Monday, September 22, 2008

International Religious Freedom Report 2008

International Religious Freedom Report 2008 Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Released on September 19, 2008

The Constitution provides for freedom of belief and the practice of religious rites, although the Government places restrictions on these rights in practice. Islam is the official state religion, and Shari'a (Islamic law) is the primary source of legislation.
Although there were some positive steps in support of religious freedom, the status of respect for religious freedom by the Government declined overall during the period covered by this report. Members of non-Muslim religious minorities officially recognized by the Government generally worship without harassment and maintain links with coreligionists in other countries. However, members of religious groups that are not recognized by the Government, particularly the Baha'i Faith, experience personal and collective hardship.

A lower court ruling interpreted the Constitution's guarantee of religious freedom as inapplicable to Muslim citizens who wish to convert to another religion. This ruling is under appeal. Separate court rulings provided for 13 Christian born converts to Islam to obtain identity documents indicating their conversion back to Christianity and allowed some Baha'is to obtain civil documents. However, the courts included requirements effectively identifying the Christian converts and Baha'is as apostates, potentially exposing them, if implemented, to risk of significant discrimination by both governmental and societal agents. In addition, a lower court held that the Constitution's guarantee of freedom of religion does not apply to Baha'is.

There continued to be religious discrimination and sectarian tension in society during the period covered by this report. There were several violent incidents in Upper Egypt, including an attack by Bedouins on the Abu Fana monastery, arson attacks on Christian-owned shops in Armant, and an attack on a Coptic Church and Coptic-owned shops in Esna. Muhammad Higazy, who converted from Islam to Christianity, received death threats and went into hiding with his wife after his case received wide attention in the Arabic language media.

The Ambassador, senior administration officials, and members of Congress continued to raise U.S. concerns about religious discrimination with senior government officials. Specifically, embassy officers and other U.S. State Department officials raised concerns with the Government about ongoing discrimination faced by Christians in building and maintaining church properties, official discrimination against Baha'is, and the Government's treatment of Muslim citizens who wish to convert to other faiths.

Law 263 of 1960, still in force, bans Baha'i institutions and community activities and strips Baha'is of legal recognition. During the Nasser era, the Government confiscated all Baha'i community properties, including Baha'i centers, libraries, and cemeteries. The Government has asserted that national identity cards require all citizens to be categorized as Muslims, Christians, or Jews. The MOI has reportedly, on rare occasions, issued documents that list a citizen's religion as "other" or simply do not mention religion; however, it is not clear when these conditions apply. Baha'is and other religious groups not associated with any of the three "heavenly religions" have been compelled either to misrepresent themselves or go without valid identity documents.

Those without valid identity cards also encounter difficulty registering their children in school, opening bank accounts, and establishing businesses. Baha'is at age 16 face additional problems under Law 143/1994, which makes it mandatory for all citizens to obtain a new identification card featuring a new national identification number. Police occasionally conduct random inspections of identity papers and those found without identity cards can be detained until the document is provided. Some Baha'is without identity cards reportedly stay home to avoid police scrutiny and possible arrest.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

The Cairo Administrative Court, a court of first impression, in its January 29, 2008 rulings in the case of Hasan Husni Naguib 'Abd-al-Masih (a Baha'i) vs. the Minister of Interior (Action No. 12780 of JY 61) interpreted the country's constitutional provision of freedom of opinion and belief to mean that non-Muslims are free to adopt Islam, free to continue in their faith, and free from compulsion to convert to Islam. However, it stated that the freedom to practice religious rites is subject to limits, especially the maintenance of public order, public morals, and conformity to the provisions and principles of Islam, which forbid Muslims to convert. The Court stated that "public order" is defined as the official religion being Islam, that most of the population professes Islam, and that Islamic law is the primary source of legislation.

The trial court's January 29, 2008, ruling in three cases brought by members of the small Baha'i minority held that the Government must issue official identification documents containing a dash or other mark in the religion field. Despite the positive aspects of the ruling, there were also restrictive aspects.

The Court noted that a purpose of filling the religion field with a dash or other distinctive mark was to protect members of the "revealed religions"--Judaism, Christianity, and Islam--from Baha'i infiltration and avoid potential dangers from such persons' conduct and relations with them. The ruling stated that anyone who adopts the Baha'i Faith is an apostate and that the religion cannot be recorded in any civil status or other official document, because that would conflict with public order. In a statement published in the January 31, 2008 edition of Cairo's Rose al-Yousef newspaper, Al-Azhar University, through its Islamic Research Council, expressed its support of the 29 January court ruling. Members of the council affirmed that the Administrative Court ruling allowing these Baha'is to leave the religion section vacant or to enter the word "other" does not violate the prior decision of the Islamic Research Council, which did not recognize the Baha'i Faith as a congregation, a societal, political or religious entity.

In a discussion organized by the National Council for Human Rights on June 6, the MOI confirmed that it intended to implement the January 29 ruling as soon as a legal challenge was resolved.

The decision followed a December 16, 2006, Supreme Administrative Court ruling deciding that Baha'is may not list their religion in the mandatory religion "field" on obligatory government identity cards. In May 2006 the MOI had appealed an administrative court ruling issued in April 2006 which supported the right of Baha'i citizens to receive identity cards and birth certificates with the Baha'i religion noted on the documents. In response to requests to remove the religion field from national identity cards, the Government insisted that such identification was necessary to determine which laws apply in civil cases. This policy required Baha'is to dissimulate that they were adherents of Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, to obtain necessary civil documents. The Government stated that all citizens must be in possession of new computerized identification cards by January 1, 2007, and that old, hand-written cards would no longer be valid. However, in May 2007 the Government extended the deadline for the use of the old identity cards as a temporary measure until January 2008. The Government has issued passports for Baha'i citizens. (National passports do not indicate the holder's religion.) Citizens not in possession of valid identity documents may be subject to detention.

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