Baha'is struggle to win full rights as Egyptians

Cairo, Egypt - In April, Egypt's small community of Baha'is rejoiced that they had finally been granted full rights as Egyptians, despite deep-rooted differences in religious ideology. Just last week, however, the government put forward an appeal against the group in an attempt to maintain the status quo.

"We were ecstatic about the case that allowed our community to be fully accepted Egyptians," says one married Baha'i man. "But now that the government is appealing the case, we are afraid that the repercussions could be disastrous for our people, especially if our names come out."

The man was referring to the surprise win in April of the Baha'i couple who went to court last month to obtain birth certificates for their children, and whose victory - on paper at least - grants them full rights as Egyptian citizens.

According to the Egyptian constitution, freedom of belief is guaranteed. In theory there are no restrictions on the basis of religion. In practice, however, authorities recognize only Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Egyptian minister of religious endowments Mahmoud Hamdi Zakzouk told parliament on May 4 that the government would appeal the case based on an edict issued by the country's leading Muslim cleric, sheikh of Al Azhar Mohammed Sayyid Al Tantawi. According to Tantawi, the Baha'i faith is not a 'revealed religion' recognized by Islam.

Baha'is are often the victims of random arrests and are often held without reason for days on end.

"I have been picked up by security forces because I don't have a real identification card," a Baha'i in his mid-twenties says. "They have taken me away and have even been violent, screaming at me 'why don't you have the proper documents' ... I tell them because I am Baha'i and that makes them even more angry."

Baha'is do not give their names to the media for fear of reprisal attacks, which makes their situation even more dangerous. They are not even allowed to register their children with the government. As only Judaism, Christianity and Islam are allowed religions in the nation, it becomes almost impossible for Baha'is to obtain birth certificates for their children.

"I had to go back for years before they issued a birth certificate for my children," the married man says. "They kept telling me to just write Muslim on the paper, but I refused because we are not Muslims."

The Baha'i faith, of which there are approximately 2000 adherents in Egypt, is the most recently established monotheistic religion. Originating in Persia in 1863, it believes in the progressive revelations of God. Baha'is believe that all religions are true and from God, but that at various times throughout human history, a new manifestation (prophet) is needed in order to adapt to changing times and cultural traditions.

The main conflict between Muslims and Baha'is is in the idea that Mohammed is not the final prophet of God, which has led to Muslims distrusting Baha'is.

"All religions are true," the married Baha'i continues. "Just like Islam came from Christianity and Judaism, we are a continuation of that process ... we believe that Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Mohammed are all prophets of God and spoke the truth, but we also believe that it didn't end with Mohammed ... it is a continuous process."

Baha'is, like Muslims, believe in the oneness of God. They do not take part in partisan politics and the main message of the faith is one of unity.

However, the Egyptian government as well as other organizations in the country do not feel that Baha'is deserve full citizenship rights.

MP Gamal Akl, a Brotherhood member, says that Baha'is are infidels who should be killed on the grounds that they had changed their religion.

Many of the Egyptian Baha'is have been Baha'i since birth, as the faith made its way to Egypt more than two generations ago. Before president Gamal Abdel Nasser cracked down on the small minority, they used to have houses of worship and even a cemetery to bury their loved ones.

MPs also have attacked the Baha'is as deviants and extremists, noting that the faith's international headquarters are in the Israeli city of Haifa.

"We can't help the fact that Haifa is now a part of Israel," says the Baha'i man. "When the temples were established, Israel didn't even exist, so I don't understand how they can say that we are instruments of the Israeli state."

But Muslim Brotherhood member Mustafa Awadallah says: "The problem with the Baha'is is they are moved by Israeli fingers."

Zainab Radwan of the ruling National Democratic Party, however, says that she favors recognizing the Baha'is on identity cards issued by the state.

"There is an interest in them being known rather than unknown so that they do not succeed in infiltrating the ranks of society and spreading their extremist and deviant ideology," she told reporters after the government announced its decision to appeal the case.

Professor of sociology at the American University in Cairo and a leading democracy advocate Saad Eddin Ibrahim believes that despite any differences people may have with the Baha'is, they nevertheless deserve to be a part of society.

"We support Baha'is always whether or not we personally agree with their religious views," Ibrahim says. "We must have an open society no matter how much we dislike certain views."

Ibrahim believes that the pending court case is as important as anything else currently going on in the country. "They will show us where the government is heading on the issue of freedom."