Egypt suppresses Bahai faith

2,000 member sect in Egypt is denied recognition as citizens

CAIRO, Egypt – Tucked away in Labib Iskandar’s pocket is a neatly folded slip of paper with fraying edges that tells the story of a community fighting for recognition. It’s a receipt Iskandar got when he applied for the computer-based identification card Egypt had just then begun issuing, more than five years ago.

Iskandar is a Bahai, a member of a religious community that regards a 19th-century Persian nobleman, Baha’u’llah, as a prophet, a challenge to the Muslim belief that Mohammed is the last prophet. Given the pivotal role of Islam in Egyptian life, the government will not issue an ID card to a Bahai, but only to Muslims, Christians or Jews.

The issue broke into the news in April when a court ruled members of Egypt’s little-known Bahai community had the right to have their faith listed on official documents, sparking an outcry. The Interior Ministry quickly filed an appeal, and last month another court froze the case.

It’s still a controversy, however. Some Muslim clerics openly declare the Bahai faith is a heresy, and civil rights advocates complain this heavy-handed approach threatens to set off clashes like those that erupted recently between Muslims and minority Christians in the northern city of Alexandria.

Although the dispute directly affects only the country’s Bahais, perhaps 2,000 of 72 million Egyptians, it shows how a once cosmopolitan society has sunk into a culture where fanaticism outweighs theoretical protections of religious freedom.

“Before, everything was simpler and everyone knew I was a Bahai and had no problem with that,” said Iskandar, 59, an engineering professor. “There were no biases. Fanaticism started to surface only now.”

The family whose suit led to the court ruling on the Bahai faith has refused to speak with reporters. But the Bahais’ experience in Egypt can be seen through Iskandar and his family.

His birth certificate and original government ID card list him as a Bahai. His sons have similar birth certificates. But when his oldest son, Ragi, 24, applied for his ID card, officials would agree only to drawing a line, to indicate a blank, in the religion section.

Later, when Hady, 19, applied for an ID, he was told he must identify himself as a follower of one of the three officially recognized religions, and never got his papers, Iskandar said.

“We worry sick about them when they stay out late, especially the youngest son, since he has no ID, which could land him in trouble,” said Iskandar. “Because they’re young, they get upset and may say ‘let’s leave Egypt,'” an option the elder Iskandar rejects.

“I am an Egyptian. I was born in Egypt … and I won’t leave Egypt,” he said.

Iskandar was allowed to apply for the new computerized ID but never got one. His two sons’ applications were not even accepted. At the end of the year, Egypt will not recognize the old, paper IDs, replacing them with the computerized ones.

Iskandar recalled attending Bahai activities until a 1960 presidential decree dissolved Bahai assemblies. Last October, he said, his sister died and the family couldn’t obtain a death certificate because of her faith.

“They don’t want to recognize the Bahai faith. Fine, no problem. But as an Egyptian citizen, is it my right or not to have a birth certificate and an ID card?” he said. “Why do you want me to change my religion? Why do you want me to be a hypocrite? I refuse to lie.”

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog)
AP, via the Lexington Herald-Leader, USA
June 24, 2006
Mariam Fam

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This post was last updated: Monday, November 30, -0001 at 12:00 AM, Central European Time (CET)