A scene of the Cairo skyline on November 8, 2014. (MOHAMED EL-SHAHED/AFP via Getty Images)
Analysis

Egypt’s Officials Don’t See Unrecognized Religious Minorities

Egyptian institutions do not officially recognize some religious minorities. As a result these minorities do not receive a set of basic constitutional rights, most notably the freedom of religion, belief, opinion and expression. In addition, their followers are subject to ongoing surveillance and prosecution on the pretext of their illegal activities. 

It is worth mentioning that Egypt is a religious diverse country. In addition to the Muslim majority and recognized Christians and Jews, there are other unrecognized minority communities, including the Baha’is, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and some Muslim minorities, including the Shiites, Quranists, and Ahmadis, who are not recognized by official and religious institutions.

The Baha’is are the largest independent unrecognized religious group. The spread of the Baha’i Faith in Egypt dates back to the early twentieth century, when their main convention was registered in December 1924; the community held religious assemblies in designated buildings and it published and distributed literature from its own publishing house. The presence of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Egypt dates back to the 1930s, when they were able to legally register in the governorates of Cairo and Alexandria. 

The two sects have faced major setbacks since 1960, when a presidential decree was issued to close Baha’i forums and centers, cease their activities, and confiscate their properties. Egypt also ended the official recognition of the Jehovah’s Witnesses sect with accusations that it supported Zionism. 

The Quranic movement, which represents one of the country’s Muslim minorities, emerged in Egypt in the 1970s. Its followers believe that the Quran is the sole source of Sharia and the religious reference, (without need for other sources, such as Hadiths and the Sunnah).  

Dr. Ahmed Subhy Mansour is the spiritual father of this movement. He was expelled from Al-Azhar University in 1987 and imprisoned for two months at the end of the same year on charges of denying the Sunnah. Now, he lives in the United States of America, where he established the Ahl-Alquran website.

Legal framework regulating religious freedoms

Theoretically, the Egyptian legal system guarantees equality and freedom of belief for all citizens. However, this right is not guaranteed to all religious sects and is subject to certain considerations that may undermine these rights. The legal system recognizes only the three Abrahamic religions: Islam, Christianity and Judaism. Citizens may not choose any other religion other than them. 

The Constitution also defines Islam as the religion of the state and that the principles of Islamic law are the main source of legislation. In Article 7, the Constitution obliges the same Muslim majority to follow one doctrine and an exclusive interpretation of Islam by the official religious institution—Al-Azhar. This article is used to justify the severe violations against Egyptian citizens who are not followers of this doctrine. 

Article 64 of the Constitution states that freedom of belief is absolute. However, this entails two restrictions. The first is that this right is guaranteed only to the followers of the three religions. Secondly, the article states that the performing of religious rituals and building of houses of worship are regulated by the law, opening the door for the prohibition of citizens’ gathering in religious or social occasions on the pretext of violating the law.

Any religious group wishing to obtain official recognition must submit a request to the Department of Administrative and Religious Affairs at the Ministry of Interior, which decides whether that group poses any threats to national unity or social peace. In addition, the existing main religious institutions are consulted, as part of this decision. 

Judiciary’s position on unrecognized religious sects

The court rulings have supported the decisions of officials to cancel the recognition of Baha’is and Jehovah’s Witnesses and restrict the recognition of new religious sects, as in the cases of refusal to recognize the Sect of St. Paul the Apostle and the Church of St. Athanasius of the Orthodox Church. Egyptian courts have relied on the concept of public order to protect the interests of the divine religions—especially Islam and Christianity to a lesser extent—to limit the recognition of religious groups that split or emerge from them.

In 1975, for example, the Supreme Constitutional Court upheld the continued closure of Baha’i forums. The ruling stated that Baha’i Faith was not one of the religions sanctioned by God, falling outside the scope of Islam, and therefore not protected by the Constitution.

In parallel, the Administrative Court has refused to include mentioning the Baha’i Faith in official documents and identification cards, since it represents a “violation of public order.” Instead, the sign (-) is included on ID cards under the religion field for only Baha’is—a measure that does not apply for all other unrecognized religions.

In the same context, the Administrative Court rejected the appeal lodged by a follower of the Jehovah’s Witness sect against the government’s decision that included a ban on notarization offices. According to this ban, notarization offices cannot notarize any marriage contracts in which one or both spouses are declared Jehovah’s Witnesses. Additionally, it is not permissible for notarization offices to accept any of the procedures for authenticating signatures or documents issued by the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, the Jehovah’s Witnesses Association. 

A member of the sect had applied to establish an association called “Jehovah’s Witnesses Christian Cultural Association for Community Development”, but the Real Estate Registration and Notarization Authority refused to prove the date of the rental contract for an apartment under the name of the association, which is under establishment, so he filed the aforementioned case.

Position of official religious institutions

Although the Baha’i Faith and rituals differ clearly from Islam—whether Sunni or Shia—the majority of Muslim jurists consider the Baha’i to be a dissident group from Islam; its followers are therefore considered apostates, and its rituals represent a threat to public order. 

Religious institutions in Egypt, such as Al-Azhar and Dar Al-Iftaa, have issued several official fatwas against the Baha’i Faith, deeming their followers apostates and warning against them. In a fatwa issued by Dar Al-Iftaa, the official body for issuing the fatwas, the Baha’i Faith was considered one of the rogue sects from Islam, which people should beware of, and pay attention to their “evils, delusion, and corruption.” The government’s Ministry of Endowments has also organized several workshops during 2015 to “reveal Baha’i dangers.”

In a related context, an official fatwa was issued on the position of Islamic law on the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community. Dar Al-Iftaa stated, “the Qadyaniyya or the Ahmadiyya are nothing but a subversive movement and a malicious colonial game that has nothing to do with Islam and does not belong to it. Rather, it is an independent religion and a corrupt and infidel belief. What its followers believe is considered obvious blasphemy. Therefore, embracing and adopting it knowingly and willingly by Muslims is considered an apostasy from the religion of Islam, and the judiciary is the one concerned with this ruling. ”

Naturally, the Coptic Orthodox Church considers the followers of Jehovah’s Witnesses heretic, and warns against getting close to them. Anba Botros, the General Bishop and Supervisor of the Church’s satellite channel Aghapy TV, formed a team of youth named the “critical operations room to resist the expansion of Evangelicalism and Jehovah’s Witnesses.” Some TV reports presented on the channel also reviewed the history of the group under the name “Little Foxes”. The late Pope Shenouda stated several times that the group is prohibited by the Egyptian law.

Consequences of lack of recognition

The failure to recognize a religious sect results in the lack of relevant legal rights, and therefore authorities prohibit houses of worship for these religions and do not recognize its religious leadership, leading to the sect’s inability to perform its religious rituals and to officiate any marriages according to its beliefs. Likewise, its followers lose the right to obtain official documents on which their true religion or beliefs are recorded. They cannot express themselves freely, without security prosecution.

As a result, followers of unrecognized religious minorities are subjected to security restrictions, surveillance, and summons that could entail a committal for trial for contempt of divine religions and threatening of social peace. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, authorities interrogated several of its members because of their unrecognized status in Cairo and Minya governorates. 

In addition, the government also prohibits the import and sale of publications of Baha’is and Jehovah’s Witnesses, and their religious materials are confiscated. Neither the followers of Shia nor the Ahmadiyya have houses of worship in Egypt. Due to security crackdowns against them, they do not usually announce their adherence to these sects, except for some leaders. Islamic religious institutions consider them dissident from Islam. It is worth mentioning that Reda Abdel-Rahman, a blogger and researcher in “Quranic Thought,” has been detained pending investigation since August 22, 2020.

Due to the political changes in Egypt since 2011 and the few preceding years, a number of these unrecognized sects’ leaders have called for the rights of these sects and called on official institutions to address them. However, this trend has retreated in recent years, especially with the closure of the public sphere and the decline of personal rights in general.

Nevertheless, the President’s statements, during the second edition of the World Youth Forum in Sharm El-Sheikh, encouraged respect for the religious diversity of citizens belonging to these religious diversities. Hatem Al-Hadi, a Baha’i citizen, wrote an article entitled, “Yes, Mr. President, there are other religions in Egypt,” noting that there are problems that hinder the right of Baha’is to citizenship like other Egyptians, including those related to the Personal Status Law and the failure to allocate land to bury their dead.

These needs must be addressed before the sect hopes to build its houses of worship. Former MP Mohamed Fouad also submitted a request for information to both the Speaker of Parliament and the Prime Minister regarding the right of Egyptian citizens to perform their religious rituals. He stated that Baha’is are facing a list of problems, including those related to authentication of official documents or the personal status law, in addition to the state’s refusal to allocate lands to them to bury their dead and the absence of houses of worship for them as well as other minorities.

The way the government deals with unrecognized or new religious sects is based on several criteria, the most important of which is protecting the interests of established and recognized religions, especially Islam and Christianity. The official religious institutions of these two religions play a prominent role in determining the way they deal with the new sects, which are usually rejected by them as being renegade from the religious framework specified by them. Simultaneously, stereotypes of the followers of these sects are promoted as morally decadent—as it is popular about the Baha’is—or as having external agendas in a grand conspiracy theory—as it is the case with the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

In conclusion, these policies and practices violate the right of individuals to freedom of belief, and lead to the denial of a wide range of civil and social rights and freedoms.