Christian’s Six-Year Sentence Upheld in Egypt
The following article reports on the latest news of persecution in Egypt, with the prison sentence being served by Makarem Diab being upheld. He was charged and jailed for alleged blasphemy. A further appeal has been scheduled following violence during the latest appeal hearing.
The articles linked to above are by Compass Direct News and relate to persecution of Christians around the world. Please keep in mind that the definition of ‘Christian’ used by Compass Direct News is inclusive of some that would not be included in a definition of Christian that I would use or would be used by other Reformed Christians. The articles do however present an indication of persecution being faced by Christians around the world.
In murder of Christian, Hindu nationalist sentenced to seven years for causing ‘grievous hurt.’
NEW DELHI, July 2 (CDN) — Christians in Orissa state had mixed feelings about the sentencing on Tuesday (June 29) of state legislator Manoj Pradhan to seven years in prison for causing grievous hurt and rioting – but not for murder.
“Pradhan is not convicted of murder, but offenses of voluntarily causing grievous hurt by dangerous weapons and rioting were upheld,” attorney Bibhu Dutta Das told Compass. “Pradhan will be debarred from attending the Orissa Legislative Assembly unless the order of conviction is stayed by the Orissa High Court, or if special permission is granted by the court allowing him to attend.”
Kanaka Rekha Nayak, widow of murdered Christian Parikhita Nayak, acknowledged that the verdict on Pradhan and fellow Hindu nationalist Prafulla Mallick in the August-September 2008 violence against Christians did not meet her expectations. She said she was happy that Pradhan was finally behind bars, but that she “expected the court to at least pronounce life imprisonment on Pradhan and Mallick for the gruesome act that they committed.”
Das said he will try to increase the sentence.
“Pradhan spearheaded the riots and has several criminal charges against him – he cannot be let off with a simple punishment,” Das said. “We will be filing a criminal revision in the Orissa High Court for enhancing the period to life imprisonment.”
The day after Pradhan was sentenced, two Hindu nationalists were reportedly convicted of “culpable homicide not amounting to murder” in the burning death of a paralyzed Christian during the 2008 attacks on Christians in Orissa state’s Kandhamal district and sentenced to only six years of prison.
UCAN agency reported that Sushanta Sahu and Tukuna Sahu were convicted and sentenced on Wednesday (June 30) in the death of Rasananda Pradhan, a paralytic burned alive when Hindu extremists set his house on fire on Aug. 24, 2008. Church leaders criticized the lenient sentences.
Manoj Pradhan has been charged in 14 cases related to the August-September 2008 anti-Christian attacks. In seven of the cases he has been acquitted, he was convicted of “grievous hurt” in this one, and six more are pending against him.
Of the 14 cases in which he faces charges, seven involve murder; of those murder cases, he has been acquitted in three.
After a series of trials in which murder suspects in the 2008 Kandhamal district violence have gone free as Hindu extremist threats kept witnesses from testifying, the testimony of Nayak’s daughter, 6-year-old Lipsa Nayak, helped seal Pradhan’s conviction.
His widow, Rekha Nayak, told Compass that due to the severe threats on her life that she has received, she and her two daughters were forced to flee the area and go into hiding.
There were around 1,500 Hindu supporters present for this week’s verdict, a source in the courtroom told Compass on condition of anonymity.
“We had to leave the place before the judgment was pronounced and could not enter that area for three or four days after the verdict,” said the source, adding that prosecuting lawyers and human rights activists received the main threats.
Along with the seven years of prison, the Phulbani Court sentenced the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) member of the Legislative Assembly of Orissa from G. Udayagiri, Kandhamal to a fine a little more than US$100, as it did for Mallick. The verdict came from Fast Track Sessions Court I Judge Sobhan Kumar Das in the Aug. 27, 2008 murder of 31-year-old Parikhita Nayak, a Dalit Christian from Tiangia, Budedipada, in Raikia block of Kandhamal district.
Pradhan was also accused of setting fire to houses of people belonging to the minority Christian community.
“I have the highest regard for the judiciary,” Pradhan told Press Trust of India after this week’s verdict. “We will appeal against the verdict in the higher court.”
Cases have been filed against Pradhan for rioting, rioting with deadly weapons, unlawful assembly, causing disappearance of evidence of offense, murder, wrongfully restraining someone, wrongful confinement, mischief by fire or explosive substance with intent to destroy houses, voluntarily causing grievous hurt and voluntarily causing grievous hurt by dangerous weapons or means.
Dibakar Parichha of the Cuttack-Bhubaneswar Catholic Archdiocese told Compass that the judgment was “a good boost to the Christian community.”
“When the trials were on, the Nayak family faced terrible times,” Parichha added. “Pradhan and his associates threatened Kanaka Rekha, the widow of the deceased, right inside the courtroom of dire consequences if they testified about them.”
Archbishop Raphael Cheenath of the Cuttack-Bhubaneswar diocese issued a statement saying that the verdict had boosted confidence in the judiciary that criminals will be punished.
“People have been waiting for good judgment, and we have confidence in the judiciary that criminals will be punished,” Cheenath said, adding that the sentence will show criminals that the law will not spare any one. “One day or other, they will be punished.”
The Rev. Richard Howell, general secretary of the Evangelical Fellowship of India, told Compass that the verdict offered some hope.
“The fact that something has happened gives us some hope that more convictions would take place in the trials to come,” he said.
Calling the conviction “justice that was long overdue,” Howell said that not much can be expected from Fast Track Courts as no security is provided to witnesses.
During the 2008 anti-Christian attacks that followed the death of Hindu leader Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, Lipsa Nayak’s parents and her sister had taken refuge in the forest to escape the fury of the Hindu extremists, but the rampaging mob tracked them down.
Lipsa, then 4 years old, along with her mother and then 2-year-old sister, Amisha Nayak, watched in horror as the crowd allegedly beat her father for two hours and then killed him by cutting him into pieces and burning him.
Rekha Nayak filed a complaint and a case was registered against Pradhan, Mallick and others for murder, destroying evidence, rioting and unlawful assembly. Pradhan was arrested on Oct. 16, 2008, from Berhampur, and in December 2009 he obtained bail from the Orissa High Court.
Despite his role in the attacks, Pradhan was the only BJP candidate elected from the G. Udayagiri constituency in the 2009 Assembly elections from Kandhamal district. He had campaigned inside jail.
On March 14, Rekha Nayak and her daughter Lipsa testified in court in spite of the threats. Rekha Nayak reportedly testified that when the Hindu mob demanded that her husband renounce Christianity or face death, he kept quiet, which led to his death.
Prosecution and defense lawyers questioned Lipsa for more than 90 minutes, and she reportedly answered all questions without wavering. Asked by the judge if she could identify the killer of her father, she pointed to Pradhan.
So far he has been exonerated of murder charges against him for “lack of witnesses.” Christian leaders say that Pradhan has been intimidating witnesses because of his position as a member of the Legislative Assembly.
The government of Orissa has set up two Fast Track courts to try cases related to the violence that spread to more than a dozen districts of Orissa. The attacks killed more than 100 people and burned 4,640 houses, 252 churches and 13 educational institutions.
Trials are being held for 38 cases in which 154 people have been convicted and more than twice that many have been acquitted, as high as 621 by one count. Victims filed 3,232 complaints in the various police stations of Kandhamal district. Of these, police registered cases in only 832 instances.
“Nearly 12,000 people are accused in the riot case – 11,803 are out on bail,” said attorney Das.
Report from Compass Direct News
Court rejects appeal of 15-year sentence for Alimjan Yimit.
DUBLIN, April 29 (CDN) — Authorities in Xinjiang Province recently moved Uyghur Christian Alimjan Yimit from a prison in Kashgar to a prison in the provincial capital Urumqi and allowed the first visit from family members since his arrest in January 2008, sources told Compass.
Alimjan (Alimujiang Yimiti in Chinese) was noticeably thinner but in good spirits, the family told friends after their brief visit to him in Xinjiang No. 3 prison on April 20, one source told Compass. They were allowed only 15 minutes to speak with Alimjan via telephone through a glass barrier, the source said.
But Alimjan’s lawyers, Li Baiguang and Liu Peifu, were prohibited from meeting with him, despite gaining permission from the Xinjiang Bureau of Prison Management, the China Aid Association (CAA) reported on Saturday (April 24).
Officials have now granted Alimjan’s wife Gulnur (Chinese spelling Gulinuer) and other close family members permission to visit him once a month.
Alimjan and Gulnur pastored a Uyghur ethnic house church in Xinjiang prior to his arrest in January 2008.
Attorney Li told Radio Free Asia earlier this month that while the initial charges against Alimjan were both “instigating separatism” and “leaking state secrets” to foreign organizations, his actual offense was talking to visiting Christians from the United States.
The Kashgar Intermediate Court found Alimjan guilty of “leaking state secrets” on Oct. 27, 2009 and gave him a 15-year sentence. His lawyers appealed the sentence, but the People’s High Court of Xinjiang upheld the original verdict on March 16.
“This decision is illegal and void because it never succeeded in showing how Alimjan supplied state secrets to people overseas,” Li said, according to Radio Free Asia.
“Religion lies at the heart of this case,” fellow legal advocate Li Dunyong, who was effectively disbarred at the end of May 2008 when Chinese authorities turned down an annual application to renew his law license, told Radio Free Asia.
Zhang Kai, another Beijing lawyer who had defended Alimjan, suffered the same fate. (See “China Refuses to Renew Licenses for Human Rights Lawyers,” June 11, 2009.)
Alimjan’s legal team now plans to appeal to the Beijing Supreme Court, according to CAA.
Officials initially interrogated Alimjan during his employment by two foreign-owned companies and forbade him to discuss the questioning with anyone. In September 2007 they closed the business he then worked for and accused him of using it as a cover for “preaching Christianity” among the Uyghurs.
Kashgar police then detained Alimjan on Jan. 11, 2008 on charges of endangering state security before formally re-arresting him on Feb. 20, 2008 for allegedly “inciting secession” and “leaking state secrets.”
He was then held for more than a year at the Kashgar Municipal Detention Center without facing trial.
After an initial closed hearing in the Kashgar Intermediate Court on May 27, 2008, court officials returned Alimjan’s case to state prosecutors citing lack of evidence. During a second secret hearing in July 2008 the charge of “inciting secession” was dropped. After further investigation the case was returned to court officials for consideration in mid-October 2008.
On Mar. 30, 2009, just one week after a rare prison visit from his lawyer, prison officials transferred Alimjan to a hospital in Kashgar. Alimjan called out to onlookers, “I’m sick. Tell my lawyer to come quickly to see me,” according to a CAA report. Compass sources confirmed that Alimjan had been beaten in prison. (See “Detained Uyghur Christian Taken to Hospital,” April 16, 2009.)
Last October, authorities finally sentenced Alimjan to 15 years in prison for “leaking state secrets” to foreign organizations.
“It is the maximum penalty for this charge … which requires Alimjan’s actions to be defined as having caused irreparable, grave national damage,” Li Dunyong said in a CAA press statement announcing the verdict.
The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has ruled the arrest and detention of Alimjan to be arbitrary and in violation of international law, according to CAA.
Report from Compass Direct News
Baptists in Uzbekistan have told Forum 18 News Service that they fear the head of the Baptist Union, Pavel Peichev, and the Union’s accountant Yelena Kurbatova will now be removed from their roles leading the registered Baptist Union.
This follows a Criminal Court in the capital Tashkent upholding the criminal conviction of the two, as well as of a Baptist layman Dmitri Pitirimov. The Court also upheld a three-year ban on each holding responsible positions. However, the court overturned massive fines on each.
The three continue to insist that the charges against them of evading taxes and involving children in religious activity without their or their parents’ consent were fabricated. Peichev stated that an appeal to the Supreme Court will probably be made.
"The conviction was unjust and we want it overturned," he told Forum 18. Baptists in Uzbekistan have repeatedly insisted to Forum 18 that the authorities’ main aim was to remove the leadership of the Baptist Union, continuing a pattern of state interference in the leadership of religious communities such as the Muslim and Jewish communities. Also, the Justice Ministry has forced a church website to close.
Report from the Christian Telegraph
Judge rejects appeal of evangelists said to be falsely accused of offering money, gifts.
NAIROBI, Kenya, September 25 (CDN) — An Ethiopian court on Monday (Sept. 21) threw out an appeal by two evangelists said to be falsely accused of offering money and gifts to people to convert to Christianity, thus upholding their six-month prison sentences.
Temesgen Alemayehu and Tigist Welde Amanuel of Wengel Lealem church in Addis Ababa went to Debiretabor, Amhara state, to plant a church in July. After a week in the area, according to area Christian sources, their proclamation of Christ led several people to confess their sins and receive Him as Savior.
On July 19, however, some passersby began to question the two evangelists, and Christian sources said a heated argument led to a group attack on the two evangelists, wounding Alemayehu. Amanuel sustained minor injuries, the sources said, but managed to escape to a nearby home; the mob followed her into the compound, demanding she be handed over to them.
The homeowners refused, saying they would not cooperate with criminals and would instead hand her over to police. “I would not allow any attack against the woman,” the unidentified owner of the home said, according to one church leader.
Police arrived at the scene of the attack and protected Alemayehu from the violent band, made up of members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (EOC), and took him into custody. The attacking group accused Alemayehu and Amanuel of insulting their religion.
Christian sources said a group within the EOC called “Mahibere Kidusan” (“Fellowship of Saints”) had incited members to attack the two evangelists as they were proclaiming Christ on the roadside. The increasingly powerful group’s purpose is to counter all reform movements within the EOC and shield the denomination from outside threats.
In time the EOC attackers fabricated accusations of offering money or gifts to make converts, Christian sources said, but under police questioning Alemayehu and Amanuel said they had only shared their faith to interested people without making such offers. They also tried to explain to police that it was their constitutional right to do so.
Police, however, submitted the attackers’ false statements to the district prosecutor, Christian sources said.
On July 22, Alemayehu and Amanuel appeared at district court in Debiretabor to hear charges against them. A charge sheet claimed that they were caught offering money and gifts to people to change their religion, and Christian sources said witnesses falsely testified to that effect.
The next day, the court delivered a guilty verdict. Alemayehu stated that his only sin was telling of his faith in Christ to interested persons, and that he had a constitutional right to do so. The judge sentenced him and Amanuel to six months of prison.
Police immediately transferred both Christians to Debiretabor prison.
“There is an open conspiracy between judges, police and prison officers,” the church leader said. “Police speeded up the investigation and brought it to the district prosecutor’s attention within a day. Witnesses were organized to falsely testify at court. The judges passed the sentence refusing the right to defense.”
Debiretabor is the seat for south Gondar Zone administration in Amhara state. As in the rest of Amhara, Debiretabor’s population is predominantly EOC with hostile attitudes towards evangelicals, Christian sources said. They added that churches already operating in Debiretabor and surrounding areas meet with continued EOC resistance.
In some cases, the sources said, EOC priests have urged attacks against Christians, and government authorities influenced by Mahibere Kidusan have infringed on Christians’ rights. It was unknown if the judge and police officers in Alemayehu and Amanuel’s case were under the influence of Mahibere Kidusan, but the local church leader said there were signs of bias in the case.
“Prison officials are handling both believers with harsh treatments, and after all these, no one is questioned for either the process or its result,” the church leader said. “We are waiting for God’s intervention on all this.”
In the rejection of the appeal, the high court judge said that he found “no mistake of law interpretation” to change the verdict of the lower court, a Christian source said.
“That means now the two believers have to serve the six-month sentence unless they appeal and achieve something at the regional State Supreme Court,” he said. “We heard that the two are thinking of appealing at the regional State Supreme Court in Bahirdar soon.”
Amanuel is assigned to a cell where criminals including serial killers are serving their terms, a source said, and they have threatened her. Both she and Alemayehu continue to share their faith in Christ with other inmates, in spite of insults from the prisoners.
Church leaders in Debiretabor said they brought the case to the attention of the regional state vice president, and that he sent his representative to visit Alemayehu and Amanuel in prison. The representative discussed the situation with the district court and with police. Sources said the visits, however, only exacerbated conditions for the two Christians by upsetting prison officers.
Starting on Aug. 26, prison officials forbade visits to Amanuel and Alemayehu for at least 15 days. They also stopped food from being brought them, a common practice among all prisoners whose relatives are able to help them.
“I went on Aug. 20 to meet them in prison, but officers at the gate told me that they have an order to stop any visitor,” the church leader in Debiretabor said. “I think our report to the regional authorities made some contribution to this decision.”
Report from Compass Direct News
ChinaAid says that it has recently learned that the Websites Surveillance Section of Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau forcibly shut down the website of Shouwang Christian Church of Beijing at 10:45 a.m. on April 13, 2009, reports Dan Wooding, founder of ASSIST Ministries.
The only explanation the church has received from the related agent is that government authorities concluded that the website was the “website of an illegal Christian organization,” and demanded that the agent shut it down.
Shouwang Christian Church members say that government authorities have never concluded that their house church is an illegal organization.
“Though Shouwang Christian Church pre-paid for a year of service, the website was shut down without prior notice or an official written explanation,” said a spokesperson for ChinaAid. “The website was registered by an individual, and was used mainly by the house church members to communicate with each other regarding daily activities and information about the church.
“Shouwang Christian Church plans to continue to press government officials for an official explanation regarding the reason that their website was shut down. The church requests that Christians around the world pray for their rights to be upheld and that their website will be restored.”
Report from the Christian Telegraph
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.
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.
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
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