By Cynthia Johnston
CAIRO, Jan 29 (Reuters) - An Egyptian court granted Baha'is the right to obtain government identity papers on Tuesday, so long as they omit their faith, in an important ruling for members of unrecognised religions.
Judicial sources said the court had ruled that Egyptian Baha'i Raouf Hindy could obtain identity documents for his teenage twins by putting a dash in the religion line.
The government can still appeal against the judgment which gives members of Egypt's tiny Baha'i community access to official papers largely denied them since 2004. These are needed to enrol in school, marry, drive a car and open a bank account.
"This is the first good news that Baha'i Egyptians and their defenders and supporters received in a very long time," said Hossam Bahgat, whose Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights represented the Baha'is in court.
"It is an end of a very long and unnecessary ordeal for citizens whose only fault is their refusal to be falsely identified or to lie in official documents."
There are between 500 and 2,000 Baha'is in Egypt.
Egypt had previously refused to allow members of the minority faith to obtain documents listing them as Baha'is, nor would it allow them to omit their religion. Baha'is are regarded as heretics by many Muslims, and rights activists say they face systematic persecution in socially conservative Egypt.
Rights groups say Baha'is were often pressured to accept documents labelling them as members of faiths viewed as more palatable in Egypt.
"Today I feel happy ... I asked for something fair. I asked to say that I am not a Muslim, a Christian or a Jew, so put a dash for me. I don't want to lie on government papers. That's all," Hindy told Reuters by telephone after the ruling.
Interior ministry officials had no immediate comment on the ruling and did not say if the government would appeal.
WILL SEEK DOCUMENTS IMMEDIATELY
Bahgat said he would immediately seek to obtain identity papers for the children of the two Baha'i families who brought the case, including Hindy's twins and another Baha'i teenager.
"We also expect the interior ministry to immediately change its policy so that this new policy applies to all followers of the Baha'i faith or any faith that is not one of the three recognised religions," Bahgat said.
While the Egyptian constitution guarantees freedom of religion, in practice officials are reluctant to acknowledge religions other than Islam, Christianity and Judaism.
Baha'is have also sometimes been regarded in the Arab world as disloyal citizens because the faith has its world centre in what is now Israel. Many analysts say a more likely reason for anti-Baha'i sentiment may be the theological differences with Islam. Baha'is see the faith's founder, Baha'u'llah, as the latest in a line of prophets including Abraham, Moses, Buddha, Jesus and Mohammad.
Many Muslims consider Baha'is heretical because they call their faith's 19th-century founder a prophet -- anathema to Muslims who believe Mohammad was God's final messenger.
In 1960, Egypt dissolved Baha'i institutions and seized community assets. (Writing by Cynthia Johnston)