Egypt's Court postpones hearing

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Egypt's Court postpones hearing

Postby onepence » Thu Jun 22, 2006 2:27 pm

Egypt's Court postpones hearing

CAIRO, Egypt, 22 June 2006 (BWNS) -- Egypt's Supreme Administrative Court has postponed until 16 September its hearing on a government appeal of a ruling in favor of a Baha'i couple. The couple has been seeking not to have their religion incorrectly identified on government documents.
A lower administrative court ruled in favor of the couple in April this year, and the case has since gained international attention from human rights groups. The court ordered the government to issue members of the Baha'i Faith with identification cards, birth certificates and death certificates that accurately identify their religion.

Without such documents, Baha'is are unable to gain legal access to basic citizenship rights, including employment, education, medical and financial services.

The government appealed the lower court's ruling in early May, and a court hearing was set for 19 June. However, the Court commissioner's advisory report was not submitted in time for the hearing, resulting in the delay.

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Postby onepence » Thu Jun 22, 2006 6:44 pm

By MARIAM FAM, Associated Press Writer
Thu Jun 22, 12:05 PM ET ... on_today_1

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 Muhammad 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.

While the dispute directly affects only the country's Bahais — perhaps 2,000 of the 72 million Egyptians — it provides a glimpse into 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, a 59-year-old 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 only agree to drawing a line — to indicate a blank — in the religion section.

Later when 19-year-old Hady 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.

The elder Iskandar was allowed to apply for the new computerized ID but never got one. His two sons' applications for the new documents 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."

Abdel Moeti Bayoumi, a Muslim scholar, said the Bahais' demand for recognition on official documents would cement a sectarian system that could fracture the country.

"Believe in whatever you want to believe in, you and your children, as long as you do so at home behind closed doors," he said. "Do not undermine the public order."

Bayoumi is a member of the Al-Azhar Center of Islamic Research, a leading institution of Sunni Muslim learning. Like many Muslim scholars, he believes Bahaism is a splinter of Islam and not a religion in its own right. He said the Bahais' beliefs and practices — including considering Baha'u'llah as a prophet — offend Muslims.

He added Bahais were lucky the Interior Ministry appealed the April verdict because otherwise extremists could have attacked them.

A statement from Al-Azhar urged Egypt "to firmly stand against this group which hurts the religion of God." It urged the government to outlaw the Bahai faith, and another statement from Al-Azhar's research center, playing on the region's anti-Israeli sentiments, argued that Bahaism "serves the interests of Zionism."

Bahais say their holy sites in Israel are used to discredit their community. Baha'u'llah died in 1892 in Akko in what was then the Ottoman Empire — and is now in Israel. The international headquarters for the world's 5 million Bahais are in Haifa, Israel, and they have other holy places in Turkey and Iran.

Hossam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, which has monitored the Bahais' case, said Egyptians' ignorance of the faith has fueled a "smear campaign."

"It is another manifestation of the narrow and heavy-handed approach with which the Interior Ministry tackles religious affairs. There are strong similarities between these events and the clashes in Alexandria in terms of lack of tolerance," he said, referring to clashes between Muslims and Christians that left two people dead and 40 wounded in April.

Political sociologist Hoda Zakareya said Egypt_ which until the 1950s was home to significant numbers of Jews, Armenians, Greeks and others — has grown less tolerant.

She said the growing influence of Islamic groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which aim to galvanize people through religion, not nationalism, contributed to the change: "The brotherhood said it would reconstruct the fractured collective conscience on religious basis. But people are dividing, not uniting, around Islam."

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