Bahai’s seek end to second-class citizenship

Dr. Raouf Hindi proudly holds up the national ID cards of his children Emad and Nancy. The 16-year-old twins are essentially test cases for what Hindi and his fellow members of Egypt’s small Baha’i community hope will be a new era of equal treatment in their native land.
“Now Emad and Nancy are able to enjoy their Egyptian citizenship,” said Hindi, a 52 year old, oral surgeon, who has emerged as an official spokesman for Egyptian Baha’is.
“We just want to live as normal humans and enjoy real citizenship.”
For years, members of the Baha’i faith claim they were rendered second-class citizens by a national ID card system that required every citizen to register as a Muslim, Christian or Jew.
Decades ago, Baha’is were able to correctly list their religion on national ID cards. But under Nasser, the community was judged a potentially subversive element and a threat to national security. Baha’is were prohibited from publicly claiming or practicing their faith.
“Baha’is make their pilgrimage to Haifa. That opens the door for Egyptians to come and go to and from Israel,” said Hafez Abu Seada, Secretary-General of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights and member of the National Council for Human Rights.
“It was war time and security services were afraid of any transfer of information between the pilgrims and the Israelis.”
Hindi strongly denies the accusation and said Egyptian Baha’is never made the pilgrimage to Haifa.
“There is not one proof that one Baha’i since 160 years, has traveled to Haifa for pilgrimage practices,” he said.
Still the prejudices and suspicions remain. Religious scholars here have regularly painted Baha’ism as an illegitimate faith. Mohamed Said Tantawy, Sheikh of Al-Azhar, said “Baha’ism has not been any major religion and it is far beyond religious teachings,” according to an article published May 30 in Al Masry Al Youm’s Arabic Edition.
This dim Islamic view of the practice dates back to the 1960s at least. The prominent Islamic figure Sheikh ‘Abdil-Hamid Kishk said Baha’ism had essentially been created by the Zionists to weaken and divide Muslim communities.
For decades, Egyptian Baha’is were forced to choose one of the three acceptable state religions on the national IDs. Those who refused to register as a Muslim, Christian or Jew would be forced to live within the vital national ID cars, Abu Saeda said.
But in the year 2000, birth certificates and national IDs switched from a manual to a computerized system. It was then that Hindi saw his chance to change the state of affairs.
“I refuse to lie in my children’s national documents, that’s why I turned to court searching for a solution,” Hindi said.
On March 2009, Egypt’s Supreme Administrative Court upheld a lower courts’ 2008 ruling that all Egyptians have a right to obtain official documents, such as ID cards and birth certificates, without identifying their religion.
Hindi and his fellow Baha’is now have the option of simply putting a dash in the religion category. It’s not perfect, Hindi said, but it’s a step in the right direction.
The dash option primarily applies to Egypt’s small Baha’i community, but it could theoretically apply to other religions as Egypt’s population diversifies.
“Mixed marriages and migration from and to Egypt could bring new citizens with new religions who would benefit from the dash,” said Hossam Bahgat, Executive Director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR).
There are still complications. Hindi said the National ID center has refused to recognize the social status of some married Baha’i couples.
“In spite of the fact that some married couples have birth certificates of their children with their names on, the national ID center refused to register them as married,” he said.
And while Hindi has won a partial victory for his people, other activists hope for the day when religion is eliminated entirely from the national ID system.
“The concept of citizenship is free of religion recognition,” said political writer Sameh Fawzy and managing editor of Watany Egyptian newspaper.
But others argue that marriage makes stating religion an obligation to ensure social stability. Most local religion leaders oppose the idea of interfaith marriages, saying it creates familial problems and could lead to inheritance and child custody disputes.
“I go for putting religion in the ID to prevent any lying that may take place before marriage,” said Nehad Abuo El-Komsan, chair of board of Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights.
And while Hindi and other Egyptian Baha’is are pleased with the new ID card system, the community is still an extreme minority subject to occasional bursts of sectarian violence. Earlier this year, after a Baha’i resident of Sohag appeared on a satellite television channel talking about his faith, angry neighbors burned down his house and the homes of several other Baha’i residents.
“No legal action has been taken against those people, yet” said Bahgat who says the government should firmly crack down on all instances of religious intolerance.
The lack of government action, Bahgat said, “gives the impression as if the government is encouraging them to do so.”
Last week, a government plan to relocate 25 Baha’i families to another village in Sohag, met with angry protests from the villagers, resulting in 70 arrests, according to news reports.
The number of Baha’is living all around Egypt ranges from 1000 to 2000 people, while the global number is estimated at 18 million spread through 235 countries. The majority of Egyptian Baha’is are sons and grandsons of Baha’is who came to Egypt 160 years ago plus a small number of converts.
The Baha’i Faith is one of the youngest in the modern world. Its founder, Baha’ullah (1817-1892), is regarded by Baha’is as the last messenger of God after Muhammad the prophet of Islam.

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