Article published Aug 27, 2007
By Nir Boms and Michael Meunier
The freedom to believe may be considered a sacred right in some parts of the world – but not in others. Which is why Mohammed Hegazy, 24, and his wife made history in the Arab world when they became the first known Muslims to file a lawsuit against Egypt for refusing to legally recognize their conversion to Christianity. This unusual move quickly sparked a lawsuit by Muslim clerics along with death threats for the young couple. Some of these came during a live TV interview, when Mr. Hegazy was interviewed along with Sheikh Youssef el-Badry, a radical Islamic cleric. According to Mr. Badry, Mr. Hegazy deserves the death sentence for leaving Islam. Souaad Kamel, the outgoing dean of Islamic Study for girls at Al-Azhar University, stated on the air that Mr. Hegazy should be beheaded to fulfill the religious requirements.
In his filing, Mr. Hegazy, who was born a Muslim, relied heavily on the recent remarks of Egypt’s grand mufti to The Washington Post regarding religious conversion. In a surprising and unprecedented statement, Ali Gomaa, the grand mufti of Egypt, said that Islam affords freedom of belief, and that Muslims under some circumstances are free to convert. “The essential question before us is can a Muslim choose a religion other than Islam? The answer is yes, they can,” he commented to The Post and later to the Egyptian media. Separating between the notion of choice and punishment, he further explained that “The act of abandoning one’s religion is a sin punishable by God on the day of judgment.” But he added that, “If the case in question is one of merely rejecting faith, then there is no worldly punishment.” Mr. Gomaa added that “throughout history, the worldly punishment for apostasy in Islam has been applied only to those who, in addition to their apostasy, actively engaged in the subversion of society.”
Mr. Hegazy’s case is not the only one. Egypt’s Supreme Administrative Court just heard the final appeal for 45 Coptic Christian citizens who were denied their attempt to legally reclaim their Christian identities after officially converting to Islam. Of the 45 plaintiffs, half were adults when they changed the religion section on their national identity cards from Christian to Muslim. The remainder were children whose Coptic parents had become Muslims. All have declared they want to return to their Christian faith.
Egyptian Christians can easily change their religious status to Muslim, which provides incentives ranging from employment and marriage options to custody of their children in divorce cases. Muslims, however, are not permitted to leave their religion for any other faith. That imbalance is further strengthened by an untold number of forced conversions of Coptic minor girls to Islam through kidnapping, rape and the application of other forms of pressure. Last year, Theresa Ghattas Kamal, who went missing for three weeks, called her family and said she was imprisoned in a Cairo apartment and facing pressure to convert to Islam. She was found living with a Muslim family and was forced to wear the full veil.
Ingy Nagy Edwar, a 19-year-old Coptic woman who disappeared after boarding a bus to her aunt’s home in El-Maryouteya, was located by State Security forces, who showed her family a declaration of conversion to Islam that was allegedly signed by the girl. That same day, the Giza State Security Directorate held a hearing on the girl’s case, producing Miss Edwar herself, dressed in an Islamic veil. The girl was not allowed to speak to her parents and the family has been ordered not to contact her again.
In spite of Mr. Gomaa’s statement, freedom of religion remains an illusive dream in Egypt. While Christians are enticed to convert, Muslims and former Christians who wish to reclaim their faith are harassed, arrested, tortured or imprisoned. While Mr. Gomaa’s motivations may be applauded, others, like the Minister of Awqaf (religious affairs) Mahmoud Zakzouk, still insist that killing converts should remain a legal punishment. In a recent interview with the daily newspaper Egypt Today, Mr. Zakzouk asserted that when a religious conversion becomes public it is considered a threat to public order and hence should be equated to an act of treason which is punishable by death.
The debate between Mr. Gomaa and others – like Messrs. Zakzouk, Badry and Kamel – is not only a debate about the fate of the Copts and other religious minorities in Egypt. Rather, it is a critical debate about an important foundation that will affect the future of the entire Middle East. The acceptance of the “other” is a key foundation for a region that must find its path of reconciliation through tolerance and acceptance. The voices of Messrs. Zakzouk and Badry provide a push in completely the wrong direction. Egypt’s allies must help ensure that the country will not take another wrong turn.
Nir Boms is vice president of the Center for Freedom in the Middle East. Michael Meunier is president of the U.S. Copts Association.