Egypt’s Administrative Court has accepted a case filed by Naguib Gabrail, head of the Egyptian Union for Human Rights, that the religion identification box should be removed from national ID cards.
The court decided on 25 October to refer the case to the State Commissioner’s Authority for expert legal advice after Mr Gabrail argued that citing a person’s religion on national ID cards is often exploited as a means of religion-based discrimination.
The decision represents a step towards ending the practice of citing religious affiliation on ID cards.
The 2020 Report on International Religious Freedom published by the US State Department argued that the use of “religious designations” on ID cards has “enabled religious discrimination”.
Christian commentator Youssef Sidhom has previously observed that the practice contradicts the principles of Egypt's constitution that state “freedom of belief is absolute” and that all citizens are equal before the law. Sidhom also said that, although the removal of the religion box will not put an end to persistent religious discrimination, it will be a bold step in the right direction.
Previous attempts in 2016 and 2018 to pass legislation removing the religion box were shelved following stiff resistance. In 2018 MP Ismail Nasreddin presented a bill to parliament, stating it was time to remove all forms of religious discrimination. He said that he took his cue from statements made by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi that “every citizen has the right to worship as he or she pleases and the right not to worship at all”.
Opponents argued that removal contradicts Article 2 of the constitution, which states that the principles of sharia are the principal source of legislation. They also claimed that it could pave the way for interfaith marriages between Christian men and Muslim women, which are forbidden by sharia.
The Egyptian constitution names Islam as the religion of state and officially acknowledges Christianity and Judaism. Christians, who make up 10% of the population, still face pressure and hostility from local communities, especially in rural areas; however, they say that their situation in the Muslim-majority country is now better than it has been in living memory.
President al-Sisi has been quick to give verbal and practical support to Christians whenever anti-Christian incidents occur. His government is steadily working to legalise churches following the repeal of Ottoman-era restrictions in September 2016 and has approved the introduction of teaching about Christianity and Judaism as part of religious education in schools.