Jordan: No more religion on ID cards

by Gregory Tomlin |

(REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed)A veiled woman shows her face to a policewoman to verify her identity before casting her ballot at a polling station in Amman November 9, 2010. Until now, the ID cards have included the citizen's religion. That is no longer the case, Jordanian officials have announced.

AMMAN, Jordan (Christian Examiner) – It was a small change in policy, but one that could reverberate across the Middle East. Jordan, which leans toward the West, has dropped its citizens' religious affiliation from its national identity cards.

Al Bawaba reports that, instead, the country will issue smart IDs, which can be used as a national identification card (and also an ATM bank card). According to the report, the new cards will contain "digitized information" that can only be read by scanners. That doesn't mean the holder's religion will be unknown though.

That tidbit of data will still be embedded, but it won't be visible to others – especially to Islamic State terrorists who sometimes use ID cards of the people they capture to single out victims.

Jordan has taken a step that Egypt is now debating, as well. In mid-June, supporters of an initiative to remove religion from that country's national ID card gathered the signatures of 60 members of Parliament, enough to have the bill introduced for discussion.

The article in the citizenship bill stated, "The religion field shall be abolished from identification cards and all official documents. No citizen may be compelled to disclose his/her religion unless doing so where necessary to determine the legal premise of matters such as inheritance and marriages."

Supporters of the bill claim the change in Egyptian law will help create a homogeneous society where people see themselves as Egyptian first. Opponents claim maintaining the Muslim identity of Egypt is more important, and the ID card designation contributes to that identity.

In 2009, a group of Baha'i won the right to have their actual religion included on the state ID card in Egypt, which each citizen must obtain at age 16. Prior to that time, the card only listed one of three religions – Muslim, Christian or Jewish.

In Jordan, Marwan Qutaishat, head of the country's passport authority, argued that the presence of the citizen's religion on the card does nothing to advance or demonstrate a faith. He argued for equal protection under the law.

"Religion cannot be expressed with a written word or a beard," Qutaishat said.

There are some opposed to the move in Jordan, claiming it violates the country's constitution, which cites Islam as the national religion. As in Egypt, opponents argue that the religious identification is essential in governing civil transactions, such as marriage.

Little steps like the one Jordan is taking are not without precedent. In 2009, Lebanese nationals were allowed to remove their religious identity from state ID cards. In light of the country's past, marred by civil war, that step was seen as a positive one.