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Despite Court Victory, Egypt's Bahais Face Challenges

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Earlier this year, residents of a small town in Egypt burned down four homes that belonged to followers of the Bahai faith. Last month, demonstrations greeted plans to relocate them. Despite gains made by Bahais in a recent court ruling to grant them rights on government identification cards, this small community of Egyptian Bahais is in a greater battle for community acceptance.

While it has never been illegal to be a Bahai in Egypt, it has never been easy. Amm Ahmed, his wife and their six children fled their hometown of Suhag in southern Egypt after hate crimes against them became too much.

Amm Ahmed meets me in a private residence on the outskirts of Cairo away from the public eye and security officials.

It is here, in the privacy of this apartment, that Amm Ahmed can practice his faith. A tall, sturdy man dressed in a traditional Egyptian gallabiya and turban, he reads verses from the Bahai holy book as the Muslim call to evening prayer rings out in the background.

Victims of persecution

Although born Bahai, he used to work as a reciter of the Quran. He saw nothing wrong with reading the Muslim holy book since the Bahai faith embraces the scriptures of other major religions.

But soon after he announced he was Bahai, he says, both he and his wife were imprisoned for nine months on charges that were never made clear. Then, in March, his home in Suhag was burned down along with those of three other Bahai families there. He and his family escaped injury because they already fled due to harassment in the previous months.

He says the civilized world discusses things and that Egypt should do the same. He says Egypt must open a dialogue with Bahais and see what they believe in and what their holy book says.

Origin of Bahai faith

The Bahai faith was founded in the mid 19th century by a Persian named Baha'ullah. Many Muslims view the religion as a heretical deviation of Islam and Bahais have long faced persecution, particularly in Iran.

But this was not always the case, at least not in Egypt where there are thought to be as many as 2,000 followers of the religion. Bahais enjoyed some level of official recognition here until 1960, when the government outlawed any public activities of Bahais and forced them to misidentify themselves on government documents as either a Muslim, Christian or Jew.

Following years of legal struggle for state recognition, a court ruled earlier this year that Bahais can leave the section under religion blank on government identification cards and birth certificates.

New court ruling is important

Hossam Bahgat of the Egyptian Initiative for Human Rights explains the significance of the ruling.

"There are two ways of looking at this positive court outcome," Bahgat said. "For Bahais it is simply a correction of a mistake and finally the government seems to be granting them these documents again. But for the Egyptian legal system, it is a significant step in that this the first time in Egypt's legal history there is an administrative system to deal with Egyptians who do not adhere to one of the three state recognized religions of Islam, Christianity or Judaism."

Seated at a café in downtown Cairo, Dr. Raouf Hindy enjoys a steaming Turkish coffee as he talks about the court case.

He's a modest hero among fellow Bahais for taking on the government to court and winning. His children have just become the first Egyptians to receive the new ID's.

Dr. Hindy says that prior to this court ruling, Bahais faced a hard choice. They either had to lie on official papers, which could lead to being jailed, or they had to function as best they could without documentation.

He says he is happy, but that he wishes he never had to go to the court in the first place. Dr. Hindy says that it is not the job of the government to choose a person's religion for them.

Bright future?

Dr. Basma Moussa is one of hundreds of Bahais waiting for the new ID. She prefers we talk from inside her car just near the university where she teaches because she is wary of being interviewed in public.

Although she's been married for more than 20 years, she does not have a marriage license because the Egyptian government does not recognize Bahai marriages. At its simplest this means that if she and her husband check into a hotel room they have to get separate rooms because unwed Egyptian couples are not legally allowed to rent hotel rooms together. But without correct papers, it also means that she cannot file taxes properly, open a bank account, buy a new car or receive government benefits.

Moussa says they are tired, and the government keeps complicating things. She notes there is nothing in the Quran that says there are only three religions. She adds that they do not want to lie or write false things, they just want to live like all other Egyptians.

Bahais still face an uphill battle for acceptance in Egypt. Just last month, there were protests and arrests after the government announced plans to relocate those Bahais whose homes were burned down. But the new ID cards have given the hope that more change is coming.