An Egyptian court denied Bahais Saturday the right to state their religion on official documents and described them as pro-Israeli apostates, in a landmark case condemned by rights organisations.
The appeal, seen as a test of religious freedom in the Arab world's most populated country, left Egypt's 2,000-string Bahai community suspended in a constitutional vacuum.
The supreme administrative court ruled against the right of Hossam Ezzat Mussa and his wife, Rania Enayat, to state their religion on official documents.
Judge Sayed Nofal, speaking after reading out the verdict, said "the constitution promotes freedom of belief for the three recognised heavenly religions and they are Islam, Christianity and Judaism.
"As for the Bahais, Islamic jurists have all agreed that the Bahai faith is not one of the three recognised religions," he said.
"Those who belong to this religion are apostates of Islam, because the faith's principles contradict the Islamic religion and all other religions."
The couple had filed the case in 2004. In April this year a lower court ruled in their favour.
In May, however, the decision was suspended by the Supreme Administrative Court pending an appeal by the interior ministry, and the couple's identity cards were confiscated.
Saturday's verdict throws the status of Egypt's Bahai community into limbo, in a country where carrying identity papers at all times is required by law and essential for access to employment, education, medical and financial services.
Without the official ID cards, Bahais cannot apply for jobs, buy property, open bank accounts or register their children in schools. They are also subject to arrest for not carrying valid identity papers.
Human rights organisations condemned the court's decision.
"It's a regrettable decision, but it's a crisis for the government more than for the Bahais," said Hossam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, who has closely monitored the case.
"Now the government is forced to find a solution for the hundreds of citizens who have no papers," he said.
About 20 Bahais attended Saturday's court session with large ID cards hanging around their necks, with the word 'Bahai' written in large letters.
A handful of other people attended the session and broke out into the Islamic chants of "God is Greatest" and "There is no god but God" as soon as the verdict was read out.
Despite the fact that Bahais have been in Egypt for as long as the religion has existed -- 163 years -- most Egyptians had not heard of the religion until the April ruling.
The faith was founded in 19th-century Persia. It promotes the idea of progressive religious revelation, resulting in the acceptance of most of the world's religions.
Under the late president Gamal Abdel Nasser, Bahais were suspected of collaborating with Israel because the faith's highest governing institution is based in Haifa. In 1960, Bahai assemblies and institutions were dissolved.
The Judge in Saturday's hearings reiterated the accusation.
"One of the first goals of the Bahai movement is to maintain their relationship with the occupying powers, which embraces them and protects them," he said.
Of the faith's 12 principles, which include the unity of mankind, the elimination of all forms of prejudice, gender equality and independent investigation of truth, it is obedience to government that is most highlighted in Egypt.
Egyptian Bahais do not join political parties, take part in demonstrations or hold elections for their spiritual assemblies.
"We don't want to cause problems. We just want to exercise our rights as Egyptian citizens," Labib Hanna, professor of engineering at Cairo University recently said.