Egypt: Tempers Flare into Melee at Convert's Hearing

Monday, January 28, 2008

Upcoming ruling to set legal precedent for freedom to change religious affiliation.

Hot Tempers during Hegazy hearing

ISTANBUL (Compass Direct News) -- An Egyptian judge is scheduled to rule next week on the case of a Muslim-born convert to Christianity whose court hearing threatened to turn into a brawl earlier this month, the convert’s lawyer said.

Next Tuesday (January 29) Judge Muhammad Husseini is expected to decide whether to allow former Muslim Mohammed Ahmed Hegazy to drop his case to change his religious affiliation in order to correct certain legal mistakes, lawyer Gamal Eid said.

The conservative judge also is expected to rule on a range of religious freedom issues, according to Eid. Among other things, Husseini will decide on a case by Islamists to force the government to implement a legal punishment for “apostasy,” or conversion away from Islam.

Hegazy has aroused widespread criticism in Egypt as the first known Muslim-born convert to Christianity to petition the government to change his religious affiliation.

The convert’s January 15 hearing, which he did not attend due to death threats, became heated after Islamist lawyers charged the government with doing too little to stop Christian evangelization. One lawyer told the court that Christian priests in every Egyptian city were baptizing Muslims and paying each convert 100,000 Egyptian pounds (US$18,212).

Led by Wahid el-Wahsh, the Islamists filed a complaint with judge Muhammad el-Shazly against the government and Al-Azhar’s Grand Imam, Egypt’s top religious authority. The lawyers demanded that authorities outlaw “apostasy,” based on Article 2 of Egypt’s constitution, which designates Islamic law as the basis of Egyptian legislation.

In July, top Al-Azhar cleric Ali Gomaa made a controversial statement that “apostasy” only merited punishment in the afterlife. He later clarified that “apostates” could be punished on earth if they were “actively engaged in the subversion of society.”

Many mainstream Egyptian interpretations of Islamic law dictate that “apostasy” warrants death.

Tensions mounted when Christian human rights lawyer Naguib Gabriel requested to join the case to fight against the Islamists’ demands that “apostasy” be outlawed. He told Compass that he was not planning to represent Hegazy, but rather to join the side of the government to fight for freedom of religion.

The hearing was cut short when at least 15 Islamist lawyers tried to attack Hegazy’s attorneys. The convert’s representatives escaped the courtroom unharmed, but the trial was postponed to the following week.

“They were shouting at Rawda [Ahmad] and tried to beat the other lawyer [Adel Rafie],” Eid said. “They were very angry because they think this kind of case is against Islam.”

Eid said that his organization, the Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), had decided not to lodge an official complaint against the rowdy lawyers, fearing that it would play into their attempts to grab media attention.

“Some of them are Islamists, and some of them are just looking for fame,” Eid said.

Appeal to Drop Case

At the following hearing on Tuesday (January 22), Eid requested that Hegazy’s case be dropped because of technical mistakes made by the convert’s previous lawyer, Mamdouh Nakhla. Nakhla withdrew as Hegazy’s attorney just days after filing the case in August because of death threats from Islamists and Egypt’s security police.

Eid said that dropping the case would give his client time to file a request with Egypt’s Civil Status Department to change his religious affiliation. Once refused, the convert would then have evidence with which to pursue his case against the Egyptian government.

Following Eid’s request, a lawyer representing the government against Hegazy also agreed to allow the case to drop, prompting Husseini to promise a decision by next Tuesday (January 29).

Eid said that the hearing last Tuesday (January 22) was relatively peaceful, though El-Badyl newspaper reported the following day that Islamist lawyer Nabih el-Wahsh had again raised the issue of Christians evangelizing Muslims.

“[El-Wahsh] presented a file to the judges including a list of names and locations for what he called the ‘mafia of evangelizing and baptizing’ in Egypt,” the article stated.

Converting for Non-Religious Reasons

Another group potentially affected by Husseini’s upcoming ruling may be Christians who have become Muslims and then wish to return to their original faith.

Between 2004 and April 2007, 32 such converts had won the right to re-convert. For many of them the move to Islam had been motivated by the desire to obtain a divorce, remarry, or marry a Muslim.

Egyptian Christian family law forbids divorce and remarriage, while Islamic law bans marriage between a Christian man and a Muslim woman.

Such “re-conversions” were brought to a halt in April 2007, when Husseini ruled against another 45 converts to Islam who were seeking to return to Christianity. The outcome of their appeal is still uncertain.

A new ruling from Egypt’s religious body may influence Husseini’s upcoming verdict. Al Azhar issued a fatwa, or religious edict, calling for tough penalties against people who convert to Islam for non-religious reasons, according to a January 20 news report.

News website reported that the fatwa condemned the practice of re-converting after converting to Islam and that offenders should be punished according to Islamic law. It did not specify a penalty.

In hiding since his case began in August, Hegazy and his wife Zeinab gave birth to a baby girl on January 10. The convert’s main motivation for changing his religious affiliation was the upcoming birth of his daughter. Under current Egyptian law, unless Hegazy can change his religious affiliation, his daughter would be forced to attend Islamic religion classes and marry a Muslim man.

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