Egypt: Court Rules Against Convert

Friday, February 1, 2008

Judge: 'He can believe whatever he wants in his heart, but on paper he can’t convert.'

ISTANBUL (Compass Direct News) -- In a blow to religious freedom in Egypt, a Cairo court has ruled against a Muslim convert to Christianity who requested that his religious affiliation be changed.

Judge Muhammad Husseini said in a verdict on Tuesday (January 29) that it was against Islamic law for a Muslim to leave Islam, a legal representative for convert Muhammad Hegazy said.

“He can believe whatever he wants in his heart, but on paper he can’t convert,” Husseini told the administrative court, according to the member of Hegazy’s legal team.

Husseini based his decision on Article II of the Egyptian constitution, which makes Islamic law, or sharia, the source of Egyptian law. The judge said that, according to sharia, Islam is the final and most complete religion and therefore Muslims already practice full freedom of religion and cannot return to an older belief (Christianity or Judaism).

“What happened is a violation of my basic rights,” convert Hegazy told the United States Copts Association following the hearing. “What does the state have to do with the religion I embrace?”

Gamal Eid, head of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) whose lawyers have been representing the convert, said that he was disappointed with the verdict.

“The judge didn’t listen to our defense, and we didn’t even have a chance to talk before the court,” Eid told the US Copts Association.

At a previous hearing, Eid and his legal team had requested that the case be dropped on technical grounds. Hegazy’s initial lawyer, Mamdouh Nakhla, had made several procedural mistakes before death threats from Islamists forced him to withdraw last August.

Eid had hoped to reopen the case after applying to Egypt’s Civil Status Department to change religious affiliations on Hegazy’s official identification. He expected the department to reject the unprecedented request, giving him evidence with which to sue the government.

Despite the ruling, an ANHRI representative said that Hegazy still planned to appeal the decision or open a new case if possible. Hegazy’s wife Zeinab, also a convert from Islam, plans to go to court for her right to register as a Christian as well.

Death threats have forced the couple, who gave birth to a daughter this month, into hiding since the trial hit news headlines in early August.

Though a number of a Muslims convert to Christianity each year, the social stigma of leaving Islam has forced most to conceal their decision. The religious designation Muslim on their official ID compels these converts to lead double lives, marrying under sharia and receiving Islamic religious instruction in school.

Hegazy’s open declaration of conversion last August, the first of its kind in modern Egypt, caused public outcry. Last week, Hegazy’s father told an Egyptian paper that he would kill his son if he did not return to Islam.

“When I see my son, I will give him a chance to return to Islam,” the Muslim told Al-Masry al-Youm last Friday (January 25). If his son refused, he said, “I will kill him with my own hands, I will shed his blood publicly.”

The article repeated claims that Christian organizations had paid Hegazy to convert.

Attempt to Outlaw Conversion

In an attempt to force Egypt to outlaw conversion away from Islam, more than a dozen lawyers, led by Nabih el-Wahsh, filed suit against the government and Egypt’s top religious authority on January 15.

The Islamist lawyers demanded the government institute a punishment for apostasy, forbidden under sharia but not expressly outlawed by Egyptian civil law. In order to prove that the issue presented a threat to Egyptian Islam, El-Wahsh submitted a list of Christians allegedly involved in baptizing Muslims throughout Egypt.

Prominent pastors and Christian human rights workers on the list, which was later published online, told Compass they felt publicly targeted. Egyptian Christians from all denominations told Compass that anyone associated with helping converts may be subject to violent attacks by Islamists.

Islamist lawyers attempted to physically attack Hegazy’s representatives in the courtroom at a January 15 hearing.

In his ruling Tuesday (January 29), Husseini rejected El-Wahsh’s calls for the government to implement a penalty for apostasy, saying that it was irrelevant because Hegazy had not been allowed to convert.

The Right to a Blank ID

A separate ruling by Husseini the same day granted Egypt’s Bahai community a small degree of religious freedom.

Numbering less than 2,000, the religious minority has been consistently denied official ID cards in recent years. The government-issued documents carrying citizens’ religious affiliations are required to conduct basic legal transactions in Egypt.

On Tuesday (January 29) Baha’i citizen Raouf Hendy Halim won the right to place a dash in the space designated for religious affiliation on his 14-year-old twins’ official documents. Halim’s children, Imad and Nancy, had been unable to attend school without official papers, which they could not obtain because they refused to be listed as Jews, Christians or Muslims.

In the same ruling a third Baha’i, Hussein Hosny Bekeit, also won the right to place a dash in the religion section of his official ID. The 19-year-old had been suspended from university two years prior because he had not had an official ID card. He was unable to obtain the document because he refused to be listed under a religion to which he did not belong.

Egypt’s Supreme Administrative Court ruled against Baha’is listing their religion on official documents in December 2006, on the premise that Baha’ism is not one of three “heavenly religions” (Islam, Christianity and Judaism) recognized by Islam.

“The judge was specific in saying that these three individuals would not be forced to put anything in the religion section,” a spokesperson for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) that represented the Baha’is, told Compass. “We hope that this will apply to all Baha’is who request to place a dash on their official documents.”

Halim said that he hoped the Interior Ministry would not decide to appeal the decision, and that the verdict would signal the start of a new era for Egypt’s Baha’is.

It remains to be seen whether converts such as Hegazy who leave one of the three official religions will be allowed to benefit from the ruling by leaving their official documents blank.

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