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

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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