Snares abound as Christian seeks to protect wife, baby and future faithful.
ISTANBUL, September 12 (Compass Direct News) – Egypt’s most famous convert to Christianity is a prisoner of his own home, hiding for his life.
After Mohammed Ahmed Hegazy, 25, became the first Muslim-born Egyptian to file a case a year ago for his identification card to reflect his newfound faith, his face has been shown on TV channels and newspapers. Anywhere he goes, he might be recognized by fanatical Islamists bent on killing him – besides his own family members, who also want him dead.
In the last eight months, since an Egyptian court closed his case in a Jan. 29 court ruling that declared it was against Islamic law for a Muslim to leave Islam, Hegazy has had to move five times with his wife and baby daughter.
“The verdict for my case was discriminatory [on the part] of the judge,” Hegazy told Compass in an interview last month. The judge based his decision on Islamic law, which says one can convert “up” in the Muslim hierarchy of religions – from Judaism and Christianity to Islam – but not vice versa.
But months after the final court decision, even after the issue is fizzing out in the media, Hegazy said that his life is in danger – as is that of every convert in Egypt.
Living on the Run
“The most difficult thing for me is that the lives of my wife and daughter are in danger all the time,” Hegazy said.
In one instance a year ago, he and his family barely escaped alive. Last October, he received a phone call from a friend who told him that one of his own lawyers had given authorities his address. His friend told him he might have to move in the next few days and to be careful.
“I had a feeling we should move,” said Hegazy, explaining that he listens for God’s voice on such decisions. “So we moved immediately, and the next night the fundamentalists came to attack us.”
A group of Islamists camped around his former house for days. They also set fire to the apartment of Hegazy’s next-door neighbor, killing her. He said the neighbor, whose name was withheld for the security of her relatives, was the best friend of his wife and had helped them in their ordeal.
“The church denied that she was killed, and it was never reported publicly,” he said.
The convert’s hope is that one day he can get his family out of the country, but without passports that is a remote possibility. Passports are issued in the hometown of the citizen.
Both Hegazy and his wife are well-known and unwelcome in their hometowns.
His wife would need to go to El-Minya to apply for a passport, he said, “and as soon as she goes there she will be killed. Even if it’s not family, others will do it, so I can’t take that risk.”
Hegazy’s father has also filed to gain custody of his baby granddaughter so that she is raised Muslim. He has also given authorities false information, such as asserting that Hegazy hasn’t served his military service, and has publicly said that if his son doesn’t recant his faith he will kill him.
“Many lawyers volunteered to file a case against me,” he said.
Hegazy risked venturing out of his house on a hot afternoon in August to speak to Compass. At a restaurant, he looked over his shoulder nervously to make sure he wasn’t followed.
What the convert-turned-political activist really wanted to talk about was the situation of thousands of converts in his country who suffer discrimination by the state, family and even local churches, he said, because the country’s constitution is based on sharia (Islamic law).
“The most important thing is to show how converts are persecuted and how they are suffering in Egypt,” said Hegazy. “I want to clarify this because converts are persecuted by society and the church and their families.”
Hegazy minces no words when it comes to what he calls the inability of the church to stand up to the forces of government and Islamic society in order to defend the rights of converts.
“The church in Egypt is impotent and cowardly,” he said, noting church leaders who do not stand up for religious rights and claim they do not evangelize and baptize converts. He cited Coptic Bishop Bishoy, who said that his church is against “proselytizing” and spreading the gospel and that the Coptic Church is not doing it. Coptic churches in Egypt – Catholic and evangelical – publicly claim they do not baptize converts, each blaming the other for doing so, while priests and pastors are known to baptize in secret so as not to provoke violent reactions from Islamists and the government.
“The priest that baptized me refused to see me for a whole year,” said Hegazy. “Not one priest is standing up to say, ‘I baptize converts.’”
Hegazy said that reactions like this leave converts feeling marginalized.
“You have to understand that the church is treating converts as second-class citizens. The only heroic thing they could do was baptize me secretly,” said Hegazy, who had to fight to get a baptismal certificate, as do so many other converts. “Can you imagine how a convert feels? Should we accuse converts of being discriminatory or sectarian if they want to establish their own church?”
Converts, Hegazy said, are attacked on all fronts of Egyptian society. “The government is Islamic, the society is Islamic, and the church is weak,” he said. “Converts are stuck between all of these, between the jaws of the government and society.”
A Little Help
Hegazy and other religious rights activists believe that individual cases such as his or that of Maher El-Gohary, filed last month, alone cannot gain legal rights for converts who wish to become officially Christian and accepted in society.
“I don’t believe my case is going to be resolved,” said Hegazy. “I’m not pessimistic, but if we are dealing with a personal case we can’t achieve anything. Instead we have to talk about the broad issue and discuss conversion as a big case, because there are so many believers persecuted.”
As have other activists, Hegazy said that if Egyptian converts living overseas and in Egypt were to file a joint case they would have more leverage. But they need greater support from human rights groups, which are not pushing enough for convert cases, he said.
“I can’t understand how we have so many human rights organizations, and Christian ones, and no one is taking any action,” he said.
Hegazy suggested that human rights organizations should publicly advocate a law that supports freedom of conversion, including committees to monitor developments. If such a law were in place, he said, the Egyptian government would stop using Muslim fundamentalist reactions as an excuse to avoid enforcing justice.
“This way the government can’t say, ‘We don’t [change religion on identification cards] because of fundamentalism, it will upset our society,’ because there will be a law in place,” he said.
Additionally, he said, converts must also fight against lack of action by human rights organizations.
“The problem is we’re struggling with the church, the society, our families,” he said. “So we don’t need an extra struggle with human rights organizations.”
Hegazy and his lawyer are still waiting for a court date for his appeal. They applied for it in February.
“Every week we go to the court to find out when the appeal date is set for,” said Hegazy’s lawyer, Gamal Eid of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information.
At a recent court visit they were told to come back in October, leading them to believe that perhaps they will get a court date that month.
Hegazy said he is ready to fight his case to the end. Already, he said, his case has made one gain for Egypt’s converts: the recognition that there are such persons as “converts,” and they are in the public debate.
“Nowadays, the word ‘convert’ is being used in the media here – never before!” said Hegazy. “That’s progress.”
Report from Compass Direct News