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


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


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.


Persecuted Converts

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