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Human rights activists condemn religious discrimination in Egypt

CAIRO, Egypt — Citing a long list of chilling testimonials, human rights groups Monday called on the U.S.-backed Egyptian government to stop discriminating against converts from Islam and members of some religious minorities who want their faiths reflected on their national identity cards.

Egyptians must list their religion on their ID cards, which are required for enrolling in university, starting a job, opening a bank account and most other aspects of public life. But authorities, drawing on Islamic law, essentially refuse to acknowledge Muslims who convert to other faiths and recognize only the three "revealed religions": Islam, Christianity and Judaism. Egyptians who belong to minority groups such as the Baha'i often find themselves basically stateless if they refuse to list "Muslim" or "Christian" on their IDs.

Two advocacy groups, Human Rights Watch and the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, spent two years documenting such cases and released their joint 98-page report Monday at a news conference in Cairo.

The report's authors stressed that they weren't seeking new laws or provoking a debate on Islamic doctrine. They merely want authorities to apply existing civil law, which permits Egyptians to change or correct information on their ID cards. As it stands, the activists said, many Egyptian officials take it upon themselves to refuse the changes. In several cases presented in the report, Egyptians faced harassment, job termination and detention for challenging the authorities.

"Interior ministry officials apparently believe they have the right to choose someone's religion when they don't like the religion that person chooses," said Joe Stork, the regional deputy director for Human Rights Watch. "The government should end its arbitrary refusal to recognize some people's religious beliefs. This policy strikes at the core of a person's identity, and its practical consequences seriously harm their daily lives."

An Egyptian interior ministry official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the topic's sensitivity, defended the practice of limiting religious affiliation to the so-called big three, saying the decision came from respected Islamic clerics and institutions.

"Everyone coming up with a different religion will try to change his paperwork and change the country's system and bend the state's system to his own will," the official said. "Every couple of days we'd have a new case of someone trying to change his religion."

The government-created National Council for Human Rights last year called for striking religion altogether from ID cards or at least allowing Egyptians to list "other" in that category. International activists support the step, but say discrimination goes deeper than a line on an ID card.

The human rights report is filled with examples such as elderly Baha'i retirees unable to receive their pensions, Baha'i parents unable to get their babies immunized, mixed-faith couples prevented from marrying and the children of Christian converts being forced to study Islam in public schools. In some cases, families paid for bogus documents in order to conduct their lives and later were prosecuted for forgery.

Among the case studies in the report:

_ Basim Wajdi, a 23-year-old Baha'i, was hired as a physics lecturer at the German University in Cairo last year. The human resources department asked him to open a bank account so his salary could be deposited directly every month, but Wajdi couldn't renew his national ID card because of his faith. When he asked the university to pay him by check, he received an e-mail saying his employment had been terminated because his "legal documents are incomplete."

_ Fadi Naguib Gergis' father converted from Christianity to Islam and left the family when Gergis was 5. Gergis was reared as a Christian in Alexandria, but when he moved to Cairo and tried to renew his ID card, he found that the authorities not only had switched his faith to Muslim, but also had given him a new Muslim name to reflect his father's conversion. Gergis was charged with forgery and served a prison sentence that was cut short by the intervention of Christian clergy.

_ A 36-year-old man identified by the pseudonym Mahmud converted from Islam to Christianity about a decade ago and still hasn't told his family. He recently married a woman who's also a convert, and she's pregnant. Mahmud said the couple moved to a larger city "to disappear," though they still lead double lives because it's impossible to change the religion listed on their ID cards. He fears for the "psychological as well as legal" problems that will arise when their child is listed as Muslim but secretly raised as a Christian.

_ Golsen Sobhi Kamel, a 33-year-old Christian, converted to Islam when she was a teenager to marry a Muslim. When the marriage ended and she sought to return to her original faith, authorities alternately cajoled and threatened her into remaining a Muslim. When she insisted on Christianity, she became the target of a forgery investigation. After a brief detention, she received a six-month suspended sentence. Her subsequent marriage to a Christian was annulled because the state doesn't recognize marriage between Christian men and Muslim women. As a result, she had no legal rights to alimony or the return of her dowry.

(El Naggar is a McClatchy special correspondent in Cairo.)

ON THE WEB

The human rights report is available at: http://hrw.org/reports/2007/egypt1107/

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