6 September 2009
Our reading in the Cairo press this month takes us to the Cairo independent daily al-Dostour where its editor-in chief Ibrahim Eissa tackled the issue of the alarming rise in sectarian violence. Under the title “The protector is fanatic” Mr Eissa condemned what he saw as prevalent fanaticism among security or police officers. He wrote that incidents of discrimination against Copts by security officials ought never to be attributed to exceptional or individual causes; on the contrary, he insists, the attitude of the majority of officials towards Copts is explicitly fanatic and discriminatory. This attitude, Mr Eissa said, has been heavily entrenched among the police and security corps for decades on end.
Take no Christian friend
Mr Eissa printed a letter which he had received from a young woman whose name he withheld. The young woman had been spending a vacation at Neweiba, on the Red Sea coast in Sinai, with a group of friends. On their way back to Cairo she rode with a young man from the group in his private car. At a check point between Taba and Neweiba, they were asked to show their IDs and driving licences which they promptly produced. When it was found that the young woman was Muslim and the young man Christian, they were asked why they were riding together. Then they asked her to wait for two minutes but she found herself waiting for some 30 minutes after which she was escorted to the Intelligence Office, 10 kms away from Taba.
The young woman was thoroughly interrogated and asked questions which concern no-one but herself. The police officer asked about the nature of her relationship to the young Coptic man, then took her aside and said: “Who is this Christian and why are you both together? What brought you here and what are you doing? Haven’t you heard about Christian men who deceive Muslim girls into converting to Christianity?” The young woman tried to explain that she had studied at a Catholic school and had countless Christian friends since childhood—none of whom, it is obvious, ever attempted to convert her. After two and a half hours of interrogation she was set free, with a warning against ever repeating such a deed. And then we ask who is responsible for the exclusionism that has come to characterise Muslim Christian relations, or who could be responsible for arousing sectarian strife?
The issue of conversion
In the independent daily al-Masry al-Youm, rights activist Nigad al-Borai wrote an article entitled “Converting to Christianity … a calm discussion of a sensitive topic”. Mr Borai wrote about the arrest of 22 Muslims who had converted to Christianity and were charged with forging ID documents in which their religion was cited as Christian—since the State refuses to legalise the status of Christian converts and insists they remain legally Muslim. It is obvious, Mr Borai wrote, that conversions were not uncommon and were among the reasons of the rising tension between Muslims and Christians. He emphasised that the Egyptian Constitution guarantees freedom of belief and that Egypt had signed international treaties for human rights and was therefore under obligation to secure freedom of belief.
Mr Borai wrote that Christian converts face problems due to conflicting legislation. Judges are frequently confused between the country’s civic law and Constitution on one hand, and sharia (Islamic law)—which is stipulated as the main source of legislation by the Constitution—on the other. On 13 June 2009, a Cairo court rejected legalising the status of a Christian convert based on two principles. First, Egypt is not an absolute civil state the court said, since Article 2 of the Egyptian Constitution states sharia as the main source of legislation. Second, changing one’s religion may be no problem in a civil state, but in Egypt it leads to negative social and legal repercussions.
Mr Borai believes that Article 2 needs to be reconsidered because of its negative effect on citizenship rights. He warned against the prevalence of fundamentalists inside the judicial apparatus. On the other hand, he also warned of the aggravation aroused by Christian converts who regularly criticise Islam and cast doubts on its veracity.