Egyptian Convert from Islam Devastated by ‘Delay Tactic’

Court suspends Mohammed Hegazy’s lawsuit pending outcome of separate case.

CAIRO, Egypt, May 17 (CDN) — An Egyptian convert to Christianity said he is devastated by a recent court decision to suspend a lawsuit he filed to change the religion on his identification card from Muslim to Christian.

The First District of the Court of the State Council on April 27 suspended Mohammed Ahmed Hegazy’s case until the Constitutional Court rules on a challenge to Article 47, a section of the civil code that in theory allows Egyptians to change the religion listed on their ID card.

Hegazy, 27, said the suspension endangers his children’s welfare and will force them to lead a double life indefinitely – at home they will be taught to live in accordance with the Bible, and outside it they will be taught to live according to the Quran.

If they ultimately decide to follow Jesus, Hegazy said, his children will be declared “apostates” and be persecuted the rest of their lives for “leaving Islam.” Hegazy, who has suffered severely after Egypt’s religious authorities declared him an apostate, including being imprisoned by State Security Investigations (SSI) several times, said he filed the case so his children would avoid the same fate.

“I didn’t want them to have to go through the same harassment and persecution that I went through,” he said. “My daughter won’t be able to go to school without constantly fearing for her safety. She might even be killed simply because she is my daughter.”

Hegazy is arguably the most well-known Muslim convert to Christianity in Egypt. He rose to national prominence in August 2007 when he became the first Muslim convert in Egypt to sue for the right to change the religious status on his identification card to “Christian.”

Hegazy said he became a Christian in 1998 after seeking God during a period of intense study of religion. In his final assessment, he said, he found that Islam was void of the love and forgiveness found in Christianity.

Not long after his conversion, Hegazy said, he was arrested by SSI agents who tortured him for three days. In 2001, the SSI arrested Hegazy for writing a book of poems critical of the agency, which has been accused of abusive practices to preserve the regime. In 2002, the SSI arrested Hegazy and held him for more than two months in a prison he compared to a “concentration camp.”

In addition to the government response to his conversion, Hegazy said his mother and father have attacked him repeatedly for becoming a Christian.

“In the culture in Egypt, for a person to change his religion, it’s a big deal because it’s a question of honor and tradition,” Hegazy said. “My dad and my mom took it in a really bad way and would beat me.”

Hegazy married another convert from Islam, Katarina, in 2005. Katarina also wants her ID changed but fears government reaction; there are numerous reports circulating among Egyptian Christians about female converts being arrested and tortured by the SSI or simply disappearing in Egypt’s prison system under Egypt’s Emergency Law. Renewed last week for another two years, the law grants the government broad powers of arbitrary incarceration that human rights groups have roundly criticized.

Delay Tactic

When Hegazy filed his suit in 2007, he and his wife were expecting their first child. Overnight, Egyptian media propelled him into the national limelight. And the persecution got much worse.

Two religious scholars from Al-Azhar University, one of the leading voices of Islamic thought in the Middle East, publicly declared it was legal to kill Muslims that convert to Christianity. In one incident, extremists surrounded a home where Hegazy had once lived and stayed there for several days. In another incident, a group of men ransacked and set fire to Hegazy’s apartment while he was away.

Throughout his legal proceedings, several of Hegazy’s attorney’s have dropped out of the case after receiving death threats, being sued or being arrested. On Jan. 28, 2009, a court ruled that Muslims were forbidden to convert to another religion and ordered Hegazy to pay the costs of hearing his case. He appealed.

Hegazy lives in hiding. Unable to work, the former journalist is supported by friends and other Christians. Last month’s ruling will likely delay a decision in Hegazy’s case for several years and keep him and his family in limbo.

“The court is using this decision as a way of delaying having to make an ultimate decision,” Hegazy said.

The couple’s first child, Mariam, is now 2 years old, and their second child, Yousef, is 3 months old. Because Hegazy and his wife are unable to change their ID to reflect their true faith, the government lists both of their children as Muslims. If they choose to become Christians, they will be considered apostates who, in accordance with longstanding interpretation of the guiding scriptures of Islam, must be killed by faithful Muslims.

“It makes me feel like religion in Egypt isn’t something you can choose by your own free will; it’s something that you are forced to be, and nobody has a choice to choose what their religion is,” Hegazy said. “It bothers me a lot because my kids know they are being brought up as Christians in their home and their parents are Christians, but they can’t practice their religion outside the house.”

Inconsistent Rules

Every Egyptian citizen age 16 or older must carry a state-issued ID card that is required for opening a bank account, enrolling children in school and for starting a business, among other activities. Religious identity also determines to which civil or family court one is subject.

Of primary importance to Hegazy is that the religion indicated on the ID card determines what religious education classes a child is required to take in school.

There is a stark contrast in Egypt between the treatment of Christians who want to change the religious affiliation on their ID card to Islam and Muslims who want to change their affiliation to Christianity. Generally speaking, because Muslims consider the preaching of Muhammad to be the last of three revelations from God to man, in practice “freedom of religion” in Egypt means only the freedom to convert to Islam.

Article 47 of Egypt’s constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but the constitution also states that Islam is the official religion of Egypt. Article 2 of the constitution states that Islamic law, or sharia, is “the principle source of legislation” in Egypt.

The difference between the treatment of converts to Christianity and converts to Islam is illustrated in the case of Samy Aziz Fahmy. The week before the court postponed Hegazy’s case, Fahmy, a Coptic Christian from Saayda village, changed his legal status to Islam. He received his ID card reflecting his new religion on the same day he applied for it – on the day he turned 18, the legal age for conversion.

“I think it’s very weird and not fair that when Christians want to convert to Islam there’s no problem, their papers go through and there’s no discrimination against them,” Hegazy said. “But when Muslims want to convert to Christianity, all of the sudden it’s a big deal.”

Hegazy is not alone in his legal battles. After he filed his case, other Muslim converts sought court action to change their IDs. Like Hegazy, most are in hiding of some sort. Hegazy’s lead attorney, Ashraf Edward, said he is working on several ID cases. He estimates there are more than 4 million converts to Christianity who want to change the religion listed on their ID, though the basis for that figure is unclear.

“There are a lot of people who want to change their ID, but they’re afraid of turning it into a court case because they don’t want to be persecuted,” Edward said.

International Condemnation

Human rights groups and government agencies around the world have condemned Egypt for its record on religious freedom. In a report issued earlier this month, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom outlined Egypt’s problems with identification cards and the treatment of converts from Islam, taking note of Hegazy’s case.

“The Egyptian government generally does not recognize conversions of Muslims to other religions,” the report states. “Egyptian courts also have refused to allow Muslims who convert to Christianity to change their identity cards to reflect their conversions. In the first such case, brought by Muhammad Hegazy, a lower court ruled in January 2008 that Muslims are forbidden from converting away from Islam based on principles of Islamic law. The court also stated that such conversion would constitute a disparagement of the official state religion and an enticement for other Muslims to convert. Hegazy, who has been subjected to death threats and is currently in hiding, has appealed the ruling.”

The report cited numerous other problem areas in regard to freedom of worship in Egypt, and the country remained on USCIRF’s Watch List for 2010. Egypt has been on the list since 2002. Among the changes USCIRF said are necessary in Egypt is how religion is reported on Egypt’s national ID card.

The commission said Egypt must “ensure that every Egyptian is protected against discrimination in social, labor, and other rights by modifying the national identity card, either to omit mention of religious affiliation or make optional any mention of religious affiliation.”

Report from Compass Direct News 


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


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


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