The recent incident of the Gabal al-Teir Coptic woman who went missing for 25 days and was declared by the security officials to have converted to Islam has raised several alarming questions. The 40-year-old mother of five is now back home with her family and insists she never converted but, as I wrote last week, this does not mean the curtain has been drawn on the incident. A non-biased investigation is needed into the brutal police response to the wrathful protest of the Coptic villagers against police failure—rather, inaction—to find the missing woman and bring her home. The security officials responsible for and involved in the savage collective punishment inflicted on the Copts of Gabal al-Teir in Minya, some 240km south of Cairo, should be brought to justice.
The second issue raised by the Gabal al-Teir incident is that of conversion to Islam. This brings us to the ‘advice and guidance’ sessions, a practice which has been placed on hold for some 10 years now. For those who do not know, the advice and guidance sessions were informal meetings, held under the auspices of the security authority, between Christians who wished to convert and a priest or minister. The sessions were held only in case of adults who wished to convert; underage individuals are banned by law from taking such life-changing decisions. The priest was required to verify that the would-be convert was changing faith in full conviction—in which case the decision was fully respected—not under pressure or to escape some problem that could be circumvented by a legal change of religion.
The advice and guidance sessions have been known to save the day in many cases where conversion was merely a manipulation of religion to bypass specific problems, but had nothing to do with faith. They spared the individual and the community unwarranted conflict and pain. Yet they had been unilaterally revoked by the Interior Ministry in 2004 in the wake of the notorious Wafaa’ Qostantin case. Qostantin, the wife of a priest in Beheira west of the Delta, had fled home owing to problems with her husband, and was rumoured to have converted. She came back a few days later and declared before the prosecution and in presence of Church representatives that she “had been born Christian, and will live and die Christian.”
The issue of the Gabal al-Teir woman led many Copts, rights activists, and those concerned with matters of faith to demand a comeback for the advice and guidance sessions. Had the practice been in place, they say, the entire community would have been spared unnecessary pain. In a surprise response, Interior Minister Muhammad Ibrahim declared that resumption of the advice and guidance sessions awaited a coordinated decision by the Church and al-Azhar. I believe the Minister threw the ball into their court to buy himself time, since it is a fact that the sessions were halted by the unilateral decision of a previous Interior Minister, not by the Church or al-Azhar. It was typical of the tyranny of the police State which prevailed at the time and which Egyptians would never go back to. For his part, the current Grand Imam of al-Azhar Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyib has stressed that conversion should be based solely on conviction, and Anba Pola confirmed on behalf of the Church that anyone who faithfully wished to convert was free to do so.
Back in 1863, Khedive Ismail issued a decree stipulating that any Christian converting to Islam was not welcome unless both a priest and a Christian layman confirmed the beyond-doubt earnestness of his or her wish to convert. That was the origin behind the advice and guidance sessions. In 1969 – 1970, the security apparatus jumped on the bandwagon and required any would-be convert to apply to the security headquarters to arrange for the session. The community tolerated the security interference until that same authority gave itself the right to discontinue it.
Today, if we are to resolve the issue of conversion, it should be prised out of the hands of the security authority and go back to being the business of the Church, al-Azhar, and the National Council for Human Rights. The security apparatus should go back to enforcing the law not ‘writing’ it.
I need to stress, however, that even with a comeback of the advice and guidance sessions, and even if this comeback is in a religious-civic form not a religious-police form, we are circumventing the real problem, resorting to a painkiller instead of treating the real ailment. The entire situation reeks of non-existent freedom of belief, even though this freedom is explicitly stipulated in the Constitution. Yet Egyptians are still categorised as Muslim, Christian, or Jew; their ID documents cite their religion. Let the advice and guidance sessions resume, and let the security apparatus get out of them. What is it that we stand to gain or to lose if a Christian converts to Islam or vice versa?
I look to the day where there will be a new Egypt that knows not who is Muslim, Christian or Jewish; who belongs to a specific faith or who has none whatsoever. Because then it will be no one’s business to persuade, dissuade, or terrorise anyone on account of his or her faith.
12 October 2014