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Human Rights Report Says Egypt Violating Religious Freedoms

Human rights groups are urging the Egyptian government to lift restrictions on religious freedom that discriminate against those who do not belong to one of three recognized religions. VOA Correspondent Challiss McDonough has more from Cairo.

Basma Moussa has not had a national ID card since 2004, when Egypt's Interior Ministry refused to issue her one unless she changed her religion. Moussa is an Egyptian member of the Baha'i faith, a monotheistic religion that developed in Iran in the 19th century.

Moussa said officials told her they were prohibited from issuing an ID to anyone listing their religion as anything other than one of what he called the three "heavenly" religions: Islam, Christianity or Judaism.

In a new report, two human rights groups say basic services are being denied because of religious affiliation, even though Egypt's constitution guarantees freedom of religion.

Joe Stork is the deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch, a co-author of the report.

"The law says nothing about it can be only Islam, Christianity or Judaism," said Stork. "Nothing about that. The law in terms of changing information on one's ID just says just file the new information, you don't need the permission of the ministry to do so... including religious affiliation, it makes no exception for that. So according to the letter of the law, there should be no problem."

But in practice, he says, Interior Ministry officials have been using their own interpretation of Islamic Law. Two groups of people are most severely affected - the Baha'i, and people who convert from Islam to another religion, usually Christianity.

"It's rather incredible, officers of the ministry telling individuals, not only refusing to register their actual religious belief, but actually trying to convert them to Islam, or to retaining a Muslim identity using bribery, using pressure tactics, using intimidation: 'OK, you won't convert? You won't stay a Muslim? We'll just have to bring forgery charges against you,'" said Stork.

Religion is listed on Egyptian birth certificates and every Egyptian over the age of 16 must also have a national ID card, which lists religious affiliation. In the past, the Baha'i were allowed to state their religion as "other," or just leave the space blank. But for the last several years, officials have been refusing to issue documents to the Baha'i unless they renounce their faith.

The consequences can be severe. Human rights researchers found people who had lost their jobs and apartments and children who had been kept out of school. Moussa says her relatives include five children under the age of six who have been unable to get birth certificates.

Moussa says without birth certificates, the children have not been able to be immunized.

Another Baha'i, Shady Samir, says after a year of trying, his children were able to get birth certificates with the space for religion left blank, but only because he is married to a foreigner, and the ministry created an exception for people with dual nationalities.

"This marriage is not recognized by the government," said Samir. "This is not considered as marriage. So we face problems even recognizing this marriage - we cannot stay in a hotel [together]. My wife cannot have residency in Egypt because we're not [officially] married. She's here on a tourist visa all this time.

This problem could be magnified next year, when computerized ID cards become mandatory. Paper IDs with the religious affiliation left blank will no longer be valid.

Also affected by the policy are those who have converted from Islam, including those known as "re-converts," who were raised Christian and now wish to return to their original faith. Officials have refused to allow them to switch back. And when a parent converts to Islam, his or her children are often listed as converts, sometimes without their knowledge. If they try to have their religious affiliation corrected, they say they are treated as if they are trying to convert away from Islam as well, even if they have never actually been Muslims.

A new court case is challenging this policy, and a verdict is expected Saturday. Lawyer Ramses El-Nagar says they are hoping for good news.

He says they want the court to rule that converts have the right to return to their original faith. And he says they also want the existing laws guaranteeing freedom of religion to be enforced.

The human rights groups acknowledge that Islamic Law forbids conversion to another religion. But they say there is no consensus among Muslim scholars about whether there should be a civil or criminal penalty for it. They quote the Grand Mufti of Egypt as saying it is a sin that should be dealt with by God on Judgment Day.

The other author of the new report, Hossam Bahgat of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, said the policy conflicts with the Qur'an's admonishment that there must be "no compulsion in religion."

He said, "This policy conflicts not only with Egyptian law and international human rights law, but also with Islamic Law."

The quasi-official National Council for Human Rights has called for removing religion from the national ID card, and has promised to draft an anti-discrimination law to enforce the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom.

Joe Stork from Human Rights Watch says those would be welcome steps, but the government also needs to ensure that Egyptians are able to have their real religious affiliations reflected in state records.

"We think that if the government just does the right thing by simply complying with existing Egyptian law on these matters, it will set an example of tolerance, as opposed to an example of intolerance, and will be one step - one constructive step, albeit a small step - towards addressing those larger social prejudices," said Stork.

The report on religious freedom was the product of two years of work, and the authors say they made repeated requests for meetings with officials from the Interior Ministry without receiving a reply. But they said Monday that they have finally been granted a meeting with a senior ministry official, scheduled for later this week. They are hoping for a positive outcome.