Friday, October 31, 2008

Eloquent Review of the Case of the Baha'is of Egypt

The prominent Lebanese website Menassat [Platforms] has just published an article, written by the journalist Alexandra Sandels, and based on an interview with an Egyptian Baha'i blogger. The most striking aspect of this article is that it, very nicely and very clearly, presents and defines the case of the Baha'is of Egypt. It is also very timely, particularly when considering the imminent supreme court final decision awaited by many on the 3rd of November.

Regarding the website, it is described as follows:
Menassat.com is a website focusing on news, trends and events concerning the media in the twenty-two countries of the MENA region (Middle East & North Africa, defined as the twenty-two member states of the Arab League).

Menassat literally means "platforms" in Arabic; it also holds the acronym for the MENA region.

Our goal is to promote good journalism in the region by providing a platform for Arab journalism as well as specific tools to empower Arab journalists.

Menassat's editorial team is based in Beirut, Lebanon, with correspondents throughout the region....
The full article is posted below with credit to Menassat.

Setting the record straight about Egypt's Baha'i


Followers of the Baha'i faith in Egypt are living as second-class citizens because the authorities do not recognize their religious affiliation on official documents. MENASSAT met with Baha'i blogger Shady Samir, who uses the Internet to advocate for the rights of Egyptian Baha'i.
By ALEXANDRA SANDELS
Shadi ID
Shady Samir, and the old ID card that allowed Egyptians to avoid stating their religion. The new ID cards no longer have that option. © Alexandra Sandels

CAIRO, October 29, 2008 (MENASSAT) – It has been fours years since Shady Samir lost his father, but the Egyptian state still doesn't consider him to be officially dead.

Samir's father was an adherent of the Baha'i faith, and in order for him to obtain a death certificate, he would have to posthumously convert to one of Egypt's three official faiths – Christian, Muslim or Jewish.

It is only one of many problems faced by the adherents of the Baha'i faith in Egypt.

It was issues like these, coupled with the misinformation being spread about the Baha'i faith that prompted Samir to join the information war and "set the record straight" with his blog Egyptian Baha'i.

The Baha'i religion was founded by Bahá'u'lláh in nineteenth-century Persia. It emphasizes the spiritual unity of all humankind. There are an estimated five to six million Baha'i around the world in more than 200 countries and territories

Stateless

Samir's father may remain officially "alive" for some time to come, seeing that he specifically asked his family not to resort to a posthumous conversion to obtain the death certificate.

"It was his last will to die as a Baha'i," Samir told MENASSAT.

Official papers like identity cards and birth certificates are obligatory in Egypt and not having them can cause immense obstacles. Egyptians cannot enroll in schools or universities, receive medical treatment, or even buy a car without a national ID card.

Those Baha'i who refuse to change religion on their official papers effectively become "stateless" in their own country, without the right to access the most elementary public services.

Instead, most Baha'i tend to possess passports – the only official Egyptian document that doesn't require statement of religious affiliation.

"The government certainly makes it easy for us to leave. Is it done on purpose? I don't know," Samir shrugs.

WATCH THE TRAILER FOR AHMED EZZAT'S FILM, IDENTITY CRISIS



In a bid to regain their basic rights in their own country, Egypt's Baha'i community has been fighting a court battle since 2004 to get their faith recognized on the new, computerized ID cards. Egypt's Supreme Administrative Court reversed a December 2006 ruling in favor of the Baha'i after the government appealed.

Legal battle

Since then, the Bahai community have gone back to demanding the right to leave the religion field on official papers blank.

"We want our documents without being forced to write something we're not. It's as simple as that," says Samir.

A court case involving three Bahai citizens demanding this right has been on-going for some time.

The suit concerns 15-year-old twins Imad and Nancy Raouf Hindi, who found themselves unable to obtain birth certificates unless they claimed to be Muslim, Christian or Jewish.

It also involves 19-year-old Hosni Hussein Abdel-Massih, who was suspended from his university due to his inability to present an identity card.

On January 29, 2008. Cairo's Court of Administrative Justice again ruled in favor of the Baha'i plaintiffs, allowing them to obtain birth certificates and identification documents without being required to state a religious affiliation.

But Egypt's Ministry of Interior has yet to implement the ruling and Egyptian Baha'i remain in a legal vacuum.

"Now when you ask for ID papers, they tell you to wait for the final verdict in the case," Samir sighs.

After the initial December 2006 ruling, there was a lot of coverage of the Baha'i in the Egytpian media. But Samir felt it often misrepresented his religion or in some cases even slandered it.

It was what spurred him to start his blog, Egyptian Bahai.

"It is an outlet for me to correct false information that is said about us on blogs and in the media. I mainly target news that spreads untrue information about the Baha'i," he says.

Death threats

Samir gets "lots of feedback" on his blog, he says. but the majority of it is negative.

"I get comments like 'The Bahai faith is not a religion. Stop and think about what you are doing.'"

One message read, "If I see you I will kill you."

The situation of the Egyptian Baha'i has attracted the interest of Egyptian and international human rights organizations.

Several protests were staged in Cairo during in 2006 and 2007 in support of the Baha'i, in which activists held up enlarged versions of Baha'i ID cards.

In February 2007, freelance Egyptian filmmaker Ahmed Ezzat released the documentary "Identity Crisis," in which he portrayed the situation of the Baha'i.

The film focuses in part on the December 2007 verdict. It shows a group of Islamist activists at the courthouse triumphantly shouting "Allahu Akbar" (God is Great) while holding up the Quran before a stunned group Baha'i, human rights activists and journalists.

One of the Islamist activists, Mohamed Salem, proceeds to state before the camera that Baha'i are apostates and that "infidels should be killed."

The film goes on to interview rights activists and Egyptian Baha'i such as Dr Basma Moussa, an assistant professor in oral surgery at Cairo University, who claims that Egypt's highest Islamic institution, Al-Azhar, issued a certificate stating she was an apostate, which delayed her tenure for several years.

Ezzat's film was banned from several Egyptian film festivals, including the Alexandria Film Festival.

Samir, whose wife is American, recently obtained his Green Card for the US, but he says that he won't leave his country until he is granted his rights.

"I don't want to run away. I will receive all my rights. I believe that," he says.

Baha'i have lived in Egypt for more than a hundred years. In 1924, Egypt became the first Muslim country to recognize the Baha'i faith as an independent religion apart from Islam.

But ever since President Nasser shut down the Baha'i national assembly in the 1960s, and the government proceeded to confiscate Baha'i properties such as libraries and cemeteries, there has been no official record of the group.

Baha'i institutions and community activities remain banned under Egyptian law to this day.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Egypt Drops Allegations of Baha'i Links to Zionism

In a surprise move, Egypt's Ministry of Religious Endowment (Awqaf) has just made public statements that vindicate the Baha'is of Egypt of any links to Zionism--accusations that were previously alleged, without any proof, by the same Ministry.

This new development was published in Copts United website two days ago. The independent site of "the Muslim Network for Baha'i Rights" provided a translated summary of the article in one of its recent posts. The following is some of what the Network has provided in its post.
In an unprecedented move that represents a positive development in the dealing of the Ministry of Religious Endowments with Egypt’s Baha’i community, Sheikh Salim Abdul Jaleel - the under-secretary for religious advocacy, gave the following response to a query on the Ministry’s accusations that Egyptian Baha’is support the Zionist movement:
There is no proof available that incriminates the Baha’is of Egypt with supporting Zionism. But I generally say that the existence of any sect that follows a faith that isn’t divinely inspired serves our enemies. But to state that the Baha’i Faith serves Zionism or that it’s related to it or that its movements are dictated by Zionism or that it is linked to it - these are all accusations that lack evidence, and it’s being repeated by the Intelligence agencies, and not Islamic scholars.

Not only do we accept calls for dialogue, but in fact we call others with whom we disagree to dialogue in order to reach a common ground.

Previously, however, the Ministry of Endowment had been quite vocal in its opposition to the Baha'is as was described in a previous post, quoted below:
...the Ministry of Religious Endowment, headed by Mr. Zaqzouq, has just instructed all mosques in Egypt to launch an attack on the Baha'is. The second, attached, Rose Al-Youssef newspaper article, published today, proudly announces this fresh piece of news.

In brief, the article states that the Ministry has distributed to all Mosque leaders (Imams) a book called "Baha'iy'ah and the position of Islam," aimed at telling people to watch-out for those Baha'is who are out to get them and destroy Islam in the process.

The book, and the article, repeat the usual falsehood that has been propagated in Egypt (and Iran) about the Baha'is, that is: the usual unfounded propaganda about connections to Zionism, etc.... It accuses the Baha'is of being apostates, and explains how Sheikh Al-Azhar in 1947 had classified them as such, and had declared their marriages to be null and void. It even incites Egyptians "to warn their youth about the dangers of 'Baha'iy'ah' so that they don't fall for its entrapment."

It must be emphasized that this development should be regarded as a very significant change of course in the position of this Ministry which, among its other responsibilities, is charged with overseeing all mosques and Islamic religious institutions in the country.

This also speaks for an emerging current of understanding and acceptance that appears to reflect a better appreciation of what the Baha'is are all about. The government and its agencies, as well as numerous prominent members and leaders of the society, appear to be learning the truth about the Baha'i Faith and the desire of the Egyptian Baha'is, as obedient citizens and well-wishers of their homeland, to join hands with their fellow Egyptians in promoting their collective welfare.

Although this transition is gradual and guarded, it demonstrates that the Egyptian authorities are finally nearing the conclusion that Baha'is are indeed well-wishers of their beloved country and that their intentions are to serve their fellow citizens and to promote unity and harmony wherever they reside. It is only natural that this gradual change of heart is happening...it is because of the unshaken course pursued by the Baha'is of Egypt in their struggle. They have always responded to aggressors with dignity, respect and resilience, even when they were faced with unprecedented vicious attacks by some. Additionally, while maintaining their composure and dignity, they have never hesitated to refute misrepresentations of their religion by some of the media and by the extremist elements of the society.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

An Update: Personal, Egypt & Iran

This past week has been full of events on many fronts, both personal and public. On a personal level, I would like to share the arrival of our first grandchild in San Francisco, a peaceful and happy baby girl who looks up to a future full of peace and harmony. More specifically to a future when people are not segregated based on their color, race, religion, ethnicity, class, political orientation, nationalism, or culture. A future when all people share the same opportunity regardless of where they are or who they are, and where people feel comfortable in their homelands without intimidation or alienation caused by ugly and divisive political and social rhetoric .

Regarding the recent news from Egypt, most significant is the decision of Egypt's Supreme Administrative Court on 20 October to postpone its final verdict on the question of issuing ID cards to the Baha'is until its next session of 3 November 2008.

As was posted before, "the State Council of the Supreme Administrative Court has produced a judicial memorandum requesting the Supreme Administrative Court to issue a final judicial judgment that affirms the [29 January 2008] ruling of Cairo's Administrative Court, which allowed placing dashes '--' for the Baha'is of Egypt in the religion section, since neither the Ministry of Interior nor the Attorney-General appealed the decision of the Administrative Court."

It is hoped and expected that the Supreme Court will abide by the decision of its own State Judicial Council. This will surely ease some of the serious difficulties encountered by the Baha'is of Egypt on a daily basis, simply because of their inability to possess identification documents and birth certificates.

Additionally, Egypt's National Council for Human Rights, a government-appointed official organization, has just proposed to the government the passing of a law that forbids discrimination based on religion, a law that would ensure equal treatment for all Egyptian citizens regardless of their belief.

As to Iran, a revealing piece of information has just made the world aware of a document vindicating the Baha’i youth prisoners in Shiraz. The youth, named: Raha Sabet, Haleh Rouhi and Sasan Taqva, have by now completed 10 months of their four-year sentence and continue to be incarcerated in the prison facility of the Ministry of Intelligence (known as Pelak 100), which is reserved only for interrogations and temporary arrests.

The two-page document, belonging to the office of the Supreme Leader [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei], discovered in relation to the humanitarian activities of the 54 Baha’is in Shiraz arrested on 19 May 2006 on the charge of “participating in activities against state security,” showed that these individuals are indeed innocent. Of interest, the document's date is 16 June 2008, but it remained a secret until now, and the Iranian authorities did nothing to correct its wrongdoing and release these innocent youth. In order to read the entire translated (very revealing) document and view the original one, please refer to this site, named Iran Press Watch.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Bringing About Social Awareness Through Art

The following video illustrates clearly how art can contribute to the cause of human rights and its role in bringing about social awareness. It is indeed an inspiration to the youth everywhere, providing an example on how to engage oneself and be useful to society through creativity.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Iran's Baha'is Caught Between Apostasy Law and Barriers to Education

Iran continues to deprive Baha'i students of their right to education. A recent article in the Baha'i World News Service states:
Baha'i students attempting to gain admittance to universities and other institutions this fall found that their entrance examination results were frozen and their files listed as “incomplete” on the Web site of the national testing organization.

Baha’is who had successfully enrolled in universities in previous years continue to be expelled.

And those who have sought redress through the courts have been disappointed, their cases rejected.

The website of the Muslim Network for Baha'i Rights, an independent site launched by a group of Muslim youth, has recently published a post about the resentment expressed by Muslim youth of the flagrant violation of the rights of the Baha'is of Iran. In that article, the site published a comic that depicts the students' dilemma. They wrote the following:
Over the past two years a new tactic was employed: namely, denying Baha’i students admission by alleging their files are incomplete. Last year, almost 800 (of over 1,000) students had their dreams shattered this way. But this year, when trying to login to the national university examination website, Baha’i students were redirected to: http://82.99.202.139/karsarasari/87/index.php?msg=error_bah

Whether the Iranian authorities were caught in the folly of their ways, or “error_bah” was intentional is a tough call. But should the authorities want to upgrade their message for the next academic year, we have a fitting suggestion:




Subsequently, the same site published another post with a new comic addressing the apostasy law contemplated by Iran's government. The introduction to the comic is quoted below:

You may have heard about the “Apostasy bill” in Iran, which left many shivering in fear. If passed, it will be considered a “criminal” act to convert to another faith (or to simply be a part of another one.)

The Christian and Baha’i communities of Iran are most likely to be affected by this decision.

This comic was inspired by this news, to show the absurd measures that the IRI is taking to persecute innocent minorities in Iran.


Friday, October 10, 2008

Interesting Proposal by an Egyptian Justice

Addressing the crisis of religious identity on official documents in Egypt, Justice Ra'afat Abdel-Rasheed wrote an interesting proposal that was published on 6 October 2008 in Egypt's leading independent Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper.

He indicated that, according to Egypt's constitutional guarantees, the crisis of religious identity involving the Baha'is deserves a just solution and that citizens must be treated equally regardless of their religion or belief. He stated, however, that since Egypt recognizes only three religions (Islam, Christianity and Judaism) as "heavenly" religions, thus any other Egyptian citizens such as the Baha'is can be identified with their "belief" rather than their religion. He explains that this would avoid opening the door for questions on whether or not the government recognizes the Baha'i belief.

He proposes that ID documents contain one section for religion and another one for belief. Thus Baha'is can be identified correctly as "Baha'is" but only under the section that identifies "belief" and not "religion."

He also added that regardless of the belief identified on these documents, the Baha'is must be treated equally, just the same as all other citizens, and should not be deprived of any opportunities for employment in the public sector provided that they qualify for the position applied for.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Breaking News for the Baha'is of Egypt

The case of the Baha'is of Egypt has just undergone an important new development that appears to finally permit the tentative resolution of their struggle in their quest for their civil rights. As can be recalled, on 29 January 2008, Cairo's Administrative Court had ruled that Baha'is can obtain identification documents with dashes "--" inserted in place of religious identification in the required section of these documents.

This ruling was not appealed by Egypt's Ministry of Interior or any other responsible agency or authority. It was appealed, however, by an Islamist lawyer, named Abd El-Mageed El-Aanany. He was not a party to the lawsuit, but appeared to act on behalf of extremists. Last July, the Egyptian media announced that the judicial State Council, which is a panel of judges at the highest level of the State charged with acting on such judicial matters and appeals before the Supreme Administrative Court, had rejected the appeal by El-Aanany and upheld the administrative court's ruling to allow the Baha'is obtain identification documents. In its decision, the Council had affirmed that the only authority that has interest in this case is the Ministry of Interior, not this lawyer or any others for that matter.

The appeal was heard by the Supreme Court, on 27 September 2008, which decided to postpone it until 20 October 2008 for a decision. Meanwhile, in yesterdays edition of Rose El-Youssef newspaper, the mouthpiece of the Egyptian government, an article (attached) announced that "the State Council of the Supreme Administrative Court had produced a judicial memorandum requesting the Supreme Administrative Court to issue a final judicial judgment that affirms the [29 January] ruling of Cairo's Administrative Court, which allowed placing dashes '--' for the Baha'is of Egypt in the religion section, since neither the Ministry of Interior nor the Attorney-General appealed the decision of the Administrative Court."

The article goes on to state: "The Judicial Council affirmed in its report that no citizen or any other intruder has the right to interfere with or appeal the lawsuit involving the Baha'is that was before the Administrative Court." It based its opinion on the fact that those who appealed were not a party to the lawsuit and that only the Ministry of Interior and the Attorney-General had the right to appeal.

This development should be regarded as a very important step towards the normalization of the status of the Baha'is of Egypt. It puts an end to all unjustified and frivolous challenges and appeals brought by extremists who would want to put a stop to any judgment favoring the Baha'is. With the expected enforcement of this ruling, the Baha'is will soon be able to obtain ID cards and birth certificates, and hopefully many other documents, that would allow them a normal and decent life in their homeland. Additionally, in doing so, Egypt's judiciary is in a position to prove its true independence in its quest for justice.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Canada's National Post on Religious Persecution in Iran

Some writers have the gift of engaging one's attention with great ease even when they write about subjects that may not be as popular or familiar as some other headlines that fill the media these days. A very good example of this is the following article recently written by Barbara kay who is a regular columnist for Canada's National Post newspaper. She approaches the subject of Iran's persecution of Baha'is from a human side that is truly informative, touching and convincing.

For ease of access, the full article is posted below and linked here as well.

Posted: August 08, 2008, 11:30 AM by Kelly McParland
It was a lucky day for me and my two then-toddlers when 14-year-old Susan answered my help-wanted ad for a mother’s helper (as nannies were then called). For years, this gentle, patient girl proved to be an indispensable and much-loved fixture in our Montreal household, and thereafter a valued friend.

Outwardly a typical post-religious Canadian of indeterminate Christian heritage, Susan incubated spiritual longings. She surprised us when she announced she was not only embracing the Baha’i faith, but marrying the American, Iranian-born uncle of her best friend, whose parents were leaders of the Montreal Baha’i community.

That was my introduction to Baha’is and their religion.

I learned that the Baha’i faith — founded in the 19th century as a heretical offshoot of Shia Islam — offers a benign belief system, promoting admirable values, such as universal literacy and high educational aspiration, and is generally respectful of both secular and religious knowledge within a democratic and egalitarian mode of self-governance.

Baha’is are casteless, generally open-minded (they actually promote inter-racial marriage) and — believing there are many paths to God — pluralistic in spiritual outlook. They tend to be rigourously non-partisan and pacifistic. A well-integrated and undemanding minority wherever they congregate, with no expansionist political goals, they typically seek neither government entitlements nor special accommodation from society.

Who could possibly resent, fear or hate this blameless global community of a mere five-million apolitical souls?

In a word: Iran.

Western Baha’is were alarmed to learn that on Aug. 2, a group of seven Baha’i leaders in Iran, arrested in May on false accusations of bombing a mosque in Shiraz, have “confessed” to operating an “illegal” organization with ties to Israel and other countries.

Other Baha’i leaders have categorically rejected any such suggestion. Given the precepts and track record of the faith — and the character of the Iranian regime — most observers will have little difficulty deciding whom to believe.

These Baha’is, confined — with no formal charges laid — in Teheran’s infamous Evin Prison, have been denied access to attorneys for 11 weeks. The son of one of them, Behrouz Tavakkoli, is presently a student at the University of Ottawa. He fears for his father’s life.

With good reason. Baha’is are 300,000 strong in Iran (the birthplace of the Baha’is’ founder, Baha’u’llah). But their community’s security has always remained fragile at best, in some cases summoning to mind the Jews’ situation under the Nuremberg Laws in 1930s Germany. Under the 1991 Golpaygani directives (named for the secretary of Iran’s Supreme Revolutionary Cultural Council), Baha’is’ employment was curtailed, while some were denounced as Zionist agents and tortured.

Iran’s Pahlavi shahs (1927-79) visited relatively light and sporadic abuse on Baha’is, although even in that comparatively tolerant era their schools were frequently closed and their sacred texts banned.

Ayatollah Khomeini and his mullahs ratcheted up the persecution. Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, over 200 Baha’i community notables have been killed outright or “disappeared,” including 10 women whose “crime” was to teach religion to children. Islamist hostility continues to provoke a state of internal community crisis, graphically illustrated in the current witch hunt.

Ironically, the bitter news of the recent (doubtlessly forced) confessions follows on the heels of an announcement early in July that the World Heritage Committee of UNESCO had named two Baha’i shrines in Israel of “outstanding universal value” as world cultural heritage sites.

The official classification puts the Baha’is’ northern Israel holy places, housing the tombs of both Baha’u’llah and his spiritual antecedent, the Bab, among humankind’s most awesome creations: the Great Wall of China, the Vatican, the Old City of Jerusalem, the Taj Mahal, Stonehenge and the Pyramids, as well as the sadly Taliban-demolished Bamiyan Buddhist statues in Afghanistan.

Canada is doubly linked to this great honour. The World Heritage Committee announced the new ranking from Quebec City. And the Baha’i shrines were designed by Montreal architect William Sutherland Maxwell, who also designed the Chateau Frontenac tower, Quebec City’s most recognizable landmark.

The Baha’is are peaceable contributors to every society they’ve settled in. They are perfectly safe and at home among Jews in Israel, and among Christians in the West. So what is Iran’s problem? What have the Baha’is done to deserve the wretched treatment that country metes out to them, and when will those innocent Baha’i leaders in Evin Prison be freed?

I called the Iranian embassy in Ottawa to pose these very questions. The telephone rang and rang and rang. But nobody answered.
National Post
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