Couple goes into hiding as police place Islamic law over Egyptian penal code.

ISTANBUL, April 23 (Compass Direct News) – Christian convert Raheal Henen Mussa and her Coptic husband are hiding from police and her Muslim family for violating an article of Islamic law (sharia) that doesn’t exist in the Egyptian penal code.

Police arrested Mussa, 22, on April 13 for marrying Sarwat George Ryiad in a customary marriage (zawag al ‘urfi), an unregistered form of matrimony in Egypt made without witnesses. It has gained popularity among Egyptian youth but is not sanctioned by most Islamic scholars.

The two signed a marriage contract between themselves. Only Ryiad and their attorney have a copy. Police have not obtained a copy of the contract, but they used its existence as a pretext for arresting Mussa.

According to a strict interpretation of sharia, Muslim women are not permitted to marry non-Muslim men, although the opposite is allowed, and Article 2 of the Egyptian Constitution stipulates that sharia is the basis for legislation.

The two have not committed a crime according to Egyptian law since they didn’t seek official marriage status, but police and Mussa’s family are pursuing them because they violated Islamic law, advocacy groups say.

“They have not violated the law, but the family and the police are applying their own unwritten law,” said Helmy Guirguis, president of the U.K. Coptic Association. “Islamic law interprets that if a Muslim girl marries a non-Muslim man, even on paper, they are breaking the law of God, not the law of man.”

The two could not get married in an official ceremony since Mussa is considered a Muslim by birth, and changing one’s religious status away from Islam is impossible in Egypt. A lawsuit is pending, however, for a Muslim-born man to change his status on his identity card.

Formerly known as Samr Mohamed Hansen, Mussa converted to Christianity three years ago, before marrying Ryiad. Police arrested her as she came home from her workplace at a Cairo salon. They identified her by the Coptic cross tattoo on her right arm – a common mark among Copts.

She was transferred to a station operated by the secret police, where she stayed until Sunday (April 19), when her family took her. While in their custody, her family completely burned off her cross tattoo, according to the U.K. Coptic Association.

Mussa escaped from them on Tuesday (April 21). She and her husband fled Cairo and are in hiding. If the two are caught, advocates fear, they could be forcibly separated, arrested and beaten, with Mussa being returned to her family.

Sharia influence in Egyptian law also means that Muslims have the right (hisbah) to file a lawsuit against someone who has violated the “rights of God.” This provision, advocates fear, means Mussa and Ryiad’s unsanctioned marriage could make them targets of Muslim extremists wishing to apply the full extent of this law.

The most famous example of hisbah’s application came in 1995, when Cairo University professor Nasr Abuh Zayd was declared an “infidel” and forcibly divorced from his wife for criticizing orthodox views of the Quran.

Ryiad and Mussa were not married in a Coptic ceremony, as many churches avoid marrying registered Muslims to non-Muslims for fear of being targeted by authorities and Islamic extremists.

“Nobody [in Egypt] can declare the marriage of a Coptic man to a Muslim girl,” attorney Naguib Gabriel told Compass. “It would be very dangerous to the life of a priest.”


Marriage Woes

Mussa and Ryiad’s case is the latest in a spurt of recent arrests and lawsuits against those who don’t adhere to the Islamic-influenced dictum that Muslim women may not marry non-Muslim men.

In October 2008, a Cairo court handed Father Metaos Wahba a five-year prison sentence for issuing a marriage certificate to a Christian man and a Muslim convert to Christianity. He stated that he did not know the woman’s papers stating her religion as “Christian” were a forgery.

Human rights groups have called on Egyptian President Hosny Mubarak to release Fr. Wahba, as Egypt is a signatory to the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which allows full religious freedom, including conversion.

Mussa’s jailing mirrored that of Christian convert Martha Samuel Makkar, 24, detained last December at a Cairo airport for attempting to flee the country with her husband. She was charged with carrying forged documents that listed her religion as Christian and incarcerated for a month.

A judge granted her bail but not before threatening to kill her for leaving Islam (see “Judge Tells of Desire to Kill Christian,” Jan. 27).

Nadia Tawfiq, the lawyer in charge of Makkar’s chase, said many arrests and trials in Egypt result from laws that assign people social status according to the religion on their identity cards.

She said the best hope for change is a May 2 court hearing of Maher El-Gohary, a Muslim-born man who is fighting to have his Christian religion recognized on his official documents. If he succeeds, he would be the first person in the country to be granted that right.

Report from Compass Direct News


A researcher in the Vatican Secret Archives claims to have filled a gap in the known history of the Shroud of Turin, saying that rediscovered records of the Knights Templar trials show the Shroud had been in the possession of the order before it was suppressed, reports Catholic News Agency.

The Shroud had disappeared in the sack of Constantinople in 1204 during the Fourth Crusade and reports of it do not surface again until 1353, Researcher Barbara Frale said in L’Osservatore Romano. The Shroud was then displayed in a church at Lirey in France by descendants of Geoffroy de Charney, a Templar Knight burned at the stake with the last head of the order, Jacques de Molay. According to L’Osservatore, Frale has uncovered new evidence concerning the Shroud in the testimony surrounding the Knights Templar, a crusading order.

Founded at the time of the First Crusade in the eleventh century, the Knights Templar protected Christians making the pilgrimage to Jerusalem. They took their name from the Temple of Jerusalem, near which they were first stationed.

After the crusaders lost the Holy Land with the fall of the city of Acre in 1291, support for them weakened. Accused of both heresy and engaging in corrupt and sexually immoral secret ceremonies, the order’s leaders were arrested by King Philip IV of France. The king pressured Pope Clement V to dissolve the Knights Templar, which he did in 1307.

Frale reported that a trial document recounts the testimony of Arnaut Sabbatier, a young Frenchman who entered the order in 1287. He testified that as part of his initiation he was taken to “a secret place to which only the brothers of the Temple had access.” He was shown “a long linen cloth on which was impressed the figure of a man” and instructed to venerate the image by kissing its feet three times.

Frale said that the Knights Templar had been accused of worshiping idols, in particular a “bearded figure.”

According to Frale, the Knights took possession of the Shroud to rescue it from heretical groups such as the Cathars.

In 2003 Frale rediscovered her trial document source, known as the Chinon Parchment, after realizing it had been wrongly cataloged in the Vatican Library.

Radiocarbon dating tests conducted on the Shroud in 1988 indicated it was a medieval forgery. However, the tests’ accuracy has been challenged on the grounds the sample was taken from an area of the Shroud mended after a medieval fire.

The Catholic Church has not taken a position on the authenticity of the Shroud.

Report from the Christian Telegraph


Arrest warrant rescinded for woman imprisoned because her father briefly converted to Islam.

ISTANBUL, December 2 (Compass Direct News) – A Supreme Court judge in Egypt on Nov. 22 granted Christian Bahia El-Sisi the right to appeal her conviction for falsification of documents – a charge stemming from her official papers not identifying her as a Muslim.

In addition, Judge Abdel Meged Mahmood on Nov. 25 rescinded a Sept. 23 warrant for El-Sisi’s arrest, declaring that she should be free pending a final decision. Mahmood is the same judge who in January freed El-Sisi’s sister, who had been convicted on the same charges of “forgery.”

The charges against El-Sisi and her sister, Shadia El-Sisi, claimed that their marriage certificates contained false information that they were Christians. Unknown to them, their religious identity officially changed 46 years ago due to their father’s brief conversion to Islam. Both are illiterate.

In the Nov. 22 hearing granting Bahia El-Sisi the right to appeal, Mahmood noted that her marriage certificate made no mention of her religion, according to her lawyer.

Investigation into the sisters’ religious status began following a visit made to their father, Nagy El-Sisi, himself in prison for forgery. Nagy El-Sisi, who had briefly converted to Islam in 1962 before reconverting three years later, obtained a forged Christian ID because there is no official means for converting from Islam in Egypt.

Under sharia (Islamic law), which heavily influences Egyptian law, the sisters are considered Muslims due to their father’s conversion. They learned that their father had briefly converted to Islam only recently, long after getting married, and had no idea they could officially be considered Muslims.

Both sisters were originally charged with forging official documents and sentenced in absentia in 2000; each was given a three-year jail sentence.

Shadia El-Sisi was not arrested until August 2007, and her first hearing was on Nov. 21, 2007 at the Shobra El-Khema criminal court. Judge Hadar Tobla Hossan sentenced her to three years in prison.

She was in prison until Jan. 13, when Mahmood retracted the sentence because she was unaware of her conversion by proxy and due to legal technicalities that voided incriminating evidence.

Bahia El-Sisi was held for over two months between May and July of this year. She was then released pending a final court decision. She told Compass about her recent experiences.

“There is no rest in prison, and I was tired and unable to get enough rest or enough food,” she said. “Everybody was [left to fend] for themselves.”

For more than four months she was in hiding, moving from place to place to avoid another arrest.

“I can’t go near the house, I move from one place to another,” she said before the arrest warrant was rescinded. “I rarely see my children, I am worried about them.”

On Sept. 23, Hossan ruled that El-Sisi had forged documents and that the three-year prison sentence would stand. In the Nov. 22 hearing, Mahmood ruled that there was no evidence El-Sisi had forged documents, as no such documents could be produced as proof; the marriage certificate in question did not state her religion, said her lawyer, Peter Ramses.

Mahmood ruled that Hossan’s decision was “so bad and so wrong,” said Ramses. “Then Mahmood gave a decision saying to the police, ‘Don’t arrest her.’”

Bahia El-Sisi’s six children anxiously awaited the outcome of the appeal, fearing that, in a domino effect, their religious status may also have to change following a negative outcome.

El-Sisi remained defiant.

“I am a Christian, I will remain Christian,” she told Compass. “Christ in front of me will guide my steps.”  

Report from Compass Direct News


Two Christian sisters battle to regain religious identity following forgery charges.

ISTANBUL, October 10 (Compass Direct News) – An Egyptian Coptic Christian woman has been sentenced to three years in prison for failing to uphold her Islamic identity – an identity she didn’t know she had for over four decades.

Sisters Shadia and Bahia Nagy El-Sisi, both in their late 40s and residents of the small east Delta town Mit-Ghamr, were arrested and tried for claiming their official religious identity as Christian. Unknown to them, their religious identity officially changed 46 years ago due to their father’s brief conversion to Islam. Both are illiterate.

Shadia El-Sisi was tried for stating her religion as Christian on her marriage certificate and sentenced to three years in prison on Nov. 21, 2007. She was released two months later. Last Sept. 23 a judge also sentenced Bahia El-Sisi to three years in prison for “forging” her marriage certificate by stating her religion as Christian.

Their father, Nagy El-Sisi, converted to Islam in 1962 during a brief marital dispute in order to divorce his wife and potentially gain custody of his daughters, the sisters’ lawyer Peter Ramses told Compass.

Egyptian law is influenced by Islamic jurisprudence (sharia), which automatically awards child custody to whichever parent has the “superior” religion and dictates “no jurisdiction of a non-Muslim over a Muslim.”

If Bahia El-Sisi’s identity as a Muslim stands, then her religious status could potentially create a domino effect that would require her husband to convert to Islam or have their marriage nullified. Her children, too, would be registered as Muslims. Both women are married to Christians.

“All of their children and grandchildren would be registered as Muslims,” Ramses said. “[The ruling] would affect many people.”

Other sources said it is too soon to determine the fate of the sisters’ marriages and families, as neither of their cases have been finalized.


‘But I Am a Christian’

A few years after his conversion, Nagy El-Sisi returned to his family and Christianity. He sought the help of a Muslim employee in the Civil Registration Office, Ramadan Muhammad Hussein, who agreed to forge his Christian identification documents. Reversion back to Christianity for converts to Islam has been nearly impossible in Egyptian courts.

The daughters discovered they were still registered as Muslims when Hussein was arrested for forgery in 1996 and confessed he had helped El-Sisi obtain fake documents three decades earlier. El-Sisi was later arrested.

When the two daughters visited him in prison, they were detained and accused of forging their Christian identification documents, according to national weekly Watani. A criminal court gave them each a three-year prison sentence in absentia in 2000.

Shadia El-Sisi was arrested in August 2007, three days before her son’s wedding. Her first hearing was on Nov. 21, 2007 at the Shobra El-Khema criminal court; she asserted that she had no idea of her so-called conversion to Islam. Judge Hadar Tobla Hossan sentenced her to three years in prison.

Confronted with the sentence, Shadia El-Sisi kept repeating, “But I am a Christian. I am a Christian,” according to Watani.

She was in prison until Jan. 13, when Prosecutor-General Abdel Meged Mahmood retracted the sentence because she was unaware of her conversion by proxy and due to legal technicalities that voided incriminating evidence.

The advocacy group Egyptians Against Religious Discrimination also pressured the judiciary through a signature drive to release her from prison.

Bahia El-Sisi went into hiding following her sister’s imprisonment, but came out after news of her release. Legal experts believe that when Bahia El-Sisi’s case comes before the Supreme Court, her sentence will be retracted as her sister’s was, as their cases have no legal foundation.

Early in the morning of May 5, however, police arrested Bahia El-Sisi and held her in jail until her hearing on July 20, after which she was released pending the verdict.

On Sept. 23 she was sentenced to three years in prison for “forgery of an official document,” as her marriage license states her religion as “Christian.” Bahia El-Sisi was married years before learning of her father’s brief conversion.

Ramses will appeal to Egypt’s Supreme Court in next week. He said he worries the case could further erode the precarious situation of religious minorities in the Muslim-majority country of 79 million.

“How can the government say to [someone] who has lived 50 years in a Christian way that they must become a Muslim and their children must be Muslim and their whole family must all be Muslims?” he said. “This is very important for the freedom of religion.”

Egypt’s constitution guarantees freedom of belief and practice for the country’s Christian minority, which makes up 10 percent of the population. Islam, however, is the official state religion and heavily influences the government and court system.

The case is an example of the social pressure put on Egyptian non-Muslims to convert when one of their parents embraces Islam, despite the constitution guaranteeing equality, said Youssef Sidhom, editor-in-chief of Watani.

“This is a sick environment that we struggle to change,” Sidhom stated. “According to what is taking place here freedom is protected and provided for Christians to convert to Islam while the opposite is not provided.”

Egyptian courts have continued to discriminate against Christians who have one Muslim parent, according to human rights reports, as the judiciary gives them no choice but to convert to Islam.

On Sept. 24 an Alexandria court awarded custody of 14-year-old Christian twins to their Muslim father even though the twins said they were Christians who wanted to stay with their mother. Egyptian civil law grants child custody to their mothers until the age of 15.  

Report from Compass Direct News


Despite a fatwa from the Grand Mufti, Alexandria judge denies custody for mother.

ISTANBUL, October 2 (Compass Direct News) – Following the Appeal Court of Alexandria on Sept. 24 granting custody of 13-year-old Christian twins to their Muslim father, their mother lives with the fear that police will take away her children at any moment.

Kamilia Gaballah has fought with her ex-husband Medhat Ramses Labib over alimony support and custody of sons Andrew and Mario in 40 different cases since he left her and converted to Islam so that he could remarry in 1999.

The court ruled in favor of Labib in spite of Egyptian law’s Article 20, which grants custody of children to their mothers until the age of 15, and a fatwa (religious ruling) from Egypt’s most respected Islamic scholar, Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, giving her custody.

“This decision was dangerous because it was not taken in accordance with Egyptian law but according to sharia [Islamic] law,” said Naguib Gobraiel, Gaballah’s lawyer and president of the Egyptian Union of Human Rights Organizations.

He explained that Egypt’s civic code calls for children under the age of 15 to stay with their mother regardless of their religion. Gobraiel said that sharia tends to favor the Muslim parent in such cases.

“They want to stay with their mother,” said Gobraiel. “They don’t know anything about Islam and sharia. They are Christians and go to church on Sundays.”

The twins have publicly stated their faith, and during a test in a mandatory religious class two years ago they scribbled only, “I am a Christian” on their answer sheets and otherwise turned them in blank. The twins intend to go on a hunger strike if they are forced to live with their Muslim father, whom they hardly know, sources said.

“We only want one thing,” said Gobraiel. “We want the law to be applied in our cases like this one, not the sharia, because the government owes us citizenship. This is a civilized, secular country, not a religious country.”

The decision of the presiding judge, El Sayed El Sherbini, to give the father full custody is not even based on sharia but is purely arbitrary, Gaballah and her eldest son George Medhat Ramses claimed, since the country’s State Mufti had granted custody to the mother in April 2006.

“We don’t want to give them to anyone or comply with the sentence,” Ramses told Compass. “All the legal ways have been wrong to us. We’ve been trying to make it as legal as we can, but the court has not been fair.”

Ramses, 21, who is also a Christian and lives with his mother and two little brothers, said the judged showed bias in favor of his father because he converted to Islam shortly after he left Gaballah.

“The decision was unfair and oppressive,” Gaballah told Compass. “I am treated differently than other Egyptians, as if this is not my own country.”

Gaballah, who has been fighting to keep her sons since the court decided in 2006 that custody of her sons should be given to her ex-husband, fears that her children will grow up without hope and a sense of justice.

“I am so sad and afraid about their psychology,” she said, “because they are facing something that is fundamentally against all the principles I have taught them.”

Gaballah said she is ready to keep fighting with the few means left in her power to keep her sons, even if it means tarnishing her with a criminal record by not handing them over to their father.

“And I’m determined to get justice in my own country, because it is my natural right and my sons’ right,” she said. “I cannot see how I can comply with the people who are taking my rights away from me and taking my children from me to give them to an unworthy father and another woman.”

Labib is now married to his third wife, with whom he has a 4-year-old son. He is a businessman working in exports and travels between Alexandria and Cairo.

Gobraiel said that he intends to send a clear message to Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak and the international human rights community that judgments like this one are hypocritical on the part of a government that claims to be “civilized.”

“How can they think we live in a civilized and secular country when they are applying sharia law on us?” he asked. “We will send a message to human rights organizations in Egypt and around the world to help us. We are angry and we want to declare it!”


Problematic Birth Certificates

Even under their father’s custody, the twins have the legal right to live with whomever they choose in two years, when they turn 15. But Ramses said he doubts the court would let them return to their mother.

“The same law that states that they should stay with mother until the age of 15 is the one that says they can decide where to live after the age of 15,” he explained. “If the court didn’t apply the first part of the law, they won’t apply the second.”

At the age of 16, when Mario and Andrew apply for their identification cards, they will face yet another hurdle, said Ramses. In 2005, Labib went to the population register and changed the twins’ birth certificates from Christian to Muslim, to reflect his own religion.

Now Ramses fears that a Sept. 23 court ruling in the case of Bahia Nagy El-Sisi, sentencing her to prison for three years for “forgery of an official document,” could be what awaits him and his little brothers. Nagy El-Sisi’s father had converted to Islam briefly in 1962, when she was 3 years old, and her documents were never altered to reflect the change as she remained a Christian. She and her sister discovered that their father had temporarily converted to Islam when the sister, Shadia Nagy, tried to issue marriage papers for her son.

Shadia Nagy was sentenced to three years in prison in 2007, also for “forgery.”

“These women are us in the future,” said Ramses.

Over the past few years, as Christians have found out about the twin boys’ case, Ramses said many have called them to give support. Many also have pledged to go on a hunger strike with the boys if they are handed over to their father.

“Christians see them as Coptic heroes and martyrs who stood up in front of all and said they were Christians and held on to it,” said Ramses. “All of them say they see the greatness of their ancestors and Christian heroes of long ago in them … and they carry a lot of respect and love for what they have done.”

Report from Compass Direct News