In a ruling that was highly applauded by Christians in Egypt as well as human and citizenship rights activists, the Supreme Administrative Court last weekend ruled in favour of 15 Christians who had converted to Islam and later reverted to their original Christianity and were officially accepted in the Church, and wished to claim their legal rights as Christians.
The court ruled that the Interior Ministry should change the official documents of Christian converts who had previously converted to Islam, and for whom the Interior Ministry had then issued documents citing them as Muslims, to cite them again as Christians while retaining the phrase ‘previously proclaimed Islam as their religion’. The ministry had refused to acknowledge their return to Christianity by changing their religion in their IDs and official documents, a move which was last April upheld by a ruling from the Administrative Court. Last week’s ruling by the higher court is a final one and is a legal precedent.
The ruling was widely seen as appeasing to both human rights advocates and Islamists. The wording ‘Christian, previously proclaimed Islam as his/her religion’, while retaining the legal rights of the Christian holder of the document, no doubt will be a source of immeasurable difficulties on the social, cultural, and career levels. Some see it as a green light to ‘unofficial’ discrimination and fanaticism. But even so, others counter, Christians who revert to their original Christianity after a period of Islamic conversion have not officially been branded as having committed ‘ridda’—the Islamic crime of deserting Islam, punishable by death.
Appeasing the extremists
Pope Shenouda III expressed his relief at the court ruling saying that it conforms with Egypt’s Constitution in that a person is free to adopt whichever faith he chooses. The pope, however, commented on the controversial phrase, saying it will trigger many problems for the bearer. Anba Bissanti, Bishop of Helwan and Ma’asara, said that the church plans to take a stand against and object to the general use of this phrase in official documents.
Fathers Ikram Lamei and Rifaat Fikry of the Evangelical Church in Egypt both agree that the addition of this phrase will consistently place the holder in difficult and embarrassing situations. Fr Fikry wondered if the reason behind the use of this phrase in ID cards was to satisfy the extremists or to place the holders in a situation where their lives would be threatened, especially by poorly informed people.
The lawyer Ramsis al-Naggar who was a member of the defence team said the ruling, which comes despite long and strong rejection by Islamists, sets an important legal precedent. Naggar said he is already representing 458 other plaintiffs who reverted to their original Christianity following a period of conversion to Islam, and wished to have their new status officially acknowledged in their papers. The ruling however, he said, did not specify whether ‘official documents’ meant the religious box or the magnetic strip in ID cards, or other official non-public documents.
Lawyers Mamdouh Ramzy and Peter al-Naggar pointed out that, despite the fact that the ruling is a huge triumph for freedom and for human and citizenship rights, many questions concerning conversion remain unanswered. Among these is the current principle of children being legally considered Muslim once a father converts to Islam, even though they are actually Christian or any other religion they were born into, as well as the situation of Muslim-born Christian converts. Still fresh in memory is the recent ruling against the Muslim-born Mohamed Higazy who converted to Christianity and went to court demanding his right to be cited as Christian in official ID documents. The Administrative Court ruled rejecting his demand on grounds that it would jeopardise social peace and public order.
‘Destroyers of sharia’
Hossam Bahgat, head of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights said that the court ruling puts a happy end to a ridiculous court case that was totally unnecessary and would have never reached the courts except for the stubbornness and fanaticism of the Interior Ministry officials.
The Misr Arab Socialist Party issued a statement denouncing the ruling. Worth noting is that Wahid al-Uksory, head of the party, has repeatedly insisted that Copts were exposed to no discrimination. He attacks expatriate Copts and the conferences they hold in support of the Copts at home. The statement described the ruling as a victory for the secular trend and a destruction of the Islamic identity. It declared that the judges who issued the ruling were “digging their own graves” and “will go down in history as the destroyers of Islamic sharia or legal code”.
As for the converts themselves, the common denominator between them, as Nader Shukry reports, is that they all claim they had converted to Islam to escape various problems. Conversions to Islam are usually for the sake of escaping an undesirable marriage since divorce in the Coptic Church is severely restricted, marrying a Muslim woman, or averting financial, social or career problems. The converts in the present case said their conversion had nothing to do with faith, as proved by the fact that they all later wished to revert to Christianity no matter how difficult and socially stigmatising such a move was. They all agreed that their Muslim ID cards had been issued in no more than 24 hours, but their applications for new IDs to cite their religion as Christian took more than 10 years to process —and never materialised.
One of the converts who asked for his name to be withheld said he converted to Islam because he was working with a group of Muslim men and owed them a big sum of money. As a way to escape payment they offered to forgive his debt if he became a Muslim. With no hope of being able any time in the near future to pay back the money he owed, he acquiesced. The new ID card only took a couple of hours to be issued but he could not get himself to hold it. He refused to receive it, so they reported him to the security authorities. He was caught and, he alleges, was tortured for more than seven months. He still bears the scars of the painful experience. For this man, a new ID card with ‘Christian, previously proclaimed Islam as his religion’ is a godsend for which he is extremely grateful.
Another re-convert who also asked to remain anonymous said he was lured with a well-paying job offer in Saudi Arabia but the only way to get it was through converting to Islam. He agreed, and new ID papers were issued for him without even the need for him to officially pronounce the two testimonies of Islam—the pre-requisite to becoming Muslim—at al-Azhar. After he received his Muslim ID card the people who promised him the job simply vanished; he realised he had been deceived, and has been trying to legally revert to Christianity ever since. “The court ruling, he told Watani, has given many people in similar situations new hope that they would get new identity cards as Christians”.