CESNUR - center for studies on new religions

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The 2002 CESNUR International Conference

Minority Religions, Social Change, and Freedom of Conscience

Salt Lake City and Provo (Utah), June 20-23, 2002

New religious communities in Egypt
Islam, public order and freedom of belief

Johanna Pink (Ph.D. candidate, University of Bonn)

Many societies reject religious groups which are perceived as new, alien and a threat to traditional religious monopolies. Egypt is no exception to this principle. New religious communities have been met with varying degrees of rejection since they first appeared in Egypt in the second half of the 19th century. The attitude of Egyptian society towards them has been closely interwoven with Egyptian political history, a relationship which I will not possibly be able to explore satisfactorily here. Another shortcoming of the present paper is that it will have to focus on the internationally spread new religious communities present in Egypt, having to neglect heterodox groups which have evolved out of Islamic or Christian subcultures and information on which is scarce and unreliable.

I am going to deal in the following with religious communities that emerged in the 19th century or later, have won natives as members in Egypt from around the year 1900 and who are claimed not to be part of Islam, Christianity and Judaism, which are the three religions recognized in Egypt, by the overwhelming majority of authoritative religious scholars and institutions, sometimes also by the legislator or the courts. This definition is not one primarily based on criteria which distinguish these groups from others, but rather on the response they are likely to elicit. As they don’t fit into the categories of religious movements that are officially recognized, Egyptian society, in which an individual’s religious affiliation plays an important role, is forced to deal with them in some way or other, and it is this way of dealing with them I will discuss.

1. Historical overview

The following is a short outline of the most important new religious communities present in Egypt, the circumstances under which they came to the country and their development and current status.

In the second half of the 19th century, Iranian Baha’i emigrants came to Egypt, as well as European Seventh-Day Adventists who were part of the foreign communities that had formed in Alexandria and, to a lesser extent, in Cairo. Both communities had their first Egyptian converts around 1900. The Adventists mainly recruited their adherents from foreigners (including Greeks, Armenians and the like) and from Upper-Egyptian Copts. However, growth was slow, partly because many converts who benefited from the Adventist educational efforts and learned English emigrated later on. The Baha’is were much more successful than the Adventists because they were attractive to broader segments of society. Baha’i converts came from all three major religions and were mainly based in the cities. They were usually graduates from Western style educational institutions; among the first ones were a judge, a school principal and several clerks in the telegraph office. Their community prospered between the 1920s and the 1940s; they founded institutions, a publishing house for the whole Arab world, purchased land, built a center for their National Spiritual Assembly, opened cemeteries and so forth.

In the 1930s, Indian Ahmadiyya missionaries came to Egypt. The Baha’i community which had been longer established constituted a serious rival for them as both shared the target group of educated Muslims who had an interest in religious reform. The Ahmadis remained quite unsuccessful and seldom drew public attention to themselves.

In the beginning of the 1950s, Jehovah’s Witnesses appeared in Egypt and started their committed missionary work, concentrating in the beginning on small Christian denominations like the Greek churches, later on also addressing the Copts.

For all new religious communities present in Egypt at that time, Nasser’s reign constituted a rupture in their development that came fully into effect around the year 1960. In 1960, the Baha’i communities were dissolved by a presidential decree, and the Watchtower society of Egypt suffered the same fate by a ministerial ordinance. The small Ahmadiyya community was observed by the secret service, their Indian missionaries had to leave and they couldn’t recruit new adherents any more. These measures were due to Nasser’s policy of total government control over religious institutions. Religious communities who seemed too deviant or suspicious to grant them official recognition and incorporate them in the system of state-controlled religious institutions were banned. In this context, the fact that Baha’is and Jehovah’s Witnesses, sometimes also Ahmadiyyah, were suspected of having ties to Zionism plays an important role.

The Adventists had, despite the opposition of the Coptic Church, already gained official recognition as a Christian church, which wasn’t revoked in the Nasser era, but they had to nationalize their charter - since that time they call themselves "Coptic church of Seventh-Day Adventists". They lost their foreign missionaries and functionaries and most of their financial and logistic support from abroad; their growth decreased a lot, their activities diminished, and emigration among their members increased.

Sadat’s infitah or opening policy of the 1970s didn’t particularly ease the situation for the banned and non-recognized communities like Baha’is, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Ahmadis, but it helped the Seventh-Day Adventists, who again received support from their General Conference in the US. It also lead to the emergence of new groups of Western origin like Mormons or Rosicrucians, who were imported by employees of foreign companies or Egyptians who had studied abroad. However, these groups remained very small and largely unnoticed. They received clear signals from the government indicating that their existence would be tolerated as long as they stayed an expat community and didn’t recruit new adherents, even in a passive way. For this reason, those groups still mainly consist of foreigners and have usually less than 100 members. The Ahmadiyya community has about the same size; of their 70 or so members, about half are Egyptians, most of them from a few families. The Egyptian Adventists number a bit less than 1000 in about 20 churches, mostly in Cairo and Upper Egypt. The Baha’i community and the one of Jehovah’s Witnesses probably have several thousand members each; estimates vary considerably.

Judging from their numbers, new religious communities seem to be a marginal phenomenon in Egypt, but they are nevertheless highly significant for evaluating the prevailing attitude towards freedom of religion, especially as the human rights discourse in and on Egypt has up to now tended to be rather one-sided, concentrating on the Copts and leaving aside heterodox communities.

2. Law and Media: The example of Baha’i Faith

After this overview, I would like to discuss two central ways in which Egyptian society responded to the challenge of new religious communities - jurisdiction on the one hand, and the press on the other hand. Due to the shortness of time, I will limit myself to the example of Baha’i faith, which is the one religious community that has evoked by far the most reactions.

a) Jurisdiction

Egyptian courts have been dealing with Baha’i Faith again and again since 1925, when a Sharia Court in Upper Egypt declared the marriage of three male Baha’is with their Muslim wives null and void. Paradoxically, this verdict was hailed as a historical victory by the Baha’is who viewed the Court’s statement that the three Baha’is were apostates as a recognition of their independence from Islam and as an important step of emancipation. Most of the juridical conflicts erupting in the following decades also involved the question of apostasy and of the application of Islamic apostasy laws in matters of family and personal status law and law of inheritance. Practically all of them ended to the Baha’is’ disadvantage. Up to now, the most important precedent has been a decision of the State Council, the highest administrational Court, of 1952. It was published as a book in 1970 and is quite interesting because it extensively discusses the boundaries of religious freedom.

The plaintiff was a Baha’i employee of the state-owned railway services who had been born as a Muslim and embraced Baha’i faith as a youth together with his father. He married a Baha’i woman by concluding a marriage contract that followed Baha’i rites and was witnessed at the Baha’i Local Spiritual Assembly. The couple gave birth to a son. The plaintiff applied for the marriage and family allowances he was entitled to, but his employer, the Egyptian state, didn’t accept his Baha’i marriage contract and as a consequence of the invalid marriage didn’t accept him as the child’s father, whereupon the plaintiff brought an action against the state.

The Court first of all stated that Islam was the religion of the state according to art. 149 of the constitution of 1923. It argued that secular laws were not meant to oppose or replace, but to supplement Islamic sharia and that each law that contradicted the sharia was unconstitutional. The court admitted that art. 12 of the constitution guaranteed freedom of belief, but referred to the history of the constitution for interpreting this provision. The Constituent Assembly had been presented with a British proposal for art. 12 which read "Unlimited freedom of religious belief is guaranteed." However, most members of the Assembly, including the representatives of the Coptic Church, rejected this wording because it protected, in their understanding, apostasy and religions other then the three accepted by Islam and, incidentally, the state. They voted in favour of the wording "Unlimited freedom of belief is guaranteed", omitting the word "religious". The constitution was thus supposed to protect only the adherence to Islam, Christianity and Judaism, a change of denomination or the embracing of Islam and but no other outward manifestations of religious belief. The State Council concluded from this that Baha’i Faith was not included in the constitutional guarantee of freedom of belief.

The court furthermore held that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which had been ratified by Egypt, could not be applied because it was not legally binding, and because most of the other states that had signed it and demanded its application didn’t really keep it either, like the US with their racial discrimination.

Based on these and other arguments, the court dismissed the action.

The Egyptian jurisdiction has until now unanimously followed the State Council’s ruling, with the exception of an advisory statement issued by another department of the State Council, also in 1952, which ruled that the state had no right to discriminate against Baha’is on religious grounds alone; but this ruling was of minor importance and has never been followed later on. Another major ruling of the State Council’s administrative court of 1983 declared the exmatriculation of a Baha’i student from the faculty of education of the University of Alexandria legal, though the formal reasons which had been given for the exmatriculation were invalid, because the student’s adherence to Baha’i Faith made him unsuitable for being a teacher.

Most of the court cases after 1960 were trials of Baha’is who were accused of a violation of Law No. 263/1960, the law that had dissolved their communities and threatened each attempt of continuing their activities with a prison sentence of up to three years. In most cases, the Baha’is were not acquitted, but the charges were dropped for procedural reasons.

In 1971, a constitutional reform established a new Supreme Court that had the right of judicial review of laws. Some of the Baha’is accused of violating Law No. 263/1960 at that time filed a case of judicial review at the Supreme Court asking it to declare the law in question unconstitutional. The Supreme Court’s verdict was passed in 1975.

It rejected the case and maintained the constitutionality of Law No. 263, providing two rules concerning the question of freedom of belief. In the first place, it stated that the law in question didn’t trespass or even touch on the principle of freedom of belief because it didn’t inhibit anyone from being a Baha’i, i.e., believing in the truth of Baha’i Faith. The freedom to exercise one’s religion, however, was a different matter; it was only granted to the three recognized religions. In the second place, the court held that the law in question didn’t violate the principle of equality, because this principle didn’t refer to the indiscriminate equal treatment of all individuals, but only to the equal treatment of those individuals who were comparable with respect to their legal status, e.g. all Muslims or all Baha’is. Of course that raises the question exactly which meaning is left to the protection against religious discrimination guaranteed by the constitution if it is interpreted in this way.

Since the Supreme Court’s verdict of 1975, there has been no important judgement on the question insofar the freedom of religion extends to new religious communities. But one has to wonder if a verdict by the Supreme Constitutional Court, the successor of the Supreme Court, issued in 1992 and concerning another human rights issue, may be of relevance. In this decision, the Court held that the human rights clauses of the constitution had to be interpreted in accordance with those norms generally recognised and applied by democratic states, including international standards applicable in those states, and that the legislature had to take international human rights treaty commitments of the State into account. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights had achieved the status of international acceptance and should therefore be taken into consideration by the judiciary.

Obviously, the Supreme Court has since 1975 overruled its own point of view in human rights issues; but its new standard of interpreting the human rights clauses of the constitution has up to now not been applied to the issue of religious freedom.

In the sphere of international law, the Egyptian government has, in 1982, ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It stated at this occasion that it was conscious of the rules of the Sharia and the fact that those were not in contradiction to the provisions of the Covenant. This statement, however, seems slightly questionable with respect to art. 18 that refers to freedom of conscience and religion. After Egypt had submitted its second report on its compliance with the Covenant, the Human Rights Committee of the Covenant issued concerns about the Copts’ and the Baha’is’ situation. The government’s responsive was evasive and didn’t address the matter of Baha’i Faith at all, which was perceived as unsatisfactory by the Committee.

All in all, in the question of new religous communities, there is an apparent and yet unsolved conflict between an interpretation of the constitution that follows Sharia norms and Egypt’s growing commitment to international Human Rights norms, which is especially manifest in the recent jurisdiction of the Supreme Constitutional Court.

b) The Press

The development of the media’s attitude towards freedom of religion for Baha’is shows parallels to the point of view of legislature and jurisdiction. Before 1950, there were attacks on new religious communities, but those remained mostly confined to the religious press. There were several liberal and secular newspapers who had a positive attitude towards Baha’i Faith, and a lot of other newspapers were neutral and reported about the topic in an objective manner. The Baha’i community had no difficulty in publishing its own point of view on different issues or in presenting itself to the public. From the beginning of the 1950s, the proportion of negative and critical reports began to grow, notably in the non-religious newspapers. The media’s attitude turned to complete rejection around 1960, when the press had been largely nationalized. The arguments for attacks on Baha’i Faith were not purely theological. Even more important was the claim that the Baha’i community was a tool of Israel and tried to promote Zionist interests.

In the past decades, there have been very few exceptions to the general hostility towards Baha’i Faith. One of them is a very sensitive and informed essay of the eminent journalist and writer Anis Mansur that was published in the second biggest daily newspaper, al-Akhbar, and took into account aspects like the beauty of Baha’i religious poetry. In 1985, when a group of about 50 Baha’is was arrested and the media competed in condemning Baha’i Faith, Mustafa Amin, the great old man of Egypt’s liberal journalism, used his column in al-Akhbar to demand the release of the head of the Baha’i community due to his advanced age, and to voice his opinion that freedom of religion was and important human right. Another defender of the principle of religious freedom for Baha’is, and certainly the most outspoken one, was Farag Foda, a renowned secularist, who was murdered by Islamists in 1992. He said in a speech held shortly before his death and later on published in a cultural magazine: "Freedom of belief has no limits according to the Charta of Human Rights, and that means that man has the right to believe what he wants and to change his belief in whatever way and whenever he wants. Such a concept, to such an extent, is inexistent in the Egyptian constitutions and in the view of Egyptians, even the educated ones. The concept prevailing in Egypt publicly, culturally and in the people is that freedom of belief means freedom of true belief and that it’s guaranteed in one direction only, towards Islam. ... Defending the Baha’is doesn’t mean defending their belief, but it means simply defending the principle of freedom of belief as a fundamental pillar of human rights. The majority that belongs to a certain revealed religion doesn’t have the right to set itself up in judgement over the ones who confess their belief in a succeeding religion. Maybe they don’t accept this belief as a religion, but they have to recognize the right of those who believe in it to exercize their religious profession in freedom. The Egyptian point of view towards the Baha’is has nothing in common with this attitude. The Baha’is consider Baha’’i Faith a religion, and we reject this even with respect to them and insist that it’s an Islamic heresy. ... What is really worrying is that many are afraid to talk about this case because it only concerns a limited minority of Egyptians. They forget that what happens to the Baha’is today may happen to others tomorrow, and that the chain that starts with the Baha’is will inevitably end with enlightened Muslims, as long as we continue to understand freedom of belief in its limited religious sense and not in its broader, civilized, human sense." This, however, was an outsider’s position in Egypt when it was first said and it hasn’t ceased to be one.

As said before, the majority of the press was hostile and supported or even encouraged the state to prosecute Baha’is. But what reasons did they give for their claim that Baha’is posed a sufficient threat to society to justify their imprisonment?

First of all, as mentioned above, there is the conviction that Baha’i Faith has strong ties with Zionism and Western Imperialism and is deeply hostile towards Egypt and Islam; the theory goes that they want to undermine religious belief in order to weaken the Muslim World, and that they promote pacifism in order to make Arabs drop their struggle against Israel.

The second argument against Baha’i Faith is that it leads people astray from the path of true religion. Of course, this argument can only make sense if one assumes that it is possible to determine which religion is true and which is not. The criteria, in this case, is Islam, which accepts only Islam, Christianity and Judaism, the latter two as not entirely in line with divine truth, but nevertheless of heavenly origin and thus tolerable. Often, Baha’i Faith is denied the status of a religion at all, as from an Islamic point of view, it isn’t the recipient of a true revelation. There is no parallel to the Western secular anti-cult movement in Egypt; Christians and Muslims only reject groups that their theologians condemn as heresies. Following these Muslim and Christian theologians’ point of view, the media show no interest in finding a neutral definition of religion or in granting citizens the right of deciding themselves what they believe to be true and false.

Journalists and Muslim theologians often explicitly state in the press that most of the people are naive, ignorant, easily seduced and thus in need of protection. One journalist wrote that the state had the duty of protecting the citizens’ souls at least as much as their bodies. It was therefore wrong, he said, to punish aggressors against the true faith less strictly than drug dealers, who are very harshly punished in Egypt.

The most common argument given for the need to prosecute Baha’is, however, was simply that they posed a threat for public order, as one of the basic pillars of Egypt’s public order was Islam, and the state was thus not allowed to tolerate any assault on Islam. In this reasoning, Islam is an unquestionable core value that doesn’t need to be justified or negotiated - much like democracy would be used in Western debates.

3. Current situation and future perspectives

In the years since 1988, when the Baha’is arrested in 1985 were acquitted, the situation of some new religious communities in Egypt has improved a little. The Adventists have in spite of the Coptic church’s fierce opposition obtained the right to conclude marriages, which they had had to delegate to priests of other Protestant denominations before. Jehovah’s Witnesses have cautiously started their missionary work again in the 1990s; arrests of Jehovah’s Witnesses have been unheard of since the end of Nasser’s reign. Still, all new religious communities, and especially Baha’i Faith, are confronted with serious problems in the fields of civil and administrative law. They are observed by the state security service and attacked by the press in regular intervals. The bans on Baha’i communities and the Watchtower society are still in force and will certainly not be lifted in the current situation, where each actual or supposed violation of the laws of Islam leads to public outcries and, sometimes, riots.

Baha’i Faith has remained relatively unharrassed for about 12 years. In the recent two or three years, however, the state has for reasons of internal policy become much more aggressive and oppressive against what it considers, or at least tries to sell to its citizens, as immoral or deviant. In January 2001, a group of about 15 Baha’is were arrested in an Upper Egyptian village. They were accused not on the grounds of Law No. 263, as it had been the case with earlier arrests, but on the grounds of a vague provision of the penal code directed against those who exploit religion in order to sow discord, pose a threat to national unity or deride revealed religions. In Egypt, the state of emergency has been in force without interruptions since 1981, allowing practically unlimited detention by judge’s orders. The Baha’is were only released after months of imprisonment, with no official charges raised. This latest arrest of Egyptian Baha’is, combined with other developments of the past few years, indicates that the short- and medium-term prospects of a change in the prevailing attitude towards new religious communities and their right of freedom of religion are sombre.

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