Egyptian Court Refuses to Return Passport to Christian


Convert from Islam tried to leave country to save his life.

ISTANBUL, March 15 (CDN) — An Egyptian court last week refused to return the passport of a convert from Islam who tried to leave Egypt to save his life, the Christian said on Friday (March 12).

On Tuesday (March 9) the Egyptian State Council Court in Giza, an administrative court, refused to return the passport of Maher Ahmad El-Mo’otahssem Bellah El-Gohary. El-Gohary said he was devastated by the decision, which essentially guarantees him several more months of living in fear.

“I am very, very disappointed and very unhappy about what happened,” he said, “because I am being threatened – my life is being threatened, my daughter’s life is being threatened very frequently, and I don’t feel safe at all in Egypt.”

Nabil Ghobreyal, El-Gohary’s attorney, told Compass the government declined to give the court any reason for its actions.

“There was no response as to why his passport was taken,” Ghobreyal said.

On Sept. 17, 2009, authorities at Cairo International Airport seized El-Gohary’s passport. El-Gohary, 57, also known as Peter Athanasius, was trying to leave the country to visit China. Eventually he intended to travel to the United States. At the time, El-Gohary was told only that his travel had been barred by “higher authority.”

El-Gohary, who converted to Christianity from Islam more than 30 years ago, gained notoriety in Egypt in February 2009, when he filed a court application to have the religion on his identification card changed from Muslim to Christian. El-Gohary’s action caused widespread uproar among conservative Muslims in Egypt. He was branded an “apostate” and multiple fatwas, or religious edicts were issued against him. In accordance with some interpretations of the Quran, some Muslims believe El-Gohary should be killed for leaving Islam.

Since filing his application, El-Gohary has lived in fear and has been in hiding with his 15-year-old daughter. Every month, he said, they move from apartment to apartment. He is unable to work, and his daughter, also a Christian, is unable to attend school.

Their days are filled with anxiety, fear and boredom.

“We are very fearful,” El-Gohary said. “We are hiding between four walls all day long.”

El-Gohary went through extraordinary efforts to get the documentation the court demanded for him to officially change his religion, including getting a certificate of conversion from a Coptic Christian religious group. The certificate, which was the first time a Christian church in Egypt recognized a convert from Islam, also caused an uproar.

But ultimately, in June the court denied his application. He was the second person in Egypt to apply to have his religion officially changed from Islam to Christianity. The other applicant was denied as well. El-Gohary has not exhausted his appeals and may file legal proceedings with an international legal body. He has another hearing with the administrative court on June 29.

“I don’t understand what I have done wrong,” El-Gohary said. “I went though the normal legal channels. I thought I was an Egyptian citizen and I would be treated as such by the Egyptian law. I went through the front doors of the legal system, not the back doors, and for that I am being threatened, chased, and I live in continuous fear.”

The National Constitution of Egypt guarantees freedom of religion unless it contradicts set practices in sharia, or Islamic law. While it is easy to change one’s religious identity from Christian to Muslim, it is impossible to do the opposite.

El-Gohary’s case was mentioned by name in a human rights report issued Thursday (March 11) by the U.S. Department of State. El-Gohary said he was pleased that his case was in the report. He said he believes it is his duty to open new doors for his fellow converts in Egypt.

“This is something I have to do,” he said. “It is a duty. I have become a symbol for Christians in Egypt.”

El-Gohary said he hopes U.S. President Barack Obama, other world leaders and international groups will pressure the Egyptian government to allow him to leave the country.

In spite of his ordeal, El-Gohary said faith is still strong and that he doesn’t regret becoming a Christian.

“I don’t regret it at all,” he continued, excitedly. “This is the narrow road that Christians have to go through and suffer to reach eternal life. I have no regrets whatsoever. We are very grateful to know Christ, and we know He’s the way.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

EGYPT: CONVERT’S RELIGIOUS RIGHTS CASE THREATENS ISLAMISTS


Muslims said to fear that freedom to legally change religion would wreak societal havoc.

CAIRO, Egypt, May 12 (Compass Direct News) – In the dilapidated office here of three lawyers representing one of Egypt’s “most wanted” Christian converts, the mood was hopeful in spite of a barrage of death threats against them and their client.

At a court hearing on May 2, a judge agreed to a request by the convert from Islam to join the two cases he has opened to change his ID card to reflect his new faith. The court set June 13 as the date to rule on the case of Maher Ahmad El-Mo’otahssem Bellah El-Gohary’s – who is in hiding from outraged Islamists – and lawyer Nabil Ghobreyal said he was hopeful that progress thus far will lead to a favorable ruling.

At the same time, El-Gohary’s lawyers termed potentially “catastrophic” for Egyptian human rights a report sent to the judge by the State Council, a consultative body of Egypt’s Administrative Court. Expressing outrage at El-Gohary’s “audacity” to request a change in the religious designation on his ID, the report claims the case is a threat to societal order and violates sharia (Islamic law).

“This [report] is bombarding freedom of religion in Egypt,” said lawyer Said Faiz. “They are insisting that the path to Islam is a one-way street. The entire report is based on sharia.”

The report is counterproductive for Egypt’s aspirations for improved human rights, they said. In the eyes of the international community it is self-condemned, the lawyers said, because it is not based on Egypt’s civil law, nor does it uphold the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights that Egypt has signed.

The report stated that those who leave Islam will be subject to death, described El-Gohary as an “apostate” and called all Christians “infidels.”

“During the hearing, they [Islamic lawyers] were saying that Christians are infidels and that Christ was a Muslim, so we said, ‘OK, bring us the papers that show Jesus embraced Islam,’” Faiz said, to a round of laughter from his colleagues.

Ghobreyal, adding that the report says El-Gohary’s case threatens public order, noted wryly, “In Egypt we have freedom of religion, but these freedoms can’t go against Islam.”

The trio of young lawyers working on El-Gohary’s case, who formed an organization called Nuri Shams (Sunlight) to support Christian converts’ rights, said they have received innumerable threats over the phone and on the Internet, and sometimes even from their colleagues.

Churches Challenged

To date no Christian convert in Egypt has obtained a baptismal certificate, which amounts to official proof of conversion.

Churches fear that issuing such certificates would create a severe backlash. As a result, converts cannot apply for a change of religion on their ID, but El-Gohary was able to travel abroad to get a baptismal certificate from a well-established church. In April a Coptic Cairo-based priest 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 Father Matthias Nasr Manqarious, the priest who helped him.

“The converts have no chance to travel, to leave, to get asylum, so we have to help them to get documents for their new religion,” Fr. Manqarious told Compass by telephone. “So I decided to help Maher El-Gohary and others like him. They can’t live as Christians in broad daylight.”

For several months El-Gohary has been in hiding, relying on others to meet his basic needs. When Compass spoke with him by phone earlier this month, he said he lives in fear for his life and worries about his 14-year-old daughter’s safety.

“I’m hiding. Someone brings me my food and water. I haven’t gone out in a week,” said El-Gohary. “Many Muslims and sheikhs … say if anyone sees Maher Gohary, he must kill him. My life is very difficult.”

His original case, filed in August of last year, included an attempt to change the religious affiliation on his teenage daughter’s ID, but he later dropped it after further legal consultation. El-Gohary said that when radical Muslims recognize his daughter on the streets, they warn her that they will kill her father when they find him.

“She’s afraid for me,” he said.

His church acceptance letter has re-kindled discussion of a bill proposed by parliamentary members affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, a hard-line Islamist opposition movement, which would make apostasy punishable by death, said El-Gohary’s lawyers. Human rights experts, however, say that such a bill does not stand a chance in the Egyptian Parliament and is primarily a smokescreen to induce fear in Egypt’s Christian converts from Islam.

Some Hope from Baha’is

Sources said the fact that the judge asked for a baptismal certificate and filed the letter of acceptance in the case represents progress in the ongoing struggle of Egyptian converts, who are not recognized in their own country.

Now that El-Gohary’s lawyers have produced the acceptance letter, the judge in the case finds himself in a bind, said Hassan Ismail, general secretary of the Egyptian Union of Human Rights Organizations.

“The judge is in a paradox with the document he asked for,” Ismail said. “It is difficult to accept it, and yet it is difficult having this document among those of the case.”

Ismail, who has worked for years defending the rights of both Baha’is and converts, said it is hard to predict what the judge will decide in June. Even with all the required documents and “proof” of El-Gohary’s conversion, he said, the judge may still deny his right to change religions.

“For us human rights activists, these decisions are political, not legal,” he said. “These sorts of documents put the government into a corner, and we are working hard to get them in order to push the government to make different decisions.”

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.

Baha’is, who do not fall under the rubric of any of Islam’s “heavenly religions,” were forced to lie about their religion or not obtain cards until March, when in a historical decision Egypt’s Supreme Administrative Court upheld a lower court’s 2008 ruling that all Egyptians have a right to obtain official documents, such as ID cards and birth certificates, without stating their religion.

The gains of Baha’is have been a gauge of sorts for the Christian convert community, even though in reality they are not granted the freedom to change their stated religion or leave it blank on their cards and the official registry.

“I’m very optimistic about the cases of minorities and converts in Egypt,” said Ismail. “I believe that the case of Baha’is was an indicator for converts … If we were able to push their case, then we can defend the rights of converts.”

The human rights activist said that although discrimination against converts who are seen as apostates from Islam is greater than that against those raised in other religions, ultimately converts will be able to gain legal ground. El-Gohary’s case, he said, will play an important role.

“After years of fighting, the Baha’is have rights,” he said. “I think converts will succeed even if it takes years. Many are expecting to see Maher’s case [succeed], because it’s well documented.”

Attorney Ghobreyal said that El-Gohary’s case is on solid legal footing based on Article 46 of the Egyptian Civil Code, which grants religious freedom to the country’s citizens.

In his mind it is irrational that the government gave rights to the Baha’is, who fall outside of the three heavenly religions, while not granting the same rights to Christian converts. His only explanation is that a governmental green light to people to leave Islam could wreak havoc.

Not only is there fear of the Muslim front reacting violently to such a decision, but “they’re afraid that if they allow it, then all Muslims will become Christians,” said Ghobreyal. “They know there are many converts, and they will all officially become Christians.”

The lawyer said there are rumors circulating that there are a few million converts eagerly awaiting the results of El-Gohary’s case. Egypt’s last census in 2006 did not factor in religion, so figures of the Coptic population are based on estimates. These range from 6 to 15 percent of the country’s 80-million population. It is not possible to estimate the number of converts, most of whom live in secrecy.

“Ten years ago, you never heard about a convert, but now you hear that someone is going to the court to ask to become a Christian,” said Ghobreyal.

Hegazy’s Hope

The first convert to file for a change on his ID card, Mohammed Ahmed Hegazy, said he was pleased with the progress of El-Gohary’s case and hoped that more converts would take the risk of joining their cause.

“I think that every case added to the convert case will be a help,” said Hegazy.

An outspoken critic of the refusal of Egypt’s established churches to openly baptize converts, Hegazy said that in El-Gohary’s case publicity and criticism pushed the church to take a step in the right direction in producing the conversion certificate.

“But this is not a big step, and there are many more that need to be taken and have not been,” he said. “Just to be clear, the [Egyptian] church has not given a baptism certificate, it has given an acceptance letter, and the church has declared they are not going to give a baptism paper … but we can’t deny that the step that the priest took to give the certificate was audacious.”

Hegazy, who lost his case in January 2008 and is waiting for an appeal date, was never able to get a baptism certificate, nor can he travel since he does not have a passport. If he returns to his hometown to apply for one, he risks losing his life.

He said he still hopes any of Egypt’s churches will help him by baptizing him and giving him a certificate in time for his appeal or for a new case he plans to open soon. Hegazy said that although his case is not as public as it used to be, he still faces danger when he leaves his house.

Although he is also in hiding and fears for his life, El-Gohary said he hopes his case opens the way for other converts to experience freedom.

“I hope this for all of those who want to live in the light and the sun; there are many families,” he said of Egypt’s converts. “I want to live in peace as a Christian. I hope my country gives me the freedom to worship my God and gives me my human rights.”

Egypt is a member of the U.N. Human Rights Council, an inter-governmental body made up of 47 states responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe. On April 18, 2007, in its written statement applying for a seat to the Human Rights Council, the representative of Egypt to the U.N. stated that if elected it would emphasize promoting cultural and religious tolerance, among other human rights.

Report from Compass Direct News

EGYPT: JUDGE EJECTS LAWYER FOR CHRISTIAN FROM COURT


Dispute over evidence stalls bid by convert from Islam to change official ID.

ISTANBUL, January 13 (Compass Direct News) – An attempt by an Egyptian convert from Islam to legally change the religion listed on his identification card to “Christian” hit a setback on Jan. 6 when a judge ordered security personnel to remove his lawyer from court.

Attorney Nabil Ghobreyal was expelled from the courtroom at Cairo’s Administrative Court following a heated argument with Judge Mohammad Ahmad Atyia.

The dispute arose after Atyia refused to acknowledge the existence of legal documents detailing the successful attempt of a Muslim man to convert to the Baha’i faith. Ghobreyal had planned to submit the court records of the decision in support of his case.

The convert from Islam who is trying to legally convert to Christianity, Maher Ahmad El-Mo’otahssem Bellah El-Gohary, first submitted his request to alter the religious status stated on his ID in August 2008. He follows Muhammad Hegazy as only the second Egyptian Christian convert raised as a Muslim to request such a change.

El-Gohary received Christ in his early 20s. Now 56, he decided to legally change his religious affiliation out of concern over the effects that his “unofficial Christianity” has on his family. He said he was particularly concerned about his daughter, Dina Maher Ahmad Mo’otahssem, 14; though raised as a Christian, when she reaches age 16 she will be issued an identification card stating her religion as Muslim unless her father’s appeal is successful.

At school, she has been refused the right to attend Christian religious classes offered to Egypt’s Christian minorities and has been forced to attend Muslim classes. Religion is a mandatory part of the Egyptian curriculum.

El-Gohary also has charged that his nephew was denied a position in state security agencies because of his uncle’s religious “double life.”

“Why should my family pay for my choices?” said El-Gohary in a report by The Free Copts.

No date has been set for resumption of court proceedings, which, due to the dispute, will reconvene under a different judge.

Ghobreyal said he plans to submit a complaint to the High Administrative Court requesting an investigation of Atyia and the expulsion from court. “I am willing to continue the fight,” Ghobreyal told Compass through a translator, saying he remains hopeful of a positive outcome.

Despite a constitution that grants religious freedom, legal conversion from Islam to another faith remains unprecedented. Hegazy, who filed his case on Aug. 2, 2007, was denied the right to officially convert in a Jan. 29 court ruling that declared it was against Islamic law for a Muslim to leave Islam.

The judge based his decision on Article II of the Egyptian constitution, which enshrines Islamic law, or sharia, as the source of Egyptian law. The judge said that, according to sharia, Islam is the final and most complete religion and therefore Muslims already practice full freedom of religion and cannot return to an older belief (Christianity or Judaism).

The seminal nature of the El-Gohary and Hegazy cases is part of what makes them so controversial, according to Gamal Eid, director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information.

“First, there is no experience – this is a very new question, it has made judges and lawyers confused,” he said. “The second thing is that many judges are very religious, for many of them it is based on their religion, their thoughts; the law itself allows for people to convert, so that’s what we’re trying to do, have a decision based on law not on sharia.”

Eid attributed much of the reluctance to grant conversion to this religious bias.

“If the Minister of the Interior respected the law, we would not need to go to court,” he said. “The law says clearly that people can change their address, their career, their religion, they only have to sign an application and then they can have a new ID; the law allows people to convert from any religion to another.”

Egyptian President Anwar Sadat amended the constitution in 1980 to make sharia the main source of legislation in order to bolster support from Islamists against his secular and leftist rivals. Legal experts say there are two views of how sharia is to influence Egyptian law: That it is to be enforced directly in all government spheres, or that it is only to influence shaping of law by legislators and is not to be literally enforced by courts or other bodies.  

Report from Compass Direct News

EGYPT: CITIZEN WINS RARE LEGAL VICTORY TO REVERT TO CHRISTIANITY


Copt who became Muslim, then returned to Christ, gets ‘new’ faith officially recognized.

ISTANBUL, January 8 (Compass Direct News) – An Egyptian convert to Christianity who spent 31 years officially identified as a Muslim has won a rare legal victory to be officially registered in his “new” faith.

An Alexandrian administrative court awarded Fathi Labib Yousef the right to register as a Christian at a Dec. 20 hearing in the Mediterranean coastal city.

Yousef, in his early 60s, was raised Coptic but converted to Islam in 1974 in order to divorce his Christian wife. Becoming Muslim typically allows for an easy nullification of marriage to a non-Muslim within sharia (Islamic law), and conversion is often employed for this reason by both men and women in Islamic countries.

He reverted to Christianity in 2005 after an Orthodox clerical council gave its official permission, according to the advocacy group US Copts Association.

Yousef applied to the civil registry to acknowledge his change of religion the same year. But the government refused to acknowledge his re-conversion, so he filed a lawsuit against the Egyptian prime minister, interior minister and Civil Status Organization chairman.

The court awarded him the right to revert to Christianity since it is his right according to Egyptian civil law, said Peter Ramses, an attorney familiar with Yousef’s case.

Ramses said this case is an important development for Egypt to live up to freedoms promised in the constitution. Unfortunately this verdict does not represent a legal sea change, he said, but rather the correct decision of an individual judge.

“We only have some judges giving these decisions,” he said. “In Egypt we have many judges who don’t work by the law, but by sharia.”

And Yousef is not assured that his official religious identity will stand. His attorney, Joseph Malak, said other Egyptian Christians have won the right to return to Christianity only to see government officials stop implementation.

“The stumbling block is the police or civil registry office could refuse to carry it out on paper,” he said. Other measures that could block implementation, he said, include appeals against the decision by courts “infiltrated by Muslim fundamentalist ideologies.”

Last year Egypt’s top administrative court allowed 12 converts to Islam to return to Christianity, but the decision was appealed before the country’s Supreme Constitutional Court.

The court was going to rule in November concerning the legality of reversion to Christianity, but its decision has been postponed indefinitely. If the court had upheld the decision, Egyptian converts to Islam would have had the constitutional right to return to Christianity.

But for now, victories such as Yousef’s depend on the will of each judge.

“It means every judge issues a ruling at their own discretion, [even though] the law in existence is in favor of these people,” said Samia Sidhom, English editor of Egyptian Christian weekly Watani.

Changing an official religious identity from Islam to any other religion in Egypt is extremely difficult. While Article 47 of Egypt’s civil law gives citizens the right to choose their religion, Article II of the Egyptian constitution enshrines sharia as the source of Egyptian law.

Traditional interpretation of sharia calls for the death of Islamic “apostates,” or those who leave Islam, but in Egypt legal authorities give somewhat more flexibility to those born and raised as Christians before converting to Islam.

Yousef decided to return to Christianity as a matter of religious belief and doubts about Islam, his lawyer said.

Ramses said he hopes to see more decisions in favor of Christians wanting to revert to their religion. He said many in Egypt convert to Islam not for religious reasons, but to secure a divorce, attain higher social status or marry a Muslim.

Religious reversion cases are difficult to win, but far more difficult is for Muslim-born converts to Christianity to officially change their religion, although a few have tried. One such person is Maher Ahmad El-Mo’otahssem Bellah El-Gohary, a convert with an open case at the State Council Court to replace the word “Muslim” on his identification card with “Christian.”

El-Gohary, 56, has been a Christian for 34 years. His case is only the second of his kind in Egypt. Muhammad Hegazy filed the first in August 2007, but his case was denied in a January 2008 court ruling that declared it contrary to Islamic law for a Muslim to leave his religion.  

Report from Compass Direct News

EGYPT: ANOTHER CONVERT TRIES TO CHANGE RELIGIOUS IDENTIFICATION


Only second case of Muslim-born Egyptian endeavoring to officially alter affiliation.

ISTANBUL, August 7 (Compass Direct News) – One year after the first attempt by an Egyptian Muslim convert to Christianity to change his religious identity, another convert this week became the second to make such a controversial legal request.

After 34 years of practicing Christianity, 56-year-old Maher Ahmad El-Mo’otahssem Bellah El-Gohary filed a case at the State Council Court on Monday (August 4) to replace the word “Muslim” on his identification card with “Christian.”

El-Gohary is the second person raised as a Muslim to make such an appeal to the Egyptian government after Muhammad Hegazy, who filed his case on Aug. 2, 2007. Hegazy’s case was denied in a Jan. 29 court ruling that declared it was against Islamic law for a Muslim to leave Islam.

“He can believe whatever he wants in his heart, but on paper he can’t convert,” the judge had told the administrative court, according to a member of Hegazy’s legal team.

The judge had based his decision on Article II of the Egyptian constitution, which enshrines Islamic law, or sharia, as the source of Egyptian law. The judge said that, according to sharia, Islam is the final and most complete religion and therefore Muslims already practice full freedom of religion and cannot return to an older belief (Christianity or Judaism).

“I am so surprised by the Administrative Court verdict refusing the case of Hegazy,” said one of El-Gohary’s lawyers, Nabil Ghobreyal. “This is against all the international conventions as well as the [Egyptian] constitution and Islamic law, which guarantee the freedom of belief.”

Ghobreyal said that if his client could not claim his rights in Egypt, he was determined to take the case to the U.N. International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands.

“No human has the right to choose the religion for someone else or to force him to embrace it, and no court has the right to order different religions in degrees,” Ghobreyal said.

Hegazy’s open declaration of conversion last August, the first of its kind in modern Egypt, caused public outcry. His father told the press that he would kill his son if he did not return to Islam. Since the court’s denial of Hegazy’s appeal, he and his wife have been in hiding with their baby due to numerous, serious threats on their lives.

“I wish for all converts to have one huge case, so that together we could show the world what is lacking in our rights,” Hegazy told Compass in an interview last week. Hegazy and legal experts have said that one case alone would not stand in court, but that many cases of converts should be filed concurrently in order to have any sway.

 

Impact on Daughter

El-Gohary accepted Christianity as a young man in his early twenties after becoming curious about the Bible. Through reading, he was convinced that the New Testament said the truth about Jesus. His family opposed his choice of faith and repeatedly pressured him to come back to Islam.

In an interview with Compass in November 2003, El-Gohary said that often he would come home to his farm in an undisclosed location to find his property vandalized. At that time he was considering leaving Egypt for the sake of his daughter.

“We want to live in a place with no persecution,” he had told Compass. He said he could make ends meet with his inheritance money, “but I’m afraid for my little girl, for her future. She loves Jesus so much.”

The convert has raised his 14-year-old daughter, Dina Maher Ahmad Mo’otahssem, as a Christian, and she has also embraced Christianity. When she turns 16 she must be issued an identity card designating her faith as Muslim unless her father can win this case on her behalf.

At school, she has been refused the right to attend Christian religious classes offered to Egypt’s Christian minorities and has been forced to attend Muslim classes. Religion is a mandatory part of the Egyptian curriculum.

The case of the father-daughter duo was filed against Minister of Interior Habib El’Adly, the president of the National Council of Human Rights and former U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali.

“Man chooses his god and His God calls him, and there is no power on Earth that can separate them,” El-Gohary and his lawyers wrote in the appeal filed earlier this week. “He is totally free to reach Him as his mind leads him.”

El-Gohary’s lawyers criticized the decision of the court in Hegazy’s case to establish a hierarchy among religions, making Islam the highest.

“No court can decide for God how and to what standard religions are ordered, nor intervene in a person’s freedom to believe, since God will judge them and their choice,” they wrote.

The appeal stressed that the case was that of an Egyptian citizen and was filed on the basis of his individual freedoms granted in the Egyptian constitution and international conventions of human rights. When El-Gohary embraced Christianity, the document stated, he did so “believing that personal faith is a relationship between man and God” and was not a sectarian issue.

Report from Compass Direct News