Human Rights Watch and the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) welcomed a January 29 court ruling that struck down the government’s policy of denying essential identity documents and access to basic services to citizens whose religion is not recognized by the state.
The Cairo Court of Administrative Justice granted the request of Baha’i Egyptians to obtain birth certificates and identity cards without indicating any religious affiliation. The decision overturned the government’s policy of forcing Baha’i Egyptians to choose one of the three state-recognized religions of Islam, Christianity and Judaism as a prerequisite for obtaining identification documents.
“This ruling remedies an official discriminatory policy based solely on religious belief,” said Hossam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. “We urge the government to implement the decision without delay, and not to appeal this clear verdict of the court.”
For the last eight years, the Civil Status Department of the Ministry of Interior has refused to issue identity documents to any citizen who does not adhere to one of the three “heavenly” religions. These documents are essential to obtain education and employment, register births, immunize children, and conduct basic transactions such as opening a bank account, getting a driver’s license, or collecting a pension.
A previous ruling by the Supreme Administrative Court in December 2006 had upheld the state policy of refusing to recognize the religious affiliation of Baha’is in official documents, arguing that such recognition would violate public order and Sharia (Islamic law) requirements. This ruling prompted Baha’i Egyptians to file two new lawsuits – the subject of yesterday’s ruling – requesting documents that do not list any religious affiliation. The new cases, filed by EIPR lawyers, argued that forcing Baha’is to identify falsely as Muslim or Christian violated their rights to freedom of religion, privacy, and equality.
“The government should stop using public order and Sharia pretexts to justify official bigotry,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director of Human Rights Watch. “Baha’i Egyptians should not have been forced to go to court to end this abusive behavior.”
In November 2007, Human Rights Watch and the EIPR issued a joint report, “Prohibited Identities: State Interference with Religious Freedom,” documenting the Ministry of Interior’s policy of denying mandatory identity documents to Baha’is as well as citizens who convert from Islam to Christianity. The report found that this policy was arbitrary and not based on any Egyptian law. Rather, the government selectively used Sharia to deny some citizens their right, guaranteed under Egyptian and international human rights law, to exercise religious freedom without discrimination or penalty.
The discrimination became particularly acute and systematic when the government, beginning in 1995, insisted that all persons needing to acquire or replace such documents had to acquire computer-generated ones from the central Civil Registry Office in the Ministry of Interior. Officials have said that in the near future, perhaps early this year, all Egyptians will have to acquire computerized IDs, even if they now possess valid paper ones.
The court’s January 29 judgment resulted from two lawsuits. The first case (no. 18354/58) involved 15-year-old twins, Imad and Nancy Ra’uf Hindi, who have been unable since 2004 to obtain computer-generated birth certificates unless they convert to Islam or Christianity. Their father had obtained birth certificates for them when they were first born in 1993 recognizing their Baha’i religious affiliation, but new certificates carrying an individual “national number” (raqam qawmi) are mandatory; Baha’i children are unable to enroll in public schools without them.
The second case (no. 12780/61) was filed in February 2007 on behalf of Hosni Hussein Abd al-Massih, born in 1989, who was suspended from the Suez Canal University’s Higher Institute of Social Work because he could not obtain an identity card recognizing his Baha'i faith. Baha'i students in post-secondary education have faced suspension or expulsion because of their inability to obtain ID cards or military service postponement papers.
Both rulings can be appealed to the Supreme Administrative Court.