Rights groups see Egypt court taking step in right direction

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CAIRO: Court rulings in favor of Egypt s religious minorities over the past two weeks were a step in the right direction, human rights activists said on Sunday, but the struggle for civil rights is far from over.

The Cairo administrative court s decision on Saturday to allow 12 converts to Islam who then reverted to Christianity to have their original faith marked on their ID cards was historic, the converts lawyer Ramses Al-Naggar said.

The verdict is a step in the right direction in terms of freedom of religion in Egypt but there s a long way to go before the principle (of religious freedom) is agreed on by society, said Al-Naggar.

A lower court had previously refused to take up the case, which was opposed by the government.

The decision on Saturday followed a Jan. 29 ruling to allow members of the Bahai minority to have their religion marked as other after a long legal battle.

An individual s religion on identity cards was previously limited to Christian, Muslim or Jewish.

Without the official ID cards, Egyptians can not apply for jobs, buy property, open bank accounts or register their children in schools. They are also subject to arrest for not carrying valid identity papers.

We welcome both verdicts and view them as a positive step which remedies serious injustice and abuses suffered by some Egyptian citizens, said Hossam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR).

The two verdicts show that the court considered the government s refusal to change the religion entry on official papers as a violation not only of international agreements ratified by Egypt but also of the Egyptian constitution, said Bahgat.

But like Bahgat, Gamel Eid of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information says the rulings are largely cosmetic and do not represent a seismic shift.

This is a purely formal step forward, because in the written judgment the Bahais were heavily attacked, despite the favorable ruling, Eid said.

The Christians new ID cards will specify that they temporarily adopted Islam in order to avoid what the court called any manipulation or deception of the judicial or social consequences created during the conversion, such as marriages or births.

That specification means that any children born during the converts Muslim period are automatically Muslim and will remain so.

The plaintiffs also fear that the fact that their papers describe them as converts from Islam could be viewed by some as meaning they are apostate, which some Islamists consider punishable by death.

Eid says the Egyptian government s position on freedom of religion can be explained by the propagation of religious extremism in Egypt and the authorities tendency to compete with the Islamists.

While key regional US ally Egypt is under pressure from the West to sort out its human rights record, it is also under growing domestic pressure from the Muslim Brotherhood, the country s largest political opposition grouping.

The government is now in an embarrassing position because it has to choose between being a government that defends civil liberties and a religious government, Eid said.

He says that people are still arrested for their religious beliefs, including Shias in the overwhelmingly Sunni nation, while Coptic Christians continue to suffer daily discrimination.

Sheikh Yussef Al-Badri, a Muslim religious leader with a penchant for lawsuits, has already rejected the court s Coptic ruling.

It is the state s duty to legislate to punish the apostates, he told AFP, adding that he would soon bring a civil case against the 12 apostates. -AFP

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