The Fundamental Rights of Baha’is: An Excellent Opportunity to Expand Religious Freedom in Egypt

4 January 2022

Originally published on The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy

By the end of the current decade, a full century will have passed since the Egyptian state began to reluctantly admit the existence of adherents of the Baha’i Faith in Egypt. Nonetheless, the fundamental rights of Baha’i Egyptians are still stuck at their very same starting point as they were a century ago.

The statements issued by President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi in recent years have been unlike those made to Egyptians by their previous presidents. The Egyptian president talked about the need for the state to guarantee religious rights for any religion whatsoever, whether the three religions officially recognized by the state, any other religion, or those not following any religion at all. These statements have encouraged Egyptian Baha’is to put forward a renewed demand for their fundamental rights. 

This demand does not include the recognition of the Baha’i Faith, the acceptance of a legal entity representing it, the right to public religious observance, or even the consecration of houses of worship. Instead, it targets the recognition of fundamental rights for all those outside the three recognized religions: Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. This demand may afford a perfect opportunity to expand religious freedom in Egypt, which, up till this very moment, remains limited to the recognition of the rights of the followers of these three religions as an extension to the rights of the “People of the Book” and the “People of the Covenant” in the historic Islamic systems prior to the establishment of the national state. 

These demands still represent the minimum levels of citizenship: the rights to the allocation of cemeteries, the documentation of marriage contracts, and the recognition of marital relationships between the non-followers of the three religions. However, these demands have gained no executive or legislative response. There is no indication that they are put on the agenda of any of the various organs of the state. 

During the launch event of the National Strategy for Human Rights attended by the president last September, the contradiction was obvious between what the president had repeated regarding the necessity of respecting “belief or non-belief in religion” and the text on religious freedom of the strategy, which made no reference whatsoever to any religion other than the three religions, featuring only recommendations concerning Muslims and Christians. It also mentioned Judaism as a historical heritage within the context of the dwindling number of Jews in Egypt.

Three phases of “non-recognition”

The development of the situation of Baha’is in Egypt can—to a certain degree of generalization—be chronicled in three main phases: from 1920s to 1960s, from the 1960s to the early 2000s, and from the early 2000s till now. 

Baha’is see the 1920s as the beginning of the formation of their community in Egypt. After religious visits of various durations by Baháʼu’lláh and Abdu’l-Bahá to the cities of Port Said and Alexandria between 1868 and 1913, a domestic assembly of Baha’is was created in Alexandria in 1924. This was followed by the creation of the Central Assembly of Baha’is in Egypt and Sudan in 1928. In 1925, an Egyptian court ruled that the Baha’i Faith was a different relgiion completely separate from Islam.

Baha’is consider their faith an extension to the Abrahamic message (i.e. to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) in the same way Christians consider their religion a renewal and reformation of Judaism, and Muslims consider their religion itself as a reformation and correction to the path of the Abrahamic message and the path of Judaism and Christianity. Historically, the followers of every previous message considered the adherents of the new message heretics or apostates of true religion. Likewise, Baha’is considered themselves reformers of the message of Islam; consequently, they were considered by Muslims at large, along with the heads of their religious institutions, as “apostates of Islam.”

Despite this, official dealing with Baha’is was relatively tolerant. The Egyptian government recognized the Baha’i Central Assembly as a community-based entity in 1934, but it did not grant it the status of recognized religions. Regardless of the lack of official recognition, policies have witnessed their recognition as a group that has fundamental religious rights. Royal decrees were issued to allocate cemeteries to them in 1944 and 1949 in Qassasin el Sharq City in the Sharqia Governorate and Port Said City. The decrees ordered the “allocation of cemeteries for the burial of the dead of the non-followers of the recognized religions.” At the end of this decree, it is noted that the beneficiary of this allocation is the Baha’i community (Al-Waqa’i’ al-Misriyya official gazette No. 85 of 1944 and No. 53 of 1949). 

This situation persisted even after the foundation of the Egyptian Republic in the wake of the Free Officers Movement in 1952. President Mohamed Naguib issued a similar decree in 1954 to allocate a cemetery in Suez City for the “burial of the dead of the non-followers of the religions recognized in Egypt.” It is noted in the decree that the beneficiary of this allocation is the Baha’i community in Suez (Al-Waqa’i’ al-Misriyya official gazette No. 30 of 1954). 

During the 1960s, when the Egyptian state adopted an authoritarian nationalistic attitude skeptical of all the organizational forms independent from it, a new phase began after Gamal Abdel Nasser’s decree to dissolve Baha’i assemblies, regard them a proscribed entity, confiscate their possessions, prohibit the practice of their activities by any individual or group, and provide a criminal penalty for these offenses (Presidential Decree No. 263 of 1960). 

In 1967, a group of Baha’is was tried for practicing the activities of the assemblies. When the accused raised the defense of the unconstitutionality of the presidential decree to dissolve the assemblies due to the principle of religious freedom, the case was transferred to the Supreme Constitutional Court, which, in 1975, ruled that the dissolution of the assemblies was not against either the constitution or religious freedom because Baha’is are “apostates of Islam.” And if the constitution guarantees them the freedom of faith, it does not guarantee them the freedom to practice rites, since this freedom is bound by the public order and limited to the three recognized religions. Additionally, practicing Baha’i rites is considered to be “prejudicial to the public order in a country originally established on Islamic law; therefore, it does not guarantee its protection,” pursuant to the text of the ruling of the Supreme Constitutional Court. 

This interpretation of the limits of religious freedom by the Supreme Constitutional Court will continue to dominate the vision of the Egyptian government and judiciary about Baha’is. This is in addition to another dimension of a nationalistic character: the Universal House of Justice, or the Universal Central Assembly of Baha’is in Haifa, which is currently located in Israel. Although this location has a religious basis and was selected before the foundation of the state of Israel, it has provided pretext for accusations that are nationalistic in nature. There was a passing reference to “preaching Zionism” in the ruling of the Constitutional Court, but Baha’is deny that any of them have been found of committing any actions related to this. Furthermore, preaching Zionism in Egypt was not something that would have been tolerated during the 1960s and the 1970s, particularly during years of war with Israel. 

The text of the Supreme Constitutional Court ruling is still quoted until now in the replies of the organs of the Egyptian stimetimetate and across different courts as it relates to the simplest fundamental rights. However, what characterizes this second phase is the detention of participants of different religious gatherings not recognized by the state. Despite the limited nature of religious Baha’i gatherings, in 1985 a group of Baha’is was detained and charged with creating an organizational structure that aimed at overthrowing the regime. Among detainees were Artist Hussein Bikar, whose drawings and words were at the final page of the government gazette “Akhbar El Yom” and Dr. Sawsan Hosny, a professor of Arabic Language and Al-Azhar University graduate, who narrated the facts of this case in her book The Journey from Belief to Faith issued in Cairo in 2018. Later, the court acquitted all the accused in this case. 

The third phase is associated with the crisis of documentation of Baha’is religion in their identity papers in the early 2000s. When the Egyptian government began implementing an electronic system to issue personal identity cards, there were only three religions available as options in the system: Muslim, Christian, and Jew. This led to confusion among state clerks who found that the religion of Baha’is’ documentation in their paper national identity cards read “Baha’i,” “Other,” or it was left empty—options that were not available in the new electronic system. 

The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) and Human Rights Watch documented this crisis in a report entitled “Prohibited Identities” in 2007. Baha’is litigated the Ministry of Interior before the Administrative Court in several cases, some of which were ruled on the aforementioned grounds set by the Supreme Constitutional Court—these cases ultimately refused to recognize the Baha’is Faith as a religion that could be listed on identity cards. However, Baha’is won some court rulings in favor of their right to document their religion, and other rulings provided for leaving the category empty or adding a dash (-) instead. In 2009, the Supreme Administrative Court ruled that the state is required to issue national identity cards for the Baha’is that have previously issued official documents, proving that they follow a religion other than the three religions, and leave the category of religion empty or add a dash (-). 

The Supreme Administrative Court justified its ruling on the grounds of protecting Islam and the other recognized religions from having Baha’is belonging to them, and included paragraphs condemning the Baha’i doctrine and community. However, many groups still regarded this as a relative victory for religious freedom, the end of one of the aspects of religious discrimination, and recognition by the state of the religious diversity that transcends the three religions.

During this third phase, the state of animosity towards Baha’is subsided although confusion prevailed in state policies, particularly in the confrontation of incitement and hate speech, which has gone largely unpunished. When the case of identity cards was being reviewed in 2009, Baha’is were exposed to the worst of religious hate speech and incitement in television programs. Meanwhile, Baha’is in Shorania Village, Sohag Governorate had their houses attacked, broken, and burnt—no one was convicted for these attacks. 

The political changes that occurred from January 2011 to July 2013 did not bring about considerable changes to the situation of Baha’is, which was almost frozen. Nonetheless, the constitution adopted in 2012 under the Muslim Brotherhood limited the freedom of religious observance and the consecration of houses of worship to the “divine religions,”(Al-Adyan Al-Samawiya) which was a nod to the status quo that limited religious rights to the three religions or the “divine religions”, according to the Islamic view on the extension of the historic concept of “the People of the Book.” 

Regardless of the positive initiative by the Constitutional Committee in 2014, which met a delegation of Baha’is to hear their demands, and despite demands from some political and juristic forces to improve the constitutional provisions on the freedom of faith, this provision remained the same in the 2014 Constitution, denying the followers of any religion other than the recognized three any religious rights. 

Therefore, the situation of the fundamental rights of Baha’is—beyond obtaining birth certificates and identity papers— has remained deadlock. Until now, state organs still refuse to document the marriages between Baha’is, since the state only recognizes Muslim, Christian, and Jewish marriages each religion’s state-recognized personal status regulations. Therefore, all Baha’is are registered as single (and not married) in their identity papers despite being fathers, mothers, grandfathers and grandmothers. Furthermore, the authorities refuse to issue family registrations for them, which complicates many other procedures, such as succession and inheritance. When some Baha’i couples were able document their marriages through personal status courts, which was considered a relative breakthrough, the state in November 2020 began to file writs against these rulings and refused to recognize the marriages. 

Furthermore, the demands made by Baha’is for cemeteries to bury their deceased in many governorates have been ignored or rejected by local authorities. Therefore, they still suffer the necessity of transporting and burying all of their deceased in one cemetery in Cairo—it still remains among the cemeteries allocated to them during the first phase before the 1960s. This cemetery is almost full while all other cemeteries in other cities are no longer available, as the state has restored its lands and allocated them for other purposes, according to various accounts given by the Baha’i communities in many governorates. 

A Fourth Phase: Will Recognition Policies Begin? 

Regardless of the aforementioned lack of any progress towards the affirmation of the fundamental rights during the previous phase, the high ceiling of the repeated presidential statements about the freedom of faith has encouraged many categories to re-enter the arena of demands. Regardless of the signals and the negative practices adopted by many state officials, Baha’is are now beginning this phase of demand in the hope that it will mark the beginning of a different new beginning. 

This beginning will not rise to demanding the official recognition of the Baha’i faith and religious observance, but it goes back to the fundamental demands that were met even within the context of “non-recognition” almost a century ago: the right to the allocation of appropriate cemeteries in different cities and the right to a legal framework to document marriages. 

These new demands are inspired by the relative religious tolerance during the first phase and guaranteeing some rights of followers of religions other than the three recognized ones. In this vein, Baha’is have demanded the rights to cemeteries and the documentation of marriage without reference to any religious character. Instead, they demand a fourth option for followers of religions other than the recognized three: a religion category that is left blank or with a (-) sign. This leaves the demand not tied to a specific religion, opening the door to including other categories that do not fall under the three recognized religions. 

Within the context of these demands, proposals from EIPR have been submitted to governors concerning the allocation of cemeteries to the followers of other religions other than the recognized three. It has also submitted a demand to the Ministry of Justice to propose a legal way to document marriages of non-followers of the three religions. These demands, which are still ignored, have already been taken to court. Baha’is in Alexandria and Port Said have brought a case before the Administrative Court in recent years to oblige the governors to allocate lands for the cemeteries of the non-followers of the three religions. 

These demands do not only bear legal and policy implications. Legal and political responses will give way to a wider social, media, and cultural response that acknowledges the religious diversity in Egypt that transcends the three religions—and not only Baha’is. The respect of this diversity, the affirmation of guaranteeing the fundamental rights within its context, and the rejection of hate speech and the incitement to discrimination against it will lead to a qualitative shift—not only in the rights of Baha’is, but also as it relates to religious freedom in Egypt, placing it at the gates of a different and new phase.