Maher El-Gohary provides requested documents, but judge dismisses them.

ISTANBUL, June 16 (Compass Direct News) – A Cairo judge on Saturday (June 13) rejected an Egyptian’s convert’s attempt to change his identification card’s religious status from Muslim to Christian, the second failed attempt to exercise constitutionally guaranteed religious freedom by a Muslim-born convert to Christianity.

For Maher El-Gohary, who has been attacked on the street, subjected to death threats and driven into hiding as a result of opening his case 10 months ago, Saturday’s outcome provided nothing in the way of consolation.

“I am disappointed with what happened and shocked with the decision, because I went to great lengths and through a great deal of hardship,” he said.

El-Gohary follows Mohammed Ahmed Hegazy as only the second Muslim-born convert in Egypt to request such a change. El-Gohary filed suit against the Ministry of the Interior for rejecting his application in August last year.

In contrast to their angry chants and threats in previous hearings, lawyers representing the government sat quietly as Judge Hamdy Yasin read his decision in a session that lasted no more than 10 minutes, according to one of El-Gohary’s lawyers, Nabil Ghobreyal.

The judge rejected El-Gohary’s application even though the convert provided a baptism certificate and a letter of acceptance into the Coptic Orthodox Church that the judge had demanded.

“The judge said he will not accept the [baptism] certificate from Cyprus or the letter from Father Matthias [Nasr Manqarious],” said Ghobreyal. “Even if he gets a letter from the pope, the judge said he would not accept it, because the remit of the church is to deal with Christians, not to deal with Muslims who convert to Christianity; this is outside their remit.”

El-Gohary sounded perplexed and frustrated as he spoke by telephone with Compass about the verdict.

“The judge asked for letters of acceptance and baptism,” he said. “It was really not easy to get them, in fact it was very hard, but if he was not going to use these things, why did he ask for them in the first place? We complied with everything and got it for him, and then it was refused. What was the point of all this?”

A full explanation of Yasin’s decision to deny the request will be published later this week. The judge’s comments on Saturday, however, provided some indication of what the report will contain.

“The judge alluded to the absence of laws pertaining to conversion from Islam to Christianity and suggested an article be drawn up to deal with this gap in legislation,” said Ghobreyal.

High Court Appeal

Such a law would be favorable to converts. Thus far, hopeful signs for converts include a recent decision to grant Baha’is the right to place a dash in the religion section of their ID cards and a High Court ruling on June 9 stating that “reverts” (Christians wishing to revert to Christianity after embracing Islam) are not in breach of law and should be allowed to re-convert.

At the age of 16 all Egyptians are required to obtain an ID that states their religion as Muslim, Christian or Jewish. These cards are necessary for virtually every aspect of life, from banking, to education and medical treatment.

No Egyptian clergyman has issued a baptismal certificate to a convert, but El-Gohary was able to travel to Cyprus to get a baptismal certificate from a well-established church. In April the Coptic, Cairo-based Manqarious recognized this certificate and issued him a letter of acceptance, or “conversion certificate,” welcoming him to the Coptic Orthodox community.

El-Gohary’s baptismal certificate caused a fury among the nation’s Islamic lobby, as it led to the first official church recognition of a convert. A number of fatwas (religious edicts) have since been issued against El-Gohary and Manqarious.

El-Gohary’s case could go before the High Court, his lawyer said.

“This is not the end; this is just the beginning,” said Ghobreyal. “I am going to a higher court, I have ideas and I am going to fight all the way through. It’s a long road.”

Ghobreyal’s tenacious attitude is matched by his client’s.

“I am going to persevere, I will not give up,” said El-Gohary. “Appealing is the next step and I am ready for the steps after that. I am going to bring this to the attention of the whole world.”

The judge had received a report from the State Council, a consultative body of Egypt’s Administrative Court, which expressed outrage at El-Gohary’s “audacity” to request a change in the religious designation on his ID. The report claimed that his case was a threat to societal order and violated sharia (Islamic law).

El-Gohary’s lawyers noted that the report is not based on Egypt’s civil law, nor does it uphold the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights that Egypt has signed. It stated that those who leave Islam, “apostates” such as El-Gohary, should be subject to the death sentence.

Report from Compass Direct News


More attacks launched in Orissa and Karnataka; Orissa archbishop threatened with death.

NEW DELHI, September 19 (Compass Direct News) – After three weeks of widespread attacks on Christians and their property in Orissa state and other parts of the country, the federal government finally warned two states that their failure to prevent violence could lead to the imposition of “President’s Rule.”

As more incidents of violence were reported from Orissa and the southern state of Karnataka yesterday, the federal government ruled by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) issued an official warning to the two states under Article 355 of the Indian Constitution, Indo-Asian News Service (IANS) reported. The article requires state governments to function with due respect to constitutional provisions, setting up a potential showdown between the federal UPA, led by the Congress Party (Indian National Congress), and Orissa and Karnataka states ruled by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The BJP is the largest opposition party at the federal level. The UPA also said it was keeping a close watch on the activities of Hindu extremist groups, including the Bajrang Dal, youth wing of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP), which is allegedly behind the ongoing violence, reported Press Trust of India.

The governments of the two states under the scanner suspected political motives behind the federal government’s move. The BJP today dared the federal government to impose President’s Rule in Karnataka.

“We dare the Centre to go a step ahead and implement Article 356 [empowering the federal government to impose emergency rule],” BJP spokesperson Ravi Shankar Prasad told IANS. “They will have to bear the consequences and the people of the country would give them a fitting reply.”

The Christian community, however, saw a ray of hope in the federal government’s move. Father Dominic Emmanuel of the Delhi Catholic Archdiocese told Compass that the federal government’s warning has brought “at least some consolation” to the country’s Christian community, which forms 2.3 percent of the total population.

The violence began following the assassination of a VHP leader and icon of Hindu nationalism, Laxmanananda Saraswati, and four of his disciples in Orissa’s Kandhamal district on Aug. 23. Although Maoists claimed responsibility for the murder, the VHP put the blame on local Christians, saying they killed him because he was resisting conversion of Hindus to Christianity.

While the state government says 24 people, mainly Christian, have died in the Orissa violence, the All India Christian Council (AICC) maintained that 45 Christians were confirmed dead and five more were still missing.

According to the AICC, 14 districts of Orissa witnessed violence with Kandhamal as the epicenter. It reported at least 50,000 people from 300 villages have been affected by the violence, with hundreds still hiding in forests, and 4,000 houses and 115 churches burned or destroyed.


New Attacks in Orissa

Incidents of violence continued in Orissa’s Kandhamal district. Mobs burned down two prayer houses on Wednesday night (Sept. 17) in Mundigarh and Lankagarh areas under Tumudibandh police station in Kandhamal, reported The Indian Express daily.

“The district administration foiled another attempt by the troublemakers to set afire the Phiringia police station last night,” the newspaper reported. “Both roads to the town, Phulbani-Phiringia and Gochhapada-Phiringia, were blocked by felling of trees.”

The administration, however, learned of the plan, cleared the blockade and moved security forces to the town.

Archbishop of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar Raphael Cheenath received a death threat.

“Just last week I received a chilling letter from Hindu groups which said ‘blood for blood, life for life.’ What can I do?” Cheenath said yesterday while at the Catholic Bishop Conference of India office in Delhi, according to IANS.

The letter stated that the archbishop, who has been staying in Bhubaneswar for three decades and whose house was stoned a few days ago, would be killed if he returned to Orissa. “They [Hindu groups] threatened to kill me,” he said. “Is this how civilized society behaves?”

Archbishop Cheenath, Delhi’s Archbishop Vincent Concessao and Father Babu Joseph, spokesman for the Catholic Church in India, met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh yesterday to apprise him of unabated violence in Orissa.

“Despite your consoling words and assurances, the violence still continues in some parts of Kandhamal,” they said in a memorandum, which carried a list of violent incidents that took place in Kandhamal after Sept. 11, when the Orissa state government told the Supreme Court of India that normalcy was returning in the district.

“Looting, arson and vandalism continue,” said the memorandum. “Security forces are mainly in the towns, main roads and are not moving to the interior parts of Kandhamal. Crimes are being freely committed by the culprits with impunity.”

Forced conversions from Christianity to Hinduism are continuing in the villages of Orissa, the memo said. “Christians are forced under threat of death, burning of their houses, or death of their relatives. After conversion, they have to burn their Bibles, religious articles and their own house, to prove that they are genuine Hindus. All other Hindu ceremonies are imposed on them.”


More Assaults in Karnataka

Attacks continued also in Karnataka. According to New Delhi-based Asian News International news agency, unidentified people launched attacks in three districts of the state on Wednesday (Sept. 17).

While a mob destroyed Bibles and other Christian literature and vandalized furniture the St. George Church in Ujire area of the Dakshina Kannada district, another group of people pelted a statue of the Virgin Mary with stones outside the St. Mary’s Church in Kolar district. Yet another group of people damaged furniture at a church in Chikamagalur district.

Hindu extremists in Karnataka began targeting Christians after the state education ministry served show-cause notices to over 2,000 Christian schools in the state for staying shut on Aug. 29 to protest the violence against Christians in Orissa.

Attacks on churches were reported from several parts of the state on consecutive Sundays following Aug. 29. The Bajrang Dal claimed responsibility for most of the attacks, which were mostly aimed at churches of the New Life Fellowship ministry.

The Karnataka state government today announced a probe by a retired judge of the high court into anti-Christian attacks, reported IANS.

Earlier this week, there were incidents of violent attacks on Christians and their institutions also in the southern states of Kerala, the north-central states of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, and Jharkhand state in the east.


Tensions in National Capital

On Wednesday (Sept. 17), a group of unidentified people believed to be Hindu extremists sought to create tensions in the national capital Delhi.

A mob forcibly took possession of a lawn in front of a Catholic church, God’s Light Church, in Trilokpuri area in East Delhi, reported the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI).

“The mob broke open an outside gate to the lawn as well as the inside gate leading from the church and threatened to construct a temple there,” EFI reported. “They have also locked the outside gate to the lawn/garden as well as the inside gate leading from the church to the lawn.”

The church building has been in the area since 1991.

“It is a well planned move to create a confrontation with the church in Delhi too after the incidents in the states of Orissa, Karnataka and Kerala,” EFI reported. “The miscreants have resorted to this step to gauge the reaction of the church before doing anything further.”

Supporters of the VHP also tried to harass a Christian institution in the neighboring state of Haryana.

The Rev. Madhu Chandra of the AICC said some VHP extremists filed a complaint with Hisar district authorities against a school run by the North India Christian Mission for closing the school “illegally” on Aug. 29, the day all Christian schools remained closed to protest violence in Orissa. The complaint, filed in Barwala town, also accused school personnel of “converting” students and people of the area, as if conversion were illegal in India.

The AICC will hold a rally in Vijayawada in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh tomorrow (Sept. 20) to urge the governments of affected states to arrest those responsible for the anti-Christian violence.

Dr. John Dayal, AICC secretary general, returned from Orissa yesterday and warned that the situation in the country was getting “out of hand.”

Report from Compass Direct News