I would like to thank the Congressional Human Rights Caucus for hosting this meeting.
My name is Kit Bigelow. I am the director of external affairs for the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States. The Bahá'ís are honored to have the opportunity to talk to you today about the Bahá’ís in Egypt, who face an immediate threat to their continued existence as a minority religious community. The most urgent issue that faces the Bahá’ís in Egypt is the Government’s decision to require all of its citizens to obtain mandatory identification cards. At present, Bahá’ís are not legally permitted to obtain these cards.
The Bahá’í community in Egypt traces its roots to the 1860s. The first National Spiritual Assembly of Egypt, the Bahá’í national governing body, was elected in 1924, and legally incorporated in 1934.
In 1925, the Supreme Religious Court of Cairo annulled the marriage between a Bahá’í man and a Muslim woman on the grounds that the Bahá’í Faith was a “heresy.” The court also acknowledged that the Bahá’í Faith was “a new religion, [and] entirely independent”. This was the first official recognition of the Bahá’í Faith as an independent religion in the Muslim world.
In 1960, President Nasser signed Presidential Decree 263 banning the Bahá’í Faith. The ban dissolved “all Bahá’í Assemblies and Centers.” “Individuals, bodies and institutions” were forbidden from engaging “in any activity.” All Bahá’í properties, including the national headquarters building, the libraries, and cemeteries, as well as all Bahá’í funds and assets were confiscated. These properties and assets have never been returned. The ban on the Bahá’í Faith remains law today.
In keeping with the Bahá’í principle of obedience to government, the Bahá’ís of Egypt immediately disbanded their religious institutions in 1960. The Government promised that individuals would remain free to practice their religion, and Bahá’ís accordingly replaced community services with worship by individuals and families. Nevertheless, they have faced several episodes of arrests, detentions, and imprisonment, as recently as 2001. They remain under constant police surveillance. Their homes are periodically searched. Bahá’í literature is taken and destroyed.
Along with Christianity and Judaism, the Bahá’í Faith is regularly vilified and misrepresented in the press and Bahá’ís are accorded no opportunities to respond. The attacks in the media appear designed to inspire popular hostility against the Bahá’ís: recurring themes are that Bahá’ís are spies of foreign powers and that they indulge in immoral activities. These calumnies have no basis in fact, but for many Egyptians this is the only information about the Bahá’í Faith they have ever encountered.
The Bahá’í community of Egypt has also faced persecution and harassment from the religious orthodoxy in Egypt. Over the years, the Bahá’í Faith has been the subject of numerous “fatwas” that deride the religion as a heresy and accuse its followers of apostasy, a charge which is punishable by death under traditional Islamic law. Most recently, on December 15, 2003, a fatwa by the Islamic Research Academy of Al-Azhar University described the Bahá’í Faith as “a lethal spiritual epidemic in the fight against which the state must mobilize all its contingencies to annihilate it.” The statement goes on to demand: “those [Bahá’ís] who have committed criminal acts against Islam and our country must disappear from life and not be allowed to announce their deviation from Islam.”
The crisis that immediately confronts the Egyptian Bahá’ís is the ID cards that must be obtained by December 31, 2005. All citizens must carry these cards. The cards must be presented for any type of government service, such as medical care in a public hospital or processing for a property title or deed. They are required to obtain employment, education or banking services. They are needed to pass through police checkpoints, and individuals without cards are deprived of their freedom of movement.
These ID cards require citizens to state their religious affiliation. The current system allows for only one of the three recognized religions of Egypt to be entered: Islam, Christianity, or Judaism.
In the past, Bahá’ís had been permitted to leave the religious affiliation slot blank, or to make a dash, or to write “other.” A few were even permitted to list “Bahá’í.” Now only one of the three recognized religions can be entered.
The Bahá’ís in Egypt have approached their Government on numerous occasions to plead for a change in the ID card. Their requests for a change have been repeatedly denied.
We wish to emphasize that the Bahá’ís of Egypt are not asking for special treatment. They wish to follow the regulations of their Government. Bahá’ís are willing to continue to write a dash, or leave a religious affiliation space blank. It is evident that the challenges the Bahá’ís are facing could be faced by any Egyptian citizen who is not a Muslim, a Christian or a Jew.
What the Egyptian Bahá’ís are not able to do is to lie to their Government by claiming to be members of a religion they are not—both because it is a matter of religious principle to them and because they do not wish to perpetrate a fraud against their Government.
The ultimate hope of the Bahá’í community is the rescinding or nullification of Presidential Decree 263—lifting the ban on their faith. The Egyptian Government is signatory to several international human rights treaties, including the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees religious freedom. Our urgent plea is for the Egyptian Government to allow all of its citizens, including the Bahá’ís, to be treated as equal.