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Sunday, January 8, 2012

Egypt’s forgotten Baha’i community

CAIRO: The identification papers are still blank. Hossam, a 31-year-old father of a five-year-old hopes his son can go to school next fall, but he is uncertain over his family’s future.
“I still don’t have a religion listed and the two schools I spoke with are not really hopeful, so we wait,” he told at his flat in the Cairo suburb of Maadi. “The revolution has done a lot of good things, but we still live under a government that works like it did under [former President Hosni] Mubarak.
The problem for Hossam is that he is Baha’i, the world’s newest monotheistic faith, and one that has been oppressed vehemently in Islamic countries, including Egypt, where in the early years of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Baha’i temples and places of worship were closed, and the Baha’i cemetery in the country largely destroyed.
“It is an uphill battle that we thought we won a few years ago to not have religion on IDs, but now people who see we don’t have religion there know who we are and this is the same problem,” Hossam said, adding that the Baha’i community was part of the uprising that ousted Mubarak last year.
“We were there because it was the right thing to do and to make Egypt a better place,” he continued. But now, the rise of the conservative Islamic groups have the small – some 3-4,000 Baha’is live in Egypt – worried that they will again face persecution.
“If we speak out and attempt to be part of society, we know they will attack us and force us back into silence,” he said.
In 2009, the Egyptian Baha’i community hoped they had ushered in a new era for identification cards in the country after the first batch of the religious minority was granted new ID’s without a religion written on them. The move came after years of struggling against the state in order not to choose one of the “big three” religions Judaism, Christianity or Islam.
The new ID’s came months after an Egyptian court granted the Baha’i community the right not to list a false religion on the paperwork, something the small minority community had been pushing for in recent years after discrimination has been reported.
The lawsuit against the government was filed by a married couple, Hussam Izzat Musa and Ranya Enayat Rushdy, who wanted to add their daughters to their passports, which had listed the Baha’i Faith as their religion.
The couple won the initial case against the government, which granted them the ability to register their children in schools, receive marriage licenses, birth certificates and proclaim their faith on state identification cards.
“We were ecstatic about the case that allowed our community to be fully accepted Egyptians,” one married Baha’i man, after the initial court victory, told
His optimism was short-lived, however, as the government appealed and won, leaving the community struggling to find a place in Egyptian society.
Egyptians are forced to have religion noted on their identity cards. Previously, Baha’is were forced to choose between Islam, Christianity or Judaism in order to receive official documents, including birth certificates and passports. Many of them took their cases to court, claiming that they’d rather leave the religion slot blank than choose a religion other than their own. The court, initially, agreed, and said they could leave the category blank in a move widely praised by religious advocacy groups in the country.
The Baha’i Faith is the most recent, established in 1863, monotheistic religion. It originates from Iran and believes in the progressive revelations of God. Baha’is believe that all religions are true and from God, but that at different times throughout human history, a new manifestation (prophet) is needed in order to adapt to the changing times and cultural traditions.
The main conflict between Muslims and Baha’is is in the idea that Mohamed is not the final prophet of God, which has led to Muslims distrusting Baha’is.
In December 2003, Al Azhar Research Academy, the most authoritative Sunni institution in the world, issued a fatwa against the Baha’i Faith. It stated that Islam does not recognize any religion other than those that the Holy Qur’an has asked to be respected. The fatwa specified the  Faith, stating that the “Baha’i creed and its likes are intellectual epidemics that should be fought and eliminated by the state.”
Now, one year on from an uprising that left the country optimistic and hopeful, there still remains some of that hope in the small community of the religious minority.
“We do feel that things will get better in the coming months and years despite the rise of the Salafists,” said teacher Kamal, also Baha’i. He told between drags on his shisha, or water-pipe, that “we are all Egyptians, whether we are Christian, Muslim, Jewish or other, and when the military leaves power and we have a government, it should be better because we can have honest and open dialogue.”
His belief in the power of the Egyptian population tends to be the majority among the Baha’i community, who has long struggled against persecution and a lack of media awareness. They argue that the revolution is continuing and if needed, Hossam said he would join tomorrow any demonstration.
“But we need to have a movement that is for all Egypt, not just one side. This is important. The military must go, but we must all have our rights and the media needs to start talking about all people in this country, including us Baha’is,” he argued.

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