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A visitor walking among the fruit trees and marble columns of the Bahai World Center in Haifa would never know from these tranquil surroundings that the world community of Baha'is is experiencing shock waves. The supreme administrative court in Egypt ruled last Saturday that Egyptian Baha'is may not register in the population registry as members of that faith. From now on they will have to register as Muslims, Christians or Jews. As a result of the ruling, Egyptian human rights groups are demanding that the religion category be removed from Egyptian identity cards.

The decision, which overturned the ruling of a lower court, was handed down against Husam Izat Mohammed Musa, whose petition came after the Egyptian Interior Ministry refused to register him and his family as Baha'is.

According to Albert Lincoln, the secretary general of the World Baha'i Center in Haifa, the decision means that the Egyptian Baha'is will no longer receive documents from the state or basic services unless they declare themselves members of a faith in which they do not believe.

This week, the Arabic daily Asharq Alawsat interviewed a spokesman of a human rights center in Cairo who stated that, in Egypt, there is a trend toward a religious and security takeover of the faiths and consciences of citizens.

The Baha'i faith was founded in the 19th century in Iran. The leader of the faith, who became known as Baha'u'llah, called for unity of all peoples. Lincoln says Baha'is believe in one God, the prophets and the three holy books.

An estimated 2,000 Baha'is live in Egypt, whose population is largely Sunni Muslim (90 percent). The Baha'is say that, in Iran and Egypt, they are being persecuted for their faith, while authorities in other Arab nations ask the Baha'is to maintain a low profile.

Lincoln said he was not surprised at the court ruling. "As far back as 1960, during the time of Nasser, the authorities broke up the Baha'i institutions in the country and prohibited its religious activities and education," he said, adding that Egyptian Muslims see the Baha'is as infidels. They are also suspected of collaboration with "imperialistic forces" especially with Zionism, apparently because of the location of their world center in Israel.

Lincoln points out that the Baha'is settled here for historical reasons before the establishment of the state and keep out of politics. He says Egyptian clerical opposition stems from the fact that the faith attracts young people and calls for gender equality.

The Baha'is and human rights organizations have approached Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to change the ruling, and to the former secretary general of the United Nations, Boutrus Boutrus-Ghali, who is head of Egypt's government-appointed Citizens Rights Council. The Baha'i World Center pins its hopes on Egyptian human rights organizations.