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


With both minors saying they had converted to Islam, lawyers feared worse.

ISTANBUL, September 15 (Compass Direct News) – Christian human rights lawyers in Pakistan saw a partial legal victory in a judge’s ruling last week that one of two kidnapped girls be returned to her Christian parents. The judge further ruled that her sister be free to choose whether to go with the Muslim man who allegedly forced her to convert and marry him.

Justice Malik Saeed Ejaz ruled on Tuesday (Sept. 9) that 10-year-old Aneela Masih be returned to her parents – an unprecedented legal victory for Christian parents of a girl who supposedly converted to Islam, according to one lawyer – while leaving her sister, 13-year-old Saba Masih, free to choose whether to go with Amjad Ali, a Muslim man who married her after the June 26 kidnapping.

Saba Masih, whose birth certificate indicates that she is now 13 but who testified that she is 17, said she did not want to return to her parents and tried to keep her little sister from returning to them. Their Muslim captors have repeatedly threatened the two girls that their parents would harm them if they returned.

The older sister is not willing to meet with any of the family members or her parents, said Rashid Rehman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

“It’s normal behavior,” he told Compass. “She was tutored and brainwashed by the family of her husband Ali, and naturally they made up her mind that her parents will hurt her and treat her inhumanely. In fact that will never happen. Her family is really peaceful, and remained so peaceful the whole time the case was heard in high court.”

After more than three hours of heated legal arguments in the Multan branch of Lahore’s High Court, the judge deemed the oldest child sui juris – capable to handle her own affairs – based on her testimony that she is 17 years old and on a Lahore medical board’s ruling that she is between 15 and 17. The medical board may have been pressured to declare Saba Masih as an adult, according to the parents’ lawyers.

Conditions set in the ruling called for the parents not to “interfere” with Aneela Masih’s religious beliefs, that they be allowed to visit Saba Masih and that the groom’s family pay them 100,000 rupees (US$1,316) according to Pakistani marriage tradition.

Raised in a Christian family in the small town of Chowk Munda, the two girls were kidnapped on June 26 while traveling to visit their uncle in Sarwar Shaheed, northwest of Multan. Saba Masih was married to Ali the next day, and the kidnappers filed for custody of the girls on June 28 based on their alleged forced conversion to Islam.

Islamic jurisprudence and Pakistani law do not recognize the forced marriages of minors.


‘Pleased with Outcome’

“We are pleased with the outcome,” said Joseph Francis, head of the Center for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS). He said, however, that the verdict was not complete without the return of Saba Masih to her family.

Francis and two other CLAAS lawyers were present at the Sept. 9 judgment despite repeated threats against their office over the course of the hearings.

CLAAS lawyer Akbar Durrani told Compass that it was the first time in his life that he had seen such a decision. “In my experience they have not given us the custody of minor girls even as young as 9 years old that have been declared Muslim,” said Durrani, who has been practicing law in Pakistan for 18 years. “It is a legal victory.”

As a minor, though, Aneela Masih’s previous declaration that she had converted from Christianity to Islam was not explicitly recognized. Calling the lawyers into his private chamber to present options before ruling, according to the parents’ lawyers, the judge said he would make no mention of the girls’ supposed conversion to Islam.

“This was a very favorable thing for us,” said Durrani. “He said, ‘I’m only going to decide the custody,’ so we decided this is acceptable to us.”

In his private chamber, the judge gave them different options, warning them that if they didn’t cooperate or accept his proposals he would make his own judgment. In the end he said he would hand the little girl to her mother and set the other free.

“Wherever she wants to go she can go,” the judge told the parties. “But if she wants to go with you she can go, and if she wants to go to her husband she can go.”

The girls, their mother and Ali were then invited into the judge’s chamber, where the judge announced the decision to them.

Durrani said that Aneela Masih went to her mother willingly, while her older sister gave a cry and tried to pull the 10-year-old back to her.

“The minor resisted for a fraction of a second to go to the mother,” Durrani said. “The little girl was under pressure; every time she was instructed by her elder sister not to talk to her mother.”

Her mother hugged her, and the lawyer said the little girl seemed very comfortable in her lap. There her mother tried to remove the veil from her daughter to look at her, but she resisted. Outside the courtroom, however, Aneela Masih removed the veil herself and later accepted food and drink. The girls had been fasting during Ramadan.

The lawyers said it was clear from the 10-year-old girl’s reactions that she was confused from the ordeal.


Supreme Court Question

Lawyers for the parents are weighing the options and feasibility of getting the oldest daughter back through the Supreme Court.

On Friday (Sept. 12), the girls’ uncle, Khalid Raheel, who has spearheaded the efforts to get them back, told CLAAS lawyers that Aneela was readjusting into her life at home. Raheel asked the family lawyers that they continue to try to get Saba back.

Rehman said he does not think the case would stand in the Supreme Court. “She willingly said, ‘I don’t want to go with my parents,’” he said.

Durrani and Francis, however, said they would continue to fight for her. “We’ll go to the Supreme Court for Saba,” said Francis.

“We will try getting the statement of Aneela and then will re-open the case,” said Durrani, adding that Aneela Masih had told her family, “Please get her back from that place.”

Rehman told Compass in a phone interview that Saba Masih’s statement that she is 17, her supposed embrace of Islam and her marriage by consent will make getting her back very difficult.

“She has admitted the marriage at the court and produced the marriage papers and has claimed that she’s over 16, so it was very difficult for us to prove our case that she’s a minor girl… because it is denied by Saba herself,” said Rehman.

He explained that the only way to secure the oldest daughter’s return to her family would be by proving she is a minor, something virtually impossible at this point because of her testimony. The court has refused to admit her birth certificate as evidence.

Saba Masih still refuses to communicate with her parents.


‘Frightened, Small Girl’

In court last week, both sisters sat in hijab dress fully veiled next to a policewoman from the Dar Ul Rahman women’s shelter, where the two girls had stayed since a July 29 hearing.

Their mother tried to talk to them and show them photos. Durrani said that Aneela Masih was responsive to her mother, but her older sister would pull her away, forbidding her from talking to her.

The judge had ruled that the girls stay at the shelter in order to think of their alleged conversion to Islam away from external pressures. Lawyers for the parents said that while in the shelter the girls were continually harassed and threatened that their family would not take them back.

Aneela Masih stated to the lawyers and her parents after the court decision that Ali’s family and their captors told them that everyone was Muslim – the lawyers, the judge, society – and that their parents could not take them back.

Knowing the attention the case of the two girls had attracted, Durrani said, the judge left the case till last. Yet the courtroom, he said, was full of “those who had kidnapped the girls, their supporters, the Islamic fanatics; all these were present in the court and interested in the hearing of the case.”

From the outset at last week’s hearing, the judge wanted to ask Aneela Masih questions about Islam to extract a statement on which he could rule on her custody. Durrani and colleague Justin Gill fought against the lawyer and the judge, arguing that as the 10-year-old was a minor, her statement on faith could not be valid and that she must be returned to her mother.

“We concentrated our efforts on Aneela, that at least we should have some relief to get her back and then we can fight in the Supreme Court if we wish to go for any other thing,” he said, referring to the older sister’s case.

The judge had decided to postpone the verdict till this Thursday (Sept. 18) and place the girls back in the Dar Ul Rahman shelter, where their mother could visit them for two hours every day. But the CLAAS lawyers said they feared waiting would only work against their case in the long run, making it more difficult to gain custody of the younger sister if both were exposed to more harassment and possible brainwashing.

“Even if she is a Muslim and has changed her religion, according to Islam a mother is the best custodian of the child,” Durrani said he and Gill argued.

Rehman said that Aneela Masih seemed frightened and, according to information he had obtained, the girl was afraid of her abductors and her own family even while in the shelter.

“She was a frightened, small girl,” he said. “They told her that if she returned to her parents she’d be treated unkindly.”


Threats, Car Chase

On Sept. 8, the day before the hearing, while traveling together from Lahore to Multan, the three lawyers for the Christian parents – Francis, Durrani and Gill – received threatening calls from the supporters of the girls’ kidnappers.

That night while, on their way back from dinner to a bishop’s house where they were staying in Multan, the CLAAS team was approached by armed men on motorcycles who threatened them, warning them to not go to the judgment hearing the next day.

“They said, ‘You should not be in court or you will be responsible for the consequences,’” said Durrani.

When nearby police saw the scene and approached, the armed men left the scene.

“We were afraid, but we knew we had to go,” Durrani said.

After the hearing, while traveling back to Lahore, Durrani said that Muslim fanatics chased them for about 100 kilometers (62 miles).

“Then we went to another city and got to the highway from another shortcut,” he said.

Durrani said the lawyers have many cases like this, causing them concern for their own safety.

“It is not the first time we get threats, but by the grace of God, and by the refuge of our Holy Ghost we are safe,” he said. “Every time we know the prayers of our church and other Christians are with us, which is why we are able to get the victory for our Lord.”

Report from Compass Direct News