In applying to a masters program at Cairo University’s Institute for African Studies and Research, Mina Nader was asked to provide his religion, sect and denomination on the application form.
Aside from the form, admission to the institute is determined by a personal interview, which is not graded and issued only a pass or fail decision by the faculty member who interviews the student.
Nader was ultimately denied admission, but, before the results were announced, he had been unofficially notified that he had passed the exam. With this discrepancy, he realized he had been rejected because he was Christian.
“The interview results are based on the subjective, personal evaluation of students, and there are no graded entry exams. I was also surprised to be asked about my religious sect and denomination in addition to my general religion. It felt like a double layer of discrimination,” Nader tells Mada Masr.
Nader presented an official complaint to Cairo University president Gaber Nassar, who subsequently decided to abolish the religion data field on official documents across the university last week.
Requests to identify citizens’ religions on official papers are common practice in Egypt, where one’s religion is officially noted on personal identification cards, birth certificates, university graduation certificates and military service certificates, among other official documents.
Egypt’s Coptic Christians have reported facing discrimination when attempting to access certain jobs in universities, the security sector and the higher echelons of the government. In universities in particular, many Coptic medical students are unofficially banned from joining certain specializations, like gynecology, and others say they cannot easily work as university professors.
In an interview on Wael al-Ebrashy’s “Al-Ashera Masa’an” (10pm), Nassar argued that there is no legal justification to list a student’s religion on university documents. After reviewing the complaints presented to him, Nassar explained that he found that the majority of those rejected from the masters program at the institute had been Christian.
“In principle, when we ask a student to list his religion, sect and denomination, even in the existence of objective evaluation criteria, he or she will feel that there is a level of discrimination,” Nassar said.
Nassar has also issued an order to admit all of the applicants that had been rejected entry to the masters program. But Nader says the problem has not been resolved.
“All of the students went to pay their tuition fees except me, because I know the battle is not over. During the first day of classes last week, the entire group that was admitted based on Nassar’s order was kicked out of the lecture hall,” Nader says.
Nader submitted another complaint to Nassar, who issued a second order to admit the students. Nader has now paid his tuition fees and is waiting for the issuance of his university ID. He only managed to attend his first class on Sunday.
“Such an application form cannot be drafted by university staff. There is a security dimension to the process, because this is a research institute whose graduates work in jobs related to politics. My ID, military service certificate and my university graduation certificate all state that I’m Christian. It’s as if they want to break me and let me know I’m being discriminated against,” he adds.
Nassar’s decision has raised controversy. Minister of Higher Education Ashraf al-Shihy criticized the decision and questioned its effectiveness, denying that there have been instances of religious discrimination against students at Egyptian universities. He said the decision is “causing strife.”
Leader of the ultraconservative Salafi Dawah group Yasser Borhamy accused Nassar of “applying a Western agenda.”
However, Nassar has found support in other sectors. The Engineers Syndicate announced last week that it would no longer list religious information on syndicate documents. Members of Parliament, secular political parties and civil society organizations and groups signed a statement welcoming the decision and calling it a necessary step toward guaranteeing full constitutional rights. The signatories stated the measure should be applied to all official documents, including national IDs.
Researcher in religious freedoms at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) Amr Ezzat explains that, while the practice of including citizens’ religions on official documents is routine, the practice violates one’s right to privacy, especially if it is compulsory.
Nassar’s decision, according to Ezzat, is a productive response to this violation, one that could encourage other institutions to follow.
Ezzat admits that the policy won’t stamp out discrimination entirely, as many Egyptians’ religious backgrounds can be identified by their names. Nonetheless, the policy will still positively affect those who can pass as either Muslim or Christian.
However, the researcher believes that other fundamental changes must be introduced to address religious discrimination. “There is a general belief that Egypt is a state with a Muslim majority, and there is a fixed minority of Christians and Jews. This belief suggests that society never changes, and it never acknowledges that there is freedom of religion and belief. It does not look at religion as something special, something that individuals can change. Further, it does not officially acknowledge the existence of religions other than the three Abrahamic faiths,” Ezzat asserts.
For the status quo to end, he suggests that the state’s entire view needs to be changed, as well as a complete reversal of all laws related to personal status and the construction of houses of worship.