Another crazy court case

Mohammad Abdul Fatah, a 73-year-old Egyptian Muslim, has been awarded custody of his seven-year-old grandson because the boy’s parents changed their religion.

Following the parents’ conversion to the Baha’i faith, the grandfather sought advice from Egypt’s Grand Mufti, Gulf News says.

"He advised me to consider my daughter dead, and to file a lawsuit to demand the guardianship of my grandchild," Abdul Fatah is quoted as saying.

The boy and his parents are thought to be living abroad, possibly in Australia, but Abdul Fatah wants Interpol to find the child and bring him back to Egypt. Although that is unlikely to happen, the court’s ruling is a blow against religious freedom at a time when there had been signs of some improvement.

Last March, Egyptian Baha’is won a five-year legal battle when the supreme administrative court ruled that the "religion" section on national identity cards could be left blank.

Up to that point the authorities had been refusing to issue the new computerised cards unless applicants declared themselves as belonging to one of the three "heavenly" religions: Islam, Christianity or Judaism. The result was to turn Baha’is into non-citizens. Without ID cards they were unable to work legally, study beyond secondary school, vote, operate a bank account, obtain a driver's licence, buy and sell property, collect a pension, or travel.

The Baha'i faith originated in Iran during the 19th century and by the early 20th century also had a flourishing community in Egypt (it has since dwindled to around 2,000). In the 1960s, President Nasser issued a decree which, in effect, withdrew state recognition from the Baha'i community and confiscated their property.

Nasser's decree was reaffirmed by the supreme court in 1975 in a ruling which said that only the three "revealed" religions were protected by the constitution: the Baha'is were entitled to their beliefs but practice of the Baha'i faith was a "threat to public order" and therefore fell outside the constitutional protection for freedom of religion.

The issue of religious minorities in Egypt is discussed more fully in 
Prohibited Identities: State Interference with Religious Freedom(Human Rights Watch, 2007).

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 10 August 2009