History of the Persecution of the Bahá’ís of Egypt

Although it faced periodic episodes of religious discrimination through the early half of the 20th century, the Bahá'í community of Egypt's greatest challenge came in 1960, when President Gamal Abdul Nasser issued a decree dissolving all Bahá'í assemblies, banning Bahá'í activities, and confiscating all Bahá'í properties. The Decree remains in effect and is the underlying source of the Bahá'í community's oppression today.

Designated as Presidential Decree 263, the proclamation came without warning or explanation. In just six short paragraphs, issued on 19 July 1960, President Nasser effectively shut down the Bahá'í Faith as an organized religion in Egypt.

"All Bahá'í Assemblies and Centers existing in the two regions of the Republic are hereby dissolved, and their activities suspended," states the opening paragraph of Decree 263/1960. "Individuals, bodies and institutions are forbidden to engage in any activity, as was conducted by these Assemblies and Centers."

The Decree further stated that all "properties and possessions" of Bahá'í Assemblies and Centers would be taken over by the Ministry of the Interior. And, indeed, all Bahá'í properties — including the community's national headquarters building, its libraries and its cemeteries — as well as all Bahá'í funds and assets were soon confiscated. These assets have not been returned to this day. Some important properties, such as some 17,000 square meters of land along the Nile that Bahá'ís had purchased for a future House of Worship, were sold at public auction. Other confiscated Bahá'í properties were turned over to the Islamic Association for Teaching the Qur'an.

The Decree further made Bahá'í activities to be criminal offenses, punishable by a minimum imprisonment of six months and/or a fine of 100 to 1,000 Egyptian pounds.

No official reason was ever given for the Decree, and to this day the Bahá'í community of Egypt can only speculate about the Government's motivations. Recent accounts in the Egyptian press have connected the ban with old and entirely false accusations, which are also commonly given in Iran to justify the persecution of Bahá'ís there, that Bahá'ís are somehow spies for Israel — an accusation that arises because the Bahá'í World Centre is located in Haifa, Israel. A more likely answer is simply the intolerance that fundamentalist Muslims have for the Bahá'í Faith because of their belief that Muhammad is the "Seal of the Prophets" and no religion can therefore follow Islam.

Effects of the Decree

The Government initially promised that individuals would remain free to practice their religion. In keeping with the Bahá'í principle of obedience to government, the Bahá'ís of Egypt duly disbanded their institutions immediately. The Faith's members shifted to a footing that emphasized quiet worship by individuals and families, with limited social and educational activities focused on internal development.

Unfortunately, Bahá'ís in Egypt have nevertheless faced episodes of harsh persecution, along with continuous restrictions on their personal, religious and social activities.

Since 1960, groups of Bahá'ís have been imprisoned on charges related to the Decree and solely because of their religious convictions at least seven times. These episodes include:

• In May 1965, 39 Bahá'ís were arrested and accused of having re-established the Bahá'í administration, and of having held meetings in their homes to which Muslims were invited for the purpose of teaching them the Faith. The court trial continued until 10 November 1977, when the case was thrown out of court.

• In June 1967, immediately after the armed conflict between Egypt and Israel, a number of Bahá'ís were held in detention camps for about six months. They were detained without charges or explanation. During their incarceration, they were physically abused, inadequately fed, and prevented from sleeping.

• In February 1985, 41 Bahá'ís were arrested on the charge of running a group aimed at resisting the basic principles of the State. A subsequent trial generated an intense and widespread campaign in the Egyptian press, featuring more than 200 newspaper articles, that denounced the Bahá'í Faith as an apostasy whose members deserved the death penalty.

• In May 1987, the courts sentenced the Bahá'ís to three years imprisonment with labor. The verdict aroused protest in Western circles, and the decision was overturned on appeal, with all 41 Bahá'ís being ultimately acquitted.

• In March 1997, three Bahá'ís in Al Ghardaqa were arrested. They were questioned directly about Bahá'í belief and teachings. After ten days, they were released without explanation.

• In January 2001, 16 Bahá'ís in Shawraniya near Sohag were arrested in January 2001, on the accusation of "immorality," according to the semi-official newspaper Al-Ahram. The 16 were held for nearly nine months at a Cairo prison but all were ultimately released without charge or explanation.

Both the arbitrary restrictions and the incidents of arbitrary arrest and imprisonment have created a climate of fear that effectively suppresses the Bahá'í community. Moreover, Egyptian legal decisions upheld against the Bahá'ís over the years have reduced them to second-class citizens in matters of family, education, and employment.

Bahá'í marriages are not legally recognized in Egypt, a fact that affects a whole range of family issues. Individuals have no recourse on inheritance, pension, alimony, child maintenance, and divorce. Unrecognized marriage is regarded as cohabitation, equivalent with adultery in Middle Eastern countries like Egypt, and children are stigmatized as illegitimate.

Freedom of worship, likewise, is severely restricted. The Egyptian courts have consistently interpreted Decree 263 as a general ban even on any type of community worship or observance by Bahá'ís, as well as a ban on teaching other people about the Bahá'í Faith.

On 27 April 1967, for example, the court of first instance of Al-Zaytoun issued a judgment that even organizing studies based on Bahá'í books or the exchange of Bahá'í materials could be punishable by the Decree.

Bahá'ís have also faced discrimination in education and employment. In 1983, for example, a young Bahá'í was expelled from the University of Alexandria because he insisted on listing his religious affiliation as Bahá'í.

The Decree and International Law

By any moral standard, the Decree is unfair and unjust. The principles of the Bahá'í Faith stress obedience to duly constituted governments, and the Bahá'ís of Egypt, in keeping with the teachings of their Faith, do not and have never become involved in partisan politics. They are committed to non-violence. They desire only to be recognized as full citizens of their country, actively promoting the progress and advancement of Egyptian society at large. The persecution and discrimination they face comes only because of their religious beliefs.

In theory, the Egyptian Constitution upholds freedom of religious belief. However, The Egyptian Supreme Court issued a decision in 1975 that upholds the Decree. The Court characterized the Bahá'í belief system as "evil," immoral, and a threat to public order. As the "Constitution guarantees the freedom of practice only to those religions recognized by Islam, i.e., Judaism and Christianity," the Court concluded that: "Belief in the Bahá'í Faith is considered apostasy. Therefore, the practice of that Faith is against Public Order, which is essentially based on Islamic Law (Shariah)."

However, religious discrimination such as that faced by the Bahá'ís of Egypt is clearly counter to international human rights treaties and covenants to which Egypt is a party. Specifically, Egypt was one of 48 members of the United Nations that in 1948 jointly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which recognizes that "everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion," including the right "to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance," either alone or as a community.

Moreover, Egypt in 1982 ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, an international treaty that further codifies the rights outlined in the UDHR. The Covenant even more clearly spells out the right to freedom of religion, stating in Article 18 that:

1. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.

2. No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to

3. Freedom to manifest one's religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.

While Egyptian Government officials have told the United Nations that the "public order" provision of Article 18 applies in their refusal to recognize the Bahá'í Faith as a legitimate religion, international human rights experts have rejected Egypt's argument and stated that Article 18 clearly applies to Egypt in the case of the Bahá'ís.

In 1993, for example, the UN Human Rights Committee that oversees implementation of the Covenant, said this about Egypt's compliance under the treaty in relation to Bahá'ís:

"[T]he Committee is worried about restrictive legal provisions existing in Egypt with regard to freedom of thought, conscience, religion, assembly and association. Restrictions not in conformity with article 18 of the Covenant regarding various religious communities or sects, such as Bahá'ís, are a matter of particular concern."

The Bahá'í Faith is, of course, widely recognized as an independent world religion, clearly falling under the terms of the Covenant. And even if Egyptian statements that the Faith is an apostasy were to be accepted, it would nevertheless be no excuse under the framework of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Through the years, Bahá'ís have fought for their rights in the courts — with no success. They have also sought to deliver corrective statements to the press, virtually none of which have been published. Representatives of the Bahá'í International Community have also sought redress for their co-religionists in Egypt at various international forums. Bahá'ís can only guess at the reasons for the Government's unresponsiveness.

Some of the fatwas also wrongly connect the Faith with Zionism and/or colonialism — buzzwords that seem calculated to incite hatred.

Incitement to Hatred

Although Egypt's secular Government is not formally bound by traditional Islamic law under the Constitution, it has nevertheless apparently paid close attention to the fatwas issued by the Islamic hierarchy.

The source of many of the fatwas and statements against the Bahá'ís is the Islamic Research Academy at Al-Azhar Unversity, which, as noted, issued the 15 December 2003 fatwa, along with numerous others. Often containing a profuse amount of erroneous information about the history, teachings and practices of the Bahá'í Faith, these fatwas and statements essentially boil down to a venomous portrayal of the Faith as a heretical "false creed," while characterizing its followers as "unclean," "infidels," and/or "immoral." Some of the fatwas also wrongly connect the Faith with Zionism and/or colonialism — buzzwords that seem calculated to incite hatred.

Members of the Academy of Islamic Research of the Al-Azhar University are government appointees, whose salaries come out of the public purse, thus giving these fatwas tacit official approval.

While Bahá'ís cannot presume to know the precise motivation for such attacks, they believe that they stem in large part from the characteristic sense of misunderstanding and fear that often occurs when a new religion emerges from the matrix of a well established orthodoxy. It is a pattern that has been repeated through the ages; virtually all of the world's great religions have faced intense persecution in their early years.

Central to Bahá'í belief is the idea that God has progressively revealed religious truth to humanity through a series of Divine Messengers, each of Whom has founded a great religion.

These Messengers have included Abraham, Krishna, Zoroaster, Moses, Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad; the most recent of such Messengers is Bahá'u'lláh (1817-1892), who lived in Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Palestine.

The idea that there should be new Messengers of God after Muhammad is viewed by many Muslims as heresy. In the Qur'an, Muhammad referred to Himself as the "Seal of the Prophets," and most Muslim scholars interpret this to mean that He would be the last Messenger of God. Many of the Egyptian fatwas make reference to this point — albeit with much irrational vituperation against the Bahá'í view.

Bahá'ís, however, believe that the teachings of Bahá'u'lláh pose no contradiction to Islamic teachings or those of any of the other revealed religions. Bahá'ís understand that Muhammad ended or "sealed" the prophetic cycle. Then, in fulfillment of the promise found in all of the world's religions for a long anticipated era of peace and enlightenment, Bahá'u'lláh brought new teachings suitable for the creation of a peaceful and prosperous global civilization.

Further, Bahá'u'lláh advocated a series of progressive social principles. These include: equality between women and men; the elimination of all forms of prejudice; recognition of the essential oneness of the world's great religions; the elimination of extremes of poverty and wealth; universal education; the independent investigation of truth; the harmony of science and religion; and the establishment of a world federal system, based on collective security and the oneness of humanity.

As well, some fundamentalist Muslims find the progressive nature of these teachings, such as the equality of the sexes and the harmony of science and religion, as antithetical to Islam.

History of the Bahá’í Community of Egypt >