Egypt should allow all citizens to use their actual religious identity when required to list religion on government documents, Human Rights Watch and the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) said today. The government’s discriminatory practice of restricting identity to three religions, directed at Baha’is and preventing converts from Islam from listing their true belief, violate many rights and cause immense hardship.

In their 98-page report, “Prohibited Identities: State Interference with Religious Freedom,” Human Rights Watch and the EIPR document how Ministry of Interior officials systematically prevent Baha’is and converts from Islam from registering their actual religious belief in national identity documents, birth certificates, and other essential papers. They do this based not on any Egyptian law, but on their interpretation of Islamic law, or Sharia. This denial can have far-reaching consequences for the daily lives of those affected, including choosing a spouse, educating one’s children, or conducting the most basic financial and other transactions.

“Interior Ministry officials apparently believe they have the right to choose someone’s religion when they don’t like the religion that person chooses,” said Joe Stork, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division. “The government should end its arbitrary refusal to recognize some people’s religious beliefs. This policy strikes at the core of a person’s identity, and its practical consequences seriously harm their daily lives.”

All Egyptians, on reaching the age of 16, must obtain a national identification card. This document is essential to conducting transactions as basic as opening a bank account, getting a driver’s license, entering a university, getting a job, or collecting a pension. The Civil Status Department of the Interior Ministry administers these national ID cards as well as other vital records such as birth certificates, all of which require a person to state his or her religious identity. But ministry officials limit the choice to one of the three “revealed” religions – Islam, Christianity, or Judaism. No Egyptian law requires this, but the officials say they are acting on what they understand to be the requirements of Sharia, thus excluding members of Egypt’s Baha’i community.

On similar grounds, these officials refuse to recognize the religious conversion of any Muslim to another religion on identity documents, although Egypt’s Civil Status Law permits persons to change or correct information in their identification documents, including religion, simply by registering the new information. Interior Ministry officials cite the Islamic law prohibition against any “repudiation” of the faith as apostasy to refuse such requests, even from Egyptians who were born Christian, converted to Islam, and want to convert back to Christianity.

“Prohibited Identities” documents how the Egyptian government selectively uses Sharia to deny some citizens their right under Egyptian and international human rights law to exercise religious freedom without discrimination or penalty.

Human Rights Watch and the EIPR interviewed more than 40 victims, lawyers, and religious and community leaders in preparing the report. In addition, the EIPR examined the files of 304 court cases filed by victims and their relatives, as well as higher court decisions and relevant laws. Human Rights Watch’s requests for a meeting with the head of the Interior Ministry’s Civil Status Department were turned down. Human Rights Watch then submitted questions to Interior Minister Habib al-Adli (reproduced as an appendix to the report) but both letters received no reply.

“Our research clearly shows that there is no fixed Islamic law position on the administrative requirements for religious identification in the public records of a modern bureaucracy,” said Hossam Bahgat, director of the EIPR. “Officials should pursue an approach that upholds basic principles of justice and equality, instead of one that directly violates the rights of its citizens.”

The problem has become particularly acute in recent years, after the Interior Ministry began issuing computer-generated documents carrying a unique “national number” (raqam qawmi). Officials say that in the near future, perhaps as soon as early 2008, even persons with valid paper IDs will have to acquire the new computer-generated documents, and that the only options for the religion line will be Islam, Christianity or Judaism.

Many Egyptians interviewed for the report recounted how Interior Ministry officials tried to intimidate or bribe them into identifying themselves as Muslims against their express wishes.

Human Rights Watch and the EIPR urged authorities to exonerate persons convicted for obtaining forged identity documents solely because the government refused to list their actual religion.

“The Interior Ministry’s policy essentially says: ‘If you lie we’ll give you the documents you need, but if you tell the truth about your religion we’ll make your life miserable by withholding them’,” Stork said. “It is punishing people solely on the basis of their religious beliefs.”

Some Egyptians have battled these abusive policies by filing complaints against officials before Egypt’s Court of Administrative Justice. Egypt’s Supreme Administrative Court is scheduled to issue a final ruling on November 17 regarding the right of Christian converts to Islam to re-convert back to Christianity. The court decision is expected to have a major impact on the legal treatment of other forms of religious conversion and on the overall situation of freedom of religion and belief in Egypt.

The quasi-official National Council for Human Rights submitted a memorandum to the government in December 2006 recommending that the government remove religious affiliation from ID cards or reinstate the policy of entering “other” in the line reserved for religion.

“Eliminating the religion line in IDs would send a positive signal of the state’s neutrality regarding the religious affiliation, if any, of citizens,” Bahgat said. “But the root of the problem is the government’s insistence on misidentifying these citizens in the central records. This is what the government needs to address urgently.”

Testimonies from ‘Prohibited Identities:’

“I tried to obtain the national ID card. In the application, I wrote that my religion was Baha’i. The officer refused to accept the application and asked me to present my birth certificate. I showed it to him. It stated that I was Baha’i and so were my parents. He still refused to accept the application and asked me to apply in Cairo. When I went to Cairo, I met an officer called Wa’il who opened a drawer in his desk and pulled out a big pile of documents and said, ‘You see, all these applications are from Baha’i who want IDs. You will never ever get them.’ ”
—Nayer Nabil, Cairo

“My ID card says I am Muslim. One option is to get a forged ID, but it’s not an option for me. The children are the key. We moved to Alexandria because it’s a lot bigger; we can disappear. But this can’t continue, for psychological as well as legal reasons. The children’s birth certificates will say Muslim, but they are raised Christian. When they start school, then the problems really start. Religion class starts in the first grade.”
—Name withheld on request, Cairo

“My husband died in 2003. He worked for Al-‘Ameriyya Oil Company. To pick up my pension from the bank or the post office, I need an ID card. I’m supposed to get 70 percent of my husband’s salary, but I’ve gotten nothing since he died. I have to rely on my kids to help me because I have no other income. Everyone should be free. The state should not be responsible for anyone’s religion.”
—Qudsiyya Hussein Ruhi, Alexandria

“State Security tried to persuade us both to be Muslims. We were exhausted, more than 24 hours with no food. When they failed to convince us to become Muslims, they referred us to criminal investigation. From five in the morning until five at night, the State Security grilled us. They said that they would bring forgery charges against both of us.”
—Names withheld on request, Heliopolis

“Without national ID cards issued to Baha’is, suddenly, voila, there are no Baha’is in Egypt.”
—Labib Hanna Iskandar, Cairo

“He said I’d committed a sin against God. He asked why I wanted to go back to Christianity. ‘If you had bad luck with your first husband, you should have found another Muslim man.’ He offered me assistance and favors. ‘I can find you a good Muslim man,’ he said. ‘If it’s financial, we can help you find a job. If you went back to your family for lack of any alternative, we’ll help you find an apartment.’ When I insisted on staying a Christian, he said, ‘Well, we have to start an investigation into the forgery.’”
—Golsen Sobhi Kamel, Cairo