Egyptian followers of the Bahai religion celebrated a long-awaited legal victory last week when the country's Interior Ministry allowed them to obtain national identity cards without falsely listing their faith as one of the only three recognized by the state.
Rights activists say the ministry's decision to honor a court ruling allowing Bahais to leave their religion off their official documents is an historic first step towards a more inclusive definition of what it means to be Egyptian.
"It is a significant development in our legal history as a nation," says Hossam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, which filed a lawsuit against the Interior Ministry's Civil Status Department on behalf of Bahai citizens. "It is the first legal institution to sanction, or even accommodate, the idea that you can be Egyptian and follow a religion outside the three recognized ones."
All Egyptians are required to obtain a national ID card at age 16. The card states their religious affiliation, and since 2000 there have only been three options: Muslim, Christian, and Jewish.
The cards are necessary for accessing almost all aspects of life in Egypt, from opening a bank account to immunizing children.
Those who follow a faith besides the three the state refers to as "the heavenly religions" were previously either forced to lie about their religion or go without the cards, consigned to a bleak state of official nonexistence.
But on March 16, Egypt's Supreme Administrative Court upheld a lower courts' 2008 ruling that all Egyptians have a right to obtain official documents, such as ID cards and birth certificates, without stating their religion.
The Interior Ministry had appeared not to recognize the 2008 ruling, and Bahais had reported trouble registering their children in schools and universities.
But the ministry issued the new order March 19 complying with the Supreme Administrative Court's decision, and it went into effect April 15. Authorities say new IDs will be available within two weeks.
Under the new rules, Egyptians can opt to have a dash mark printed in place of a religion.
Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, called the former policy "abusive" and "without any basis in Egypt's statutory law," in a statement released when the new policy went into effect.
"We hope this means that the government intends to eradicate all policies that discriminate on the basis of religion and instead promote freedom of belief for all Egyptians," he said.
Problems with documents began recently
The Bahai faith was founded in 19th-century Persia by the prophet Baha'ullah, who taught the spiritual unity of all mankind and embraced the teachings of many faiths, including Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism. He also believed himself to be the last in a line of prophets that included Buddha, Abraham, Jesus, and Muhammad, which contradicts the Islamic position that Muhammad was the final prophet of God.
Egyptian Bahais long lived peacefully beside their Christian, Muslim, and Jewish countrymen. That began to change in the 1950s, when some in Egypt became suspicious of the fact that the Bahai world headquarters are located in the Israeli city of Haifa.
Egypt's Bahai citizens say they began having problems obtaining official documents in 2000, after an effort to modernize the Interior Ministry instituted a computerized system of issuing ID cards, ending the old practice of hand-writing them.
Violence toward Bahais
"Before that there were no problems, they used to write out Bahai or just put a dash," says Labib Iskander, a professor of mathematics at Cairo University and follower of the Bahai faith. "My old card still says Bahai, and to this day I still have not gotten a new one. Now when I do there will be a dash."
But the ruling comes at a tense time for the nation's Bahais, and recent violence directed at them suggests that popular attitudes have yet to catch up with those of the government.
One of the picnickers identified himself as a resident of the village and described it using a phrase in Arabic that could either mean "there are many Bahais there" or "everyone there is Bahai."
Eight Bahai residents' homes were set ablaze in the riot, and local media reports indicate the town's entire Bahai population has fled.
Dr. Iskander is happy about the government's new policy but says that old attitudes die hard, noting that the state is still unwilling to write the word "Bahai" itself on the national identity cards.
"They think that writing it would mean recognizing it as a religion, but that's not true," he says. "It would mean recognizing that some people are just different, and that they believe in something else. But they don't want to do that."