The Constitutional Declaration of March 2011 and the new constitution ratified on December 22 provide for some freedom of religion, but certain constitutional provisions, laws, and government policies limit that freedom. The new constitution states that “freedom of belief is an inviolable right,” but requires the government to protect the right to practice religious rites and establish places of worship only for adherents of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. It also makes these rights conditional by adding the ambiguous clause, “as regulated by law.” By implication, followers of other religious groups, including Bahais and Christian churches the government does not recognize, are precluded from applying their own religious laws and restricted from building places of worship. Critics also claim that some provisions of the new constitution are ambiguous about the interpretation and application of Sharia, and could be used to limit religious freedom. Some laws, policies, and court rulings also limit freedom of religion. Discrimination in government and private hiring remains widespread, even though the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) issued a decree in 2011 to amend provisions of the penal code to explicitly prohibit religious and other forms of discrimination.
Like the 1971 constitution and 2011 Constitutional Declaration, Article 2 of the new constitution stipulates that Islam is the state religion and the principles of Sharia are the primary source of legislation. Article 219 of the new constitution broadly defines the principles of Sharia to encompass all attestations and precepts found within Sunni schools of Islamic jurisprudence, and Article 4 states that the opinion of Al Azhar University’s Senior Scholars Committee “shall be taken on matters pertaining to Islamic Sharia.” Liberals and Christians criticize these provisions for being overly vague, leaving room for future interpretation that could be either benign or harmful to religious freedom, depending on the views of those leading the government or Al Azhar.
The 2012 constitution stipulates that the country’s political system is based on the principles of democracy, shura (consultation), and citizenship, and prohibits the formation of political parties that discriminate on the basis of gender, origin, or religion.
Article 44 of the 2012 constitution prohibits offending or criticizing prophets and messengers, and the penal code sets out the associated criminal penalties, including a minimum of six months and a maximum of five years’ imprisonment for citizens who promulgate “extremist thoughts with the aim of inciting strife, demeaning or defaming any of the heavenly religions, or inflicting damage to the national unity.”
The government interprets Sharia as forbidding Muslims from converting to another religion despite there being no statutory prohibitions on conversion. This policy, along with the refusal of local officials to recognize such conversions legally, constitutes a prohibition in practice.
Neither the constitution nor the civil and penal codes prohibit proselytizing, and the government generally tolerates foreign religious workers on condition that they do not proselytize Muslims. Non-Muslim minorities and foreign religious workers generally refrain from proselytizing to avoid legal penalties, such as for disrupting social cohesion, and extra-legal repercussions from authorities and local Islamists.
The constitution permits Christians and Jews to refer to their religious laws in matters pertaining to personal status issues, religious practices, and the selection of their spiritual leaders. In family law, the government only recognizes the legal principles of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. When family law disputes involve a marriage between a Christian woman and a Muslim man, courts apply Islamic law. The government recognizes only the marriages of Christians, Jews, and Muslims. Non-Muslim men must convert to Islam to marry Muslim women, although non-Muslim women need not convert to marry Muslim men. A non-Muslim woman who converts to Islam, however, must divorce if her husband is not Muslim and he is unwilling to convert. Custody of children is then awarded to the mother.
Both Islamic and Coptic Orthodox religious laws prevent Coptic men and Muslim women from marrying each other and prevent a marriage outside the country between such individuals from being legally recognized.
The law provides for “khul” divorce, which allows a Muslim woman to obtain a divorce without her husband’s consent provided that she is willing to forgo all of her financial rights, including alimony, dowry, and other benefits.
Muslim female heirs receive half the amount of a male heir’s inheritance. Christian widows of Muslims have no automatic inheritance rights, but may be provided for in testamentary documents. Converts from Islam to Christianity lose all rights of inheritance. Because the government offers no legal means for such converts to amend their civil records to reflect their new religious status, apart from the recent exception for reconverts, a convert’s loss of inheritance rights may not be indicated on civil documents.
The minor children of Muslim converts to Christianity, and in some cases adult children who were minors when their parents converted, may automatically remain classified as Muslims because the government does not recognize conversion from Islam. This is true irrespective of the religion of the other parent.
The Ministry of Education bans the hijab (Islamic headscarf) in primary schools and only allows it in preparatory and secondary schools upon written request from a girl’s parent.
Various ministries may obtain court orders to ban or confiscate books and works of art. The Council of Ministers may ban works it deems offensive to public morals, detrimental to religion, or likely to cause a breach of the peace. The Islamic Research Center of Al Azhar has the legal authority to censor and confiscate any publications dealing with the Quran and the authoritative Islamic traditions (Hadith), and to confiscate publications, tapes, speeches, and artistic materials deemed inconsistent with Islamic law.
The Ministry of Islamic Endowments (Awqaf) is required to license all mosques; however, many operate without licenses. The government in theory appoints and pays the salaries of all the imams who lead prayers in licensed mosques and monitors their sermons, but government control over mosques decreased after the 2011 revolution. The government does not compensate Christian clergy.
The constitution guarantees the freedom to establish places of worship for the “three divine religions,”--Islam, Christianity, and Judaism--but subjects that right to unspecified regulation by stating “in accordance with the law.” Non-Muslims must obtain a presidential decree to build new churches and synagogues, but can undertake basic repairs and maintenance with written notification to local authorities. The president delegated the authority to permit Christian denominations to expand or rebuild existing churches to the country’s 26 governors. Governors must examine all applications and their supporting documentation within 30 days. A Ministry of Interior (MOI) decree issued in the 1930s and still generally followed specifies a set of 10 conditions that the government must consider, including that a church may be no closer than 100 meters (340 feet) from an existing mosque and that churches in Muslim-majority neighborhoods need local approval, before forwarding an application to the president for a decree for construction of a new church.
To obtain official recognition a religious group must submit a request to the MOI’s Religious Affairs Department. The department then determines whether the group would, in its view, pose a threat or upset national unity or social peace. As part of this determination, the department consults leading religious institutions, including the Coptic Orthodox Church and Al Azhar. The registration is then referred to the president for decision. If a religious group fails to obtain official registration, its members potentially face detention and prosecution for harming social cohesion or, under article 98(f) of the Penal Code, for denigrating religions.
Only Islam, Christianity, or Judaism may be indicated in the religion field of government-issued national identity cards. However, Muslim-born citizens who convert from Islam may not change that field. After a lengthy court battle in 2009, members of the Bahai community are able to obtain identity cards with a “dash” in the religion field, but their marriages are not recognized or listed on the identity cards. Since 2011 Christians who convert to Islam and then back to Christianity may amend their national identification cards to reflect their chosen faith.
The law does not recognize the Bahai Faith and bans Bahai institutions and community activities. Bahais are able, however, to privately worship and engage in celebrations such as Naw-Ruz, the Bahai New Year. The lack of formal recognition for the Bahai Faith is an obstacle in registering marriages and inheritance. Whereas Muslims and Christians follow Sharia or their respective church laws for personal status issues, including marriage, the state does not recognize Bahai religious law, and there is no recourse to civil law for personal status issues. Married Bahais who choose not to accept identity cards showing their marital status as single report difficulty opening bank accounts and establishing businesses.
The quasi-governmental National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) is charged with strengthening protections, raising awareness, and ensuring the observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms, including religious freedom. It is also charged with monitoring enforcement and application of international agreements.
The government observes the following religious holidays as national holidays: Mawlid al-Nabi (the birth of the Prophet Muhammad), Eid Al-Fitr, Eid Al-Adha, the Islamic New Year, and Coptic Christmas (January 7).