JERUSALEM, December 10, 2018. (Morning Star News) â€“ A wan effort to do away with the religious designation on ID cards in Egypt reflects the enormity of the discrimination Christians face in a country regarded as a leader of Middle Eastern Islam, rights advocates said.
ID cards are required for almost every aspect of public life in Egypt, and a Christian designation can cause problems for the approximately 10 percent of the population at police stops, checkpoints, hospitals and workplaces. Christianity, Islam and Judaism are the only three religion options on the ID cards.
"Whenever there is a situation that requires showing your ID ... you would be categorized right away," Sherif Azer, head of policy for the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, told Morning Star News.
A bill calling for the elimination of the religious designation on ID cards quickly died in committee on Nov. 14, Azer said. Committee members in the constitutional and legislative committee as well as the religion affairs committee determined that the bill did not meet the requirements for law â€“ an apparent smokescreen, Azer said, for the real reasons for the rejection.
As in previous efforts to end the designation, Azer said, the main reason the bill died was that doing away with the religious designation could allow a Christian man to marry a Muslim woman. That is illegal in Egypt, as children follow the religion of the father.
"This is something no ... conservative or even moderate Muslim would accept," Azer said. "They would never say it specifically, but they would say it in the context that taking off the religion from the ID would cause chaos and would cause some social problems and will bring issues that we are not willing to face."
Arguments against the bill included the irrelevant, such as the assertion that religion does not contradict the values of citizenship, and that the ID doesn't prevent anyone from practicing a specific religion. Some arguments veered into the absurd.
"They said other silly stuff, saying, 'Instead of taking out religion, maybe we should add important things to the ID like blood-type," Azer said. "They tried to distract from the main issue."
Opponents of the bill claimed that chaos would ensue without the ID card religious designation, such as families of Christians and Muslims burying their deceased loved ones in the graveyard of the wrong religion.
"There is no way that families would be confused," Azer said.
While advocates hoped the bill, introduced by Member of Parliament Ismail Nasreddin, would reduce discrimination in public life for the Christian minority, proponents say that it represented a piecemeal solution at best in the absence of foreseeable reform that would promote true equality for Christians and other non-Islamic groups.
"You need to have a government that would have a proper vision of a society based on citizenship, equality and human rights, but I don't think this current regime has any idea of what that would be like," Azer told Morning Star News. "So they act randomly."
Campaigns have pushed to remove religion on ID for years, Azer said, including a Facebook campaign in 2013 in which people posted pictures of their IDs with the religion covered.
"But it's not going anywhere," he said. "They are not going to let something like this happen, ever."
Timothy Kaldas, nonresident fellow at the Tahir Institute for Middle East Policy, agreed, saying the issue is largely symbolic.
"This proposal comes up frequently, and nothing ever comes of it," Kaldas said. "In general, reforms surrounding religion in Egypt are pretty hard to pass, and even when they do ... it is often too little, if any effect."
The state would continue to keep records of citizen's religion even if the line was removed on the ID cards, Kaldas said, and civil affairs like divorce and marriage would also continue to be determined by one's religion. Apart from any public records, Kaldas added, Christians in Egypt often have identifiably Christian names.
"Your personal status would continue to be governed by your religious affiliation," Kaldas said.
Religion is also often required on forms for organizations like sports clubs and universities, according to Ishak Ibrahim, a human rights researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.
"There is a great need for a commission to stand up against and prevent religious discrimination and help victims of discrimination in all its forms," Ibrahim said.
The Coptic Church itself advocates, to some extent, for identification by religion, Kaldas said.
"The view of the church is that if you're a member of the Coptic community, your personal status law should be governed by church law," Kaldas said.
Churches also use ID as a safety measure, particularly after attacks, Kaldas said, when a church might check the ID of those entering the building to make sure they are Christian.
Christians in Egypt and elsewhere face greater challenges than the ID card issue, he said. In Egypt they face discriminatory laws in building and maintaining houses of worship, which give Muslims a pretext to attack the structures, Kaldas said.
The attackers are not properly prosecuted under the law, he added, but rather the matters go to informal "reconciliation" meetings in which community elders gather to discuss a compromise â€“ usually ending in Christians losing their worship rights.
"So it creates this air of impunity around attacking churches," Kaldas said.
A church building law passed in 2016 with the hope that it would bring some equality to Christians, but in the end, it was badly written, implemented poorly and therefore perpetuated many of the discriminatory policies, he said.
The ineffective law is just another example of unmet promises from the government regarding equality, Azer said.
"In practice it is just sweet talk, and there is nothing on the ground happening," Azer said.
Although the Egyptian constitution guarantees freedom of expression and belief, security agents from the Ministry of the Interior routinely harass and arrest converts who are suspected of leaving Islam.
In 2016, during Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, Al-Azhar Mosque's Grand Imam Ahmed el-Tayyib, arguably the most respected Islamic scholar in the world, said during a daily TV program that leaving Islam was "treason" and that apostates should be executed.
"The penalty for an open apostate, departing from the community, is well stipulated in sharia," El-Tayyib said. "An apostate must be pressed upon to repent within a variable period of time or be killed."
A Nov. 2 terrorist attack in which 9 Christians were killed by Islamic militants on their way to a monastery underlined for Christians the lack of protections they receive from the government, Azer said.
"It happened exactly the same way the year before, almost at the same place," Azer said of the attack.
Another problem, according to Kaldas, is the lack of representation of Christians in government positions. While Christians serve in parliament and other government offices, important ministry positions, such as in the defense, interior, production and foreign ministries, never go to Egyptian Christians, he said.
"In terms of political power, their [Christian] access is quite limited, and that has been the case for decades," Kaldas said.
People of all religions, he added, are growing disillusioned with the regime due to economic challenges, inflation and a lack of due process. A working-class Coptic Christian, Kaldas said, has more in common with a working-class Muslim than with a wealthy Christian, so good reforms would address both economic and religious inequality.
"Fundamentally most of the problems Christians face in Egypt are the problems all Egyptians face in Egypt," Kaldas said. "Their lived experiences are not that different than most Egyptians."
True equality for Christians would come down to the second article of the constitution, which states that sharia (Islamic law) is the source of legislation in Egypt, Azer said.
"If your dream is a secular state with real citizenship, this is the first thing that you would go for as a drastic change in legislation," Azer said.
Kaldas agreed, adding that so far the constitution only recognizes the "people of the book," who ascribe to Islam, Judaism and Christianity, while the non-religious and adherents of other religions like the Baha'i must forego an ID altogether or concede to identify with one of the approved religions.
"A much more fundamental improvement for everyone would be for the state to get out of the business of regulating citizens based on religion," Kaldas said. "This is a pipe dream for me at this point."