NDP mulls abolishing religious affiliation field in ID cards

CAIRO: Just over a week after Egyptian Bahais won legal recognition of their right to obtain personal ID cards without having to lie about their faith, media sources report that the ruling National Democratic Party

(NDP) is studying plans to abolish the religious affiliation field on ID cards altogether.

Ali Eddin Helal, secretary general of the NDP’s media committee, is quoted as saying during a seminar earlier this week that there was "general satisfaction" within the party following the March 16, 2009 Supreme Administrative Court ruling which allows Bahais to leave blank the religious affiliation field on cards.

"Some hardliners might refuse this new direction within the NDP, but we will continue on this course in order to bring into effect the principle of citizenship, and in order to allow a culture of equality between all segments of Egyptian society to take root," news agencies quote Helal as saying about the NDP’s study on the abolition of religious affiliation from ID cards.

Without ID cards Egyptian citizens cannot access state services such as education and healthcare, and risk criminal charges if they are unable to produce an ID card upon request by a law enforcement officer.

The necessity of including religious affiliation on ID cards is a long-running debate, both in Egypt and regionally.

In Lebanon, which recognizes 18 religions, the interior minister last month gave citizens the right to remove any reference to their religious affiliation on Civil Registry records, and allow them to insert a slash in the religious affiliation field. Previously Lebanese citizens were required to identify their religion.

Human Rights Watch said in a statement that while the decision was a positive step, "the government needs to take the next step and ensure that all Lebanese can have access to personal status laws that are not religiously-based and provide for equal treatment."

This point is echoed by Hossam Bahgat, director the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) which represented Egyptian Bahais during their legal fight against the interior ministry.

Currently, family laws governing matters such as marriage, divorce and inheritance are faith-based and ineluctable.

Bahgat points out that, unless it is accompanied by wider changes to Egyptian legislation, abolishment of the religious affiliation field on ID cards will not in itself grant Egyptians the freedom to make life decisions without interference by the state in their private lives.

"Removing religious affiliation from ID cards is a positive step that would send an important message that state officials are and must be neutral vis-à-vis the private convictions of citizens in the daily exercise of their rights and duties," Bahgat told Daily News Egypt.

"Such an important step, however, would only remain symbolic if it was not coupled with the creation of an optional family law system that enables citizens who choose to keep their convictions private to exercise their right to marry and found a family. This is a state obligation that does not require replacing or abolishing the existing faith-based personal status laws for Muslims and Christians."

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