Key move in former Muslim’s bid to legally convert comes as Islamist outcry peaks.
ISTANBUL, April 14 (Compass Direct News) – In a bold move, Egypt’s Coptic Church has issued its first-ever certificate of conversion to a former Muslim, supporting his petition to have his national identification card denote his Christian faith.
Maher Ahmad El-Mo’otahssem Bellah El-Gohary’s request to legally convert is only the second case in Egypt of a Muslim-born citizen trying to change his religious affiliation to Christianity on identification documents. Lawyers presented the Coptic Church’s conversion certificate to a court clerk on Saturday (April 11).
“We know that the judge has seen the certificate, but we have no indication whether it is acceptable or not,” said Nabil Ghobreyal, one of three lawyers representing El-Gohary. “We will have to wait until May 2 to find out the final verdict.”
Reluctance to expose itself to possible retaliation from either the government or Islamic extremists has kept the Coptic Church from openly admitting to baptizing and welcoming converts until now.
There is indeed reason to fear reprisal.
“Intimidation from the Islamic lawyers is severe,” said El-Gohary in a recent interview. “They were chanting in the court, ‘No god but Allah,’ and they were threatening intensely.”
Despite efforts to maintain the secrecy of El-Gohary’s whereabouts, he has received written death threats on more than one occasion since appearing in court on April 4 to register an official statement.
Since the certificate was issued, some bloggers have used strong and abusive language to support Islamist lawyers Mustafa El-Alshak’a, Hamid Sadiq and Youssef El-Badri in their threats against El-Gohary’s lawyers and the priest that issued the certificate, Father Matthias Nasr Manqarious.
As the representative of a community already heavily persecuted, the Coptic Church is in a precarious position. Despite the risks, however, it endorsed the certificate issued by Fr. Manqarious. Bishop Marcos of Shubra El-Kheima declared that the church cannot turn down a fellow believer who is looking for acceptance into the Christian community.
Whether the conversion certificate will turn out to be the final piece of the puzzle that opens the door for El-Gohary to officially convert remains to be seen.
Gamal Eid of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, who represents Mohammed Ahmed Hegazy, the first Muslim-born Egyptian to request a legal conversion, is no stranger to the pitfalls of such a case.
“We support freedom of thought, but we believe also that the government and the court will try to stop this, because if the door is open there will be huge numbers following,” Eid said.
El-Gohary characterized the judge’s request for the document as laying the onus for legal conversion on the church, describing it as “an excuse to wiggle out of making a decision.”
His lawyer, Ghobreyal, said he hopes that Judge Hamdy Yasin will allow El-Gohary to change his religious status now that the certificate has been issued.
For El-Gohary, threats from Islamic fundamentalist elements are now the foremost issue.
“I do not leave the house – my life is in real danger and my daughter is in real danger,” said El-Gohary. “The pressure is too much. I am thinking seriously that I should leave Egypt.”
El-Gohary and his lawyers are now calling for protection from both national security forces and the international community.
Report from Compass Direct News