Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Baha'is in Egypt Cannot Go to School

The Koran speaks of "people of the book," meaning "whoever believes in Allah and the Final Day and does good." Specifically, these include Jews, Sabians, and Christians. In Western terms, the people of the book are followers of Islam or the Abrahamic religions that predate it. Traditionally, Moslems treated people of the book with respect and their religions with tolerance.

At various times and in various places, the people of the book have included followers of non-Abrahamic religions. In Iran, only, Zoroastrians also count as people of the book because of their belief in a Creator, and Satan, and a Day of Judgement. Muslim scholars in India sometimes allowed that Hindus were people of the book, as they saw worship of a single God behind the masks of the many gods.

One religion that has never enjoyed the same respect or legal status in Moslem countries is the Baha'i Faith.

This is ironic because the Baha'i beliefs are closer to Islamic ones, in many ways, than either Jewish or Christian ones are. Like Moslems, Baha'is revere the Prophet Moses, the Prophet Jesus, and the Prophet Mohammed. Like the Moslems, they believe the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Koran are holy writ.

Where is the problem, then? First, their religion originated after Islam, in the nineteenth century, so they do not count as a people of the book--but as heretics and apostates who, on that count, should be killed. Second, Baha'is do not regard Mohammed as the final prophet. After him, they say, came the prophet Bahá'u'lláh ("Glory of Allah"), who lived from 1817 to 1892 and founded the Baha'i faith. Worse still, they do not believe that even Bahá'u'lláh is the final prophet: Revelation, they tell us, is an ongoing process. This is an abomination to Moslem beliefs, just as it is to Christian.

I have known a few Baha'is and respected them. They do not proselytize, but may explain their beliefs if asked. In general, they do not meet in public places, but in small groups in people's homes. They promote peaceful relations in the family and the community as part of an effort to promote peace in the world. For example, if a Baha'i wishes to marry but the families do not approve, then the marriage will not take place; the expectation is that the families, who love their children, and want them to be happy, will eventually abandon their opposition. In other words, if Romeo and Juliet were Baha'i, there would have been no tragedy to write about.

The position of Baha'is in Moslem countries is an ongoing disgrace. In Iran, the constitution was written specifically to exclude their faith from legal protection. Their community is targetted, their property is seized or destroyed, they are arbitrarily arrested and detained and, in many cases, they are executed. In Egypt, Bahai'ism has been outlawed since 1960. A bureaucratic loophole in the 1990s meant that Baha'is could not obtain the government identity card they needed to obtain government services, obtain birth certificates, or even vote. (The card had to display the person's religion, but the only religions that could be listed were Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. A compromise was reached in 2009 that lets Baha'is replace the religion's name with a dash).

However, much of the Arab world has experienced a democratizing movement called the Arab Spring. Its effect in each country varies with the demographics and circumstances of the country, but one would expect that the religious freedom of Baha'is would be increased along with the the recognition of other rights and freedoms. Sadly, not necessarily.

The Egyptian Minister of Education recently explained that Baha'is could not attend public schools. His reasoning was this:
“The Constitution only recognizes the three Abrahamic religions,” Ibrahim Ghoneim told Akbar Al-Youm newspaper Saturday. “And as religion is a subject taught in schools, they do not meet the requirements for enrollment.”
Shame on Egypt if this decision stands. The Baha'i Faith is no transitory phase to be ignored until it has passed. Instead it is, by one measure, one of the top three fastest-growing religions in the world:

The five fastest growing religions in terms of relative growth compared to existing size of religion:
1. Zoroastrianism 2.65%
2. Bahá'í 2.28%
3. Islam 2.13%
4. Mandeans 2.12%
5. Sikhism 1.87%

I note, with amazement and respect, that two of the top three religions in that table began in Iran, and the third is Iran's official religion. That country, like Egypt, should treat its children better.

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