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A series of landmark court cases has given religious minorities more rights than ever, but the wheels of the legal process turn slowly.
By: Ethar El-Katatney
The new year was heralded by what seemed to be hopeful step for religious minorities in Egypt: The Court of Administrative Justice ordered the Ministry of Interior’s Civil Status Department (CSD) to allow Baha’i Egyptian citizens to leave the religion field on their new ID cards blank.
Government policy had previously stated that the religion field was required and only Muslim, Christian and Jew were provided as options. This means Baha’is (who believe the Persian Baha’u’llah (d. 1892) was the most recent messenger of God) who do not want to falsely list themselves under a different religion cannot use education or healthcare services, or be employed in the public or private sector.
Unfortunately, the victory has turned out to be a hollow one. Appeals have gone back and forth, as the Civil Status Department has refused to implement the ruling until the Supreme Administrative Court makes a final decision on December 15 on a non-party appeal on the January decision.
Christians have had other ID-related problems. In February, a court decision allowed 12 people — all Christians but had converted to Islam and then back to Christianity — to have their original faith written on their ID cards. However, the court also stated that it would be written on the ID that they had reverted. The case is under appeal by the converts, who don’t want “reverted” on their cards due to the social stigma attached.
Organ transplants between Christians and Muslims were forbidden in August, allegedly to avoid adherents of either religion from exploiting the other. Debate on sectarian tension between Muslims and Christians was encouraged by the cinema release of the satirical Hassan and Morcos, where a Muslim and a Copt have to trade places for safety and develop an unlikely friendship. Clashes have been seen in villages and cities across the country: Shubra Al-Kheima (Cairo), Atfih (Giza), Naga Hamadi (Qena) and Al-Fashn (Beni Sueif), to name a few.
The biggest incident dragged on all year, and was only recently resolved. The dispute at the Abu Fana Monastery, a Coptic Orthodox institution, in Minya began in January with an attack by around 20 Muslims over the building of a monastery fence on land the Muslims claimed to be their own. There was more violence in May as Bedouin living around the monastery claimed an extension under construction was, again, on their land. The dispute formally ended in late October with an agreement between the monks and the residents, but not before one Muslim man had died, three monks were kidnapped, and dozens arrested.
Pope Shenouda III, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, claimed the dispute wasn’t about land ownership and accused the attackers of religious discrimination and trying to convert the kidnapped clergymen to Islam. Shenouda himself was at the center of a diplomatic incident on March 30, when staff at London’s Heathrow Airport tried to body-search the 84-year-old patriarch. British Ambassador to Cairo Dominic Asquith apologized personally to the pope.
In other news, the Supreme Administrative Court issued a final ruling in March requiring Pope Shenouda III to allow Coptic Christians who had obtained a civil divorce to remarry. The Coptic Church under Shenouda will only allow divorce and remarriage in cases of adultery and conversion of the partner. Even if a remarriage is recognized by the state, the court ruling cannot force the Church to recognize the union.
The year has seen some landmark events for Muslims as well. In March, the Ministry of Health passed a decree that bans the niqab (face veil) in a new uniform code for nurses in government hospitals, to the protests of many munaqaba nurses. In November, Minister of Religious Endowments Mahmoud Hamdi Zaqzouq released a book titled The Niqab is a Custom, Not Worship, to be distributed in all mosques.
In September, the Ministry of Justice approved Egypt’s first ma’azuna (female marriage registrar), 34-year-old Amal Afifi; in October she married her first couple in a mosque in Zaqaziq. et
Sheikh Abdel Hamid Al-Atrash, Fatwa Committee head at Al-Azhar University, ruled that women are entitled to use violence to defend themselves from abusive husbands.
Yusuf Al-Qaradawi issued a fatwa saying that tiny amounts of alcohol were permissible in Islam.
Grand Mufti of Egypt Aly Gomaa issued a fatwa in March allowing women to work as female marriage registrars.
Gamal El-Banna, controversial Islamic writer and thinker, said hugging and kissing between unrelated males and females is permissible in Islam.