news media, but once it became known, human rights specialists in Germany began to express concern.

“This young Bahá’í scientist has lost his work and his income and also his scientific career,” said Dr. Pink, who is an academic staff member at the Free University of Berlin. “In my opinion it is not acceptable that a German institution with a German name is doing so.”