CAIRO, Egypt: Egypt must change its policy of not allowing converts from Islam and members of the Bahai faith to register their religion in official documents, two human rights groups said Monday.
In a report two years in the making, the New York-based Human Rights Watch and the local Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, or EIPR, described how Egyptians of religious persuasions authorities disapprove of are unable to get birth certificates and identification cards.
Joe Stork, the HRW Middle East deputy chief, said it was a systematic policy to deny documents to members of faiths other than Islam, Christianity and Judaism — the only three religions officially recognized by Egyptian authorities.
ID cards are mandatory here, but persons seeking to have "Bahai" listed as their faith on the card, for example, are denied the document, Stork told reporters in Cairo.
The report quoted some 40 people the watchdog groups interviewed as saying they were told in applying for papers that they must list themselves as either Muslim or Christian, or risk not being able to obtain the document.
"We're talking about a government policy that is compelling and pressuring people to lie," said Stork.
The report, titled "Prohibited Identities: State Interference with Religious Freedom," also noted cases where fathers have converted to Islam and left their children and families, with authorities automatically registering his children as having converted to Islam as well, often without informing them of this.
Since 2004, the issue has come before the court several times in the predominantly Muslim Egypt. Coptic Christians are about 10 percent of Egypt's 76 million population and generally live in peace with the Sunni Muslim majority.
Next Sunday, the Supreme Administrative Court will deliver a final ruling on whether seven Egyptians who reconverted to Christianity after already having converted to Islam will be recognized as Christians.
Next month, a ruling is also expected on whether the government must recognize minority Bahais. The religion, Bahaism, emerged from Islam and regards a 19th century Persian nobleman, Baha'u'llah, as its prophet — a challenge to the Muslim belief that Muhammad is the last prophet.
Unofficial figures put the Bahai community at about 2,000 in Egypt. Bahai hotel manager Wafaa Hindy told reporters how she and her husband have no ID cards and now fear their son will be expelled from university since he also doesn't have the document. "We don't need the government to agree I am Bahai ... but I need the government to give me an identity card because I am Egyptian — this is totally different from my religion," Hindy said.
EIPR director Hossam Bahgat said the government policy has no basis in neither Egyptian nor Islamic law, or Sharia, as officials often claim. While converting from Islam is defined as apostasy by Islamic law, there is no corresponding legal punishment.