Religious freedom in Egypt

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MARCO WERMAN: There is no First Amendment guarantee of freedom of religion in Egypt. That's okay if you're Muslim, Christian, or Jewish. If not it's been impossible to get a government ID card. But last month an Egyptian court ruled in favor of a follower of the Bahai religion. He and his children can fill out their papers and leave that question on religious identification blank. It's a step in the right direction for Bahais but Aya Batrawy reports from Cairo that Egyptians Bahais have a long way to go before they're accepted as equals.

AYA BATRAWY: While it's never been illegal to be a Bahai in Egypt, being one has never been easy. Amm Ahmed, his wife, and their six children had to flee their rural town of Suhag in southern Egypt due to harassment. In March, fellow residents burned his house down along with those of three other Bahai families. Even now, he is meeting me in a private residence on the outskirts of Cairo away from the public eye and security officials.

AMM AHMED: [SPEAKING ARABIC]

BATRAWY: And it is only in private that Amm Ahmed can practice his faith. 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.

AHMED: [SPEAKING ARABIC]

BATRAWY: Although born Bahai he used to work as a reciter of the Quran. He saw nothing wrong with reading the Quran since the Bahai faith embraces it as well as the scriptures of other religions. But soon after he announced he was Bahai both he and his wife were imprisoned for nine months on charges of which he is still unaware. The recent torching of his house because he is Bahai further convinced him the government must do more.

AHMED: [SPEAKING ARABIC]
TRANSLATOR: Egypt can do better than this. It must open a dialogue with Bahais and sit with us and see what we believe in. This way people can relax and we can relax.

BATRAWY: The Bahai faith was founded in the mid-19th century by a Persian named Baha'Ullah. Members believe that God's will has been revealed by messengers of all the world's major religions and that world peace will come when humanity recognizes it is one race which worships one God. But many Muslims view the religion as a heretical deviation of Islam and Bahais have long faced persecution particularly in Iran. Here in Egypt Bahais enjoyed some level of recognition until 1960 when the government outlawed their public activities and forced them to misidentify themselves on government documents as either a Muslim, Christian, or Jew. Following years of legal struggle a court ruled earlier this year that Bahais can leave the section under religion as blank on government identification cards and birth certificates. Hossam Bahgat of the Egyptian Initiative for Human Rights.

HOSSAM BAHGAT: There are two ways of looking at this positive court outcome. For Bahais it's simply a correction of a mistake. But for Egyptians in general it is a significant step in that this is the first time in Egypt's legal history that there is an administrative system to deal with Egyptians who do not adhere to one of the three state-recognized religions of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.

RAOUF HINDY: [SPEAKING ARABIC]

BATRAWY: Seated at a cafe 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 the government to court and winning. His children have just become the first Egyptians to receive the new IDs.

HINDY: [SPEAKING ARABIC]

BATRAWY: He says before this ruling Bahais either had to lie on official papers which could lead to being jailed or they had to function as best they could without documentation. Now he says he's happy that no one will force him to lie.

But there are delays and complications. Oral Surgeon Dr. Basma Moussa is one of hundreds of Bahais still waiting for the new ID. She asked that the interview be conducted in her car because she's weary of being interviewed in public. Although she's been married for over 20 years she doesn't have a marriage license because the Egyptian government does not recognize Bahai marriages. This means that if she and her husband check into a hotel they have to get separate rooms because unwed Egyptian couples are not legally allowed to rent hotel rooms together. It also means that she cannot file taxes properly, open a bank account, buy a new car, or receive government benefits.

BASMA MOUSSA: [SPEAKING ARABIC]
TRANSLATOR: We're tired. We're exhausted. And they keep making things more complicated. Just give me my papers. Since the ruling was made and the order was issued there are complications you can't even imagine to get the new ID. Now even those who have the new birth certificate cannot marry with this ID because they say they don't accept the Bahai marriage.

BATRAWY: Bahais still face an uphill battle for acceptance in Egypt. Just last month there protests and arrests after the government announced plans to re-house Bahais whose homes were burnt down. But the new IDs have given them hope that change is coming. For The World this Aya Batrawy in Cairo.

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