Egypt: Fighting discrimination will need “a lot more than taking religion off ID cards”


Date:                       November 29, 2018


Coptic Christians traditionally have a tattoo of a cross on their wrists to demark their religious affiliation. (Photo: Open Doors International
Coptic Christians traditionally have a tattoo of a cross on their wrists to show their religious affiliation besides marking it on their ID cards. (Photo: Open Doors International)

The Egyptian Parliament will soon look into removing religious affiliation from ID cards, Al-Monitor reported last week.

The proposed bill will be submitted to the parliament by Ismail Nasr El-Din, to “pave the way for a civil state that respects the values of citizenship”, according to the website Cairo Scene.

The legislator said his initiative was prompted by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s recent speech to a youth conference he organized in Egypt on 3-6 November. Sisi told the international gathering that “every citizen has the right to worship as he or she pleases and the right not to worship at all”.

The bill has been seen by some analysts as an attempt by the state to assuage Coptic Christians, who comprise about 10 percent of Egypt’s population and accuse the government of failing to protect them following the recent attack on a group of Copts on the desert road to a monastery in the Minya province south of Cairo.

Passage of the bill would be “symbolic”, said Samuel Tadros, a senior fellow at the U.S.-based Hudson Institute’s Centre for Religious Freedom, “as it is easy to tell a person’s religion by his or her name, even if the religion box is deleted”. Coptic Christians traditionally have a tattoo of a cross on their wrists to demark their religious affiliation. They often name their children after Christian saints.

Activists who have been campaigning for the removal of the “divisive” and “discriminatory” religion box from ID cards welcomed the bill but are sceptical about its passage. Similar previous attempts went nowhere.

Bahey Hassan, director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, described the bill as “cosmetic” and “an attempt by the state to whitewash institutionalised discrimination against Christians”.

“The discrimination faced by Coptic Christians is not because their religion is mentioned on their ID cards, it is because they are Christians,” Hassan told Al-Monitor.

As examples of discrimination, Hassan mentioned the legal restrictions on the construction or renovation of churches and high-level government and army positions being denied to Christians.

Another analyst, Timothy Kaldas, a nonresident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, criticised the use of informal community-level reconciliation sessions that take place between Christians and Muslims following attacks on Copts.

“The state’s tendency to try and resolve these issues at traditional arbitration gatherings as opposed to legal trials for the perpetrators, creates an environment of impunity that encourages more people to commit acts of violence against the Coptic Christian community,” he said.

Mina Thabet, director of the minorities programme at the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, also said changes to ID cards will mean little if deeper issues of discrimination are not addressed. Still, she said, the proposed ID change is “a first step in the right direction. The legislation would send a message discouraging further discrimination, at least at the societal level.”

Previously, a similar bill has been rejected by the parliament because of the concerns that it would open the door to interfaith marriages between Muslims and Christians.

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