Egypt: Christian Convert from Islam Jailed

Thursday, October 19, 2006

(Compass Direct News) -- A Muslim sheikh jailed in Egypt for 18 months has declared from his prison cell that he is under arrest for “insulting Islam” by becoming a Christian.

Egypt’s secret police transferred Bahaa el-Din Ahmed Hussein el-Akkad, 57, to the Wadi el-Natroun Prison last month. He was told he would remain there indefinitely unless he agreed to work as a government informer against other converts to Christianity.

According to the prisoner’s Cairo attorney, Athanasius William, his client remains incarcerated in this desert prison “only because he has chosen a different belief, to be a Christian.”

El-Akkad was imprisoned without charges for more than a year after officials of the State Security Investigation (SSI) arrested him in Cairo on April 6, 2005.

Although subjected to repeated interrogations, the former Muslim was never told the specific accusations against him. But several of his cellmates spread rumors that he was converting and baptizing people into Christianity, sparking verbal abuse and at least one severe beating from a fellow prisoner.

When the courts finally ordered El-Akkad’s release from provisional detention 10 weeks ago, SSI authorities deliberately ignored the ruling. Instead, they held him in their Gaber Ibn Hayyan office in Giza and then transferred him to the Wadi el-Natroun Prison, located 60 miles north of Cairo along the highway to Alexandria.

William told Compass it was strictly illegal for the SSI to have re-arrested El-Akkad and jailed him indefinitely “without the orders of a legally authorized official,” as required under Article 280 of the Egyptian penalty laws.

Disillusioned with Islam

In a series of handwritten notes smuggled out of prison in recent months and obtained by Compass, El-Akkad declared that he had “chosen the Christian faith” after years of research on Islam.

For more than 20 years, the former sheikh was a member of the fundamentalist Islamic group Tabligh and Da’wa, which actively proselytized non-Muslims but strictly opposed violence. He also led a mosque community in Al-Haram, in the Giza area adjacent to Cairo. In 1994 he had published, Islam: the Religion, a 500-page book reviewing the traditional beliefs of the Islamic faith.

But he became disillusioned, and five years ago the sheikh said he began to pray that he could somehow know God personally. It was not until January 2005 that he talked for the first time with someone who explained the tenets of the Christian faith to him. He began intensive study of Christian Scripture, and within weeks he became a follower of Jesus.

“This is a proof to all Muslims,” El-Akkad wrote, “that the person who studies the two religions from an objective and serious perspective will choose the Christian approach.”

But within two months, word of El-Akkad’s conversion to Christianity had reached the SSI, and secret police picked him up without warning from his private trade office.

Family Waits in Vain

After six weeks in SSI detention, El-Akkad was sent to Cairo’s Tora Mazraa Prison. When his lawyer, William, finally obtained power of attorney to visit the convert, he was told he was incarcerated under emergency law provisions on suspicion of “committing blasphemy against Islam.”

For the following year, El-Akkad’s detention was renewed every 45 days under emergency law provisions, even though he still had not been formally charged.

But this past July, authorities instituted a new law restricting provisional detention regulations, specifying that the length of provisional detention for a misdemeanor should not, “whatever the circumstances,” exceed six months.

El-Akkad was accused of “insulting a heavenly religion,” a misdemeanor under Article 98-F of the Egyptian penal code. So a Cairo court ordered him released on July 30.

After learning of the court-ordered release, El-Akkad’s wife and three children waited in vain for him to return home. Ten days later, William finally confirmed that although the convert had been released from prison, he remained in SSI custody in Giza.

Desert Prison

By mid-September, authorities transferred El-Akkad to the maximum security Wadi el-Natroun Prison, where the majority of Egyptian Islamists sentenced for anti-government activities are incarcerated.

Notorious for its Spartan conditions in the desert, the prison facility houses its prisoners in small cells measuring one by two meters.

According to William, his client is in weak health from prison, suffering from high blood pressure as well as skin diseases caused by extreme temperatures, unsanitary cell conditions and bites from insects and small reptiles.

“He is locked in a place where he may die because his age, body and mind cannot tolerate this cruelty and stubbornness of the state security authorities,” William said.

The attorney has received no response from a petition he filed to Attorney General Abdel Meguid Mahmoud on September 4 citing serious legal violations in El-Akkad’s case.

Although Egypt’s Christian citizens are free to embrace Islam and obtain legal Muslim identities, Muslim citizens are not allowed to change their religious identity. Those who become Christians are subjected to severe harassment by the SSI, which often arrests converts for either insulting Islam or “threatening national security.”

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