APRIL 3 2009 16:49h

Baha`i Homes Attacked in Egypt Village

A man walks through fire in Cairo.




Police later asked all Baha`is remaining in the mainly Muslim village of Shuraniya to depart for their own safety.

Egyptian villagers attacked the homes of members of the tiny minority Baha'i faith with stones and firebombs in the south of the country this week, driving families to flee for safety, rights groups said on Friday.

Police later asked all Baha'is remaining in the mainly Muslim village of Shuraniya to depart, and no Baha'is were left there by the evening of April 1, a group of six Egyptian rights groups said in a joint statement.

Egyptian police have detained seven people on suspicion of vandalism in the case, security sources said.

"Because the violence was ongoing, police asked them to leave the village for their own protection," Hossam Bahgat, head of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, told Reuters.

"We don't think that Baha'is would be safe if they went back right now," he added. His group was among the six that sent a statement urging the government to prosecute the perpetrators of the attacks, in which no one was hurt.

Many Muslims regard Baha'is, who number between 500 and 2,000 in Egypt, as heretics. Rights activists say Baha'is face systematic discrimination in the conservative Arab country, which does not officially recognise the Baha'i faith. Baha'is, in an important ruling for members of unrecognised religions, last year won the right to obtain government identity papers so long as they omit any reference to their faith. But the faith is still vilified by some media, activists say.

The rights groups said the attacks in Shuraniya, in Sohag province about 400 km (250 miles) south of Cairo and home to around five Baha'i families, began on March 28 when villagers gathered outside Baha'i homes chanting: "There is no god but God, and Baha'is are the enemies of God".


Attackers later pelted the homes with stones, breaking windows, before police dispersed the crowd, the rights groups said. Similar attacks took place over the next two days.

Attackers returned on Tuesday and threw firebombs at the Baha'i homes, damaging them, the rights groups added, citing reports by the families.

The groups said vandals also damaged property and stole electronics and livestock, and Bahgat said he feared anti-Baha'i violence could spread unless prosecutors took action.

"This is certainly a major concern," he said.

Rights groups said recent media incitement was a factor in the violence in Shuraniya, citing televised and printed remarks by a journalist at a state-owned newspaper.

While the Egyptian constitution guarantees freedom of religion, in practice officials are reluctant to acknowledge religions other than Islam, Christianity and Judaism.

Baha'is, whose faith originated in Iran, have sometimes been regarded in the Arab world as disloyal citizens because the faith has its world centre in what is now Israel.

Many analysts say a more likely reason for anti-Baha'i sentiment may be the theological differences with Islam. Baha'is call their faith's 19th-century founder a prophet -- anathema to Muslims who believe Mohammad was God's final messenger.