Religious ID cards in Egypt

Reading the Gulf News on a flight to Dubai, I found the following article, “Religious ID cards spark row in Egypt”, of particular interest. The Christian population say that it promotes a sectarian culture.

Sectarian designations in the Northern Ireland Assembly are bad enough. I’m surprised some clever bigot hasn’t come up with the idea for us to carry our ‘communal backgrounds’ on ID cards in Northern Ireland.

Then again, it doesn’t matter if you record on your job application, “Neither of a Catholic or Protestant background”, as it is perfectly legal for the Equality Commission to re-categorise you, according to where you went to school, your surname, where you live. Those responsible for compiling the 2001 NI Census had no qualms of recategorsing 150,000+ of us.

Come to think of it, this covert method of categorising us is more insidious and dangerous, than the naked sectarianism of religiouis ID cards. It hides a sectarian public policy from those it affects, and doesn’t provoke public animosity.

This bad law influences how public money is spent, and actually increases the costs of segregation. Instead of trying to discover how services such as leisure centres and social security agencies could be provided more efficiently, the drug-like fix of pigeon-holing everyone into two boxes enforces segregation and inflates waste.

Back to the case in Egypt, a government official said that the religious marker on its ID cards ‘is a measure taken for administrative and legal reasons, which do not infringe on holders’ civic rights’. Yeah, I’ve heard that reason provided in the case of Northern Ireland, too. It misses the point that for those who do not want to be categorised along sectarian lines (like those from mixed marriages, for example), the civic rights’ holder has no choice: the state will determine the fixed, singular communal identity it wishes. This is the opposite of a human rights culture that protects the rights of the individual, and it has dire consequences for policy making.

Religious ID cards spark row in Egypt

By Ramadan Al Sherbini, Special to Gulf News

Cairo: For Jamal Assad, an Egyptian Christian writer, there is no justification for referring to religion in ID cards or other official documents.

“Keeping this reference promotes sectarian culture and behaviour, which contradict the Egyptian constitution, which makes no distinction between Muslims and Copts,” he said.

Last month, angry Copts staged a sit-in in Cairo’s main cathedral to protest what they alleged Muslims’ abduction and coercion of a priest’s wife into converting to Islam.

Head of Egypt’s Coptic Church Pope Shenouda retreated into a monastery to draw attention to what one aide called Christians’ grievances. He ended his seclusion after the priest’s wife was handed over to the Church.

In the wake of the crisis, the authorities were appealed to drop references to religions in IDs. “Acting upon this suggestion means tearing society up,” warned Manae Mahmoud Abdul Helim of the Islamic Theology Faculty in Cairo.

“Islam lays down certain rules for marriage, divorce and inheritance. So not mentioning religion in official documents will yield confusion,” he told Gulf News. “This will be unfair to both Muslims and Christians.”

Helim denies that a reference to religion in IDs is a discriminatory practice. “Every faith has its particulars. Besides, rights and obligations of Muslims and Christians are already enshrined.”

There is no official word yet on the suggestion.

Christians make up five to 10 million of Egypt’s 70 million. Officials and state-owned media shy away from using the term minority in referring to Christians. Still, some Christians complain about alleged restrictions on building churches and holding posts in the government.

Occupying posts in Egypt is not determined on religious grounds,” said Fouad Allam, an ex-security chief.

“There are no curbs on Copts taking up any job. For example, there are a large number of Coptic judges at the Court of Cassation,” he told independent newspaper Nahdet Misr.

Allam maintained that referring to religion in IDs is a measure taken for administrative and legal reasons, which do not infringe on holders’ civic rights.

Upholding the suggested abolition, Najuib Gabrielle, the Coptic president of the Egyptian Union for Human Rights Organisation, argues: “This reference is one aspect of discrimination. Egypt was in the forefront of countries which signed the Universal Declaration for Human Rights. Scrapping this designation will be in line with this declaration and the Egyptian constitution.”

Coptic researcher Kamal Mousa begs to differ. “Until now this reference has not caused problems,” he said, adding there are more important issues to address such as promoting awareness of citizenship rights and tolerance.

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