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Egyptian Sisters Win Christian Identity Battle

by Barbara G. Baker

Compass Direct News

Two young Coptic Christian women whose father had converted to Islam when they were infants have won a court battle in Egypt to retain their official religious identity as Christians.

Now 18 and 19 years old, Iman and Olfat Malak Ayet will be issued national identity cards matching their Christian birth certificates tomorrow.

In the final verdict, presiding Judge Farouk Ali Abdel Kader of Cairo ’s District No. 1 Administrative Court declared that the civil authorities had conducted a “non-justified intervention” by imposing upon the two plaintiffs a belief they had not chosen.

“It is not in any way acceptable that the civil authorities take advantage of their authority to force the plaintiffs to embrace Islam,” the ruling specified.

The court also ordered the government’s Civil Affairs Department, which had refused to issue Christian ID cards to the Ayet sisters, to pay all legal fees in the lawsuit.

Although the verdict was handed down more than eight months ago, on May 31, 2005, civil authorities refused to implement the decision. “They were pretending that they were waiting for the approval of the State Security Investigation,” attorney Naguib Gibrael told Compass.

Finally, Gibrael served notice to the interior minister, warning that Article 23 of the penal code required that any government employee who refused to obey a court verdict be jailed for six months or fired. The minister sent written approval of the verdict, and on January 26 the Civil Affairs Department accepted the Ayet sisters’ ID applications, issuing official receipts to pick up their new identity cards on Saturday (February 4).

“This has been a long struggle with the security authorities,” said Gibrael, legal counsel on the sisters’ case. “We really ask for a guarantee, to stop the postponement in executing these verdicts.”

Marrying Christians Prohibited

Under Egyptian civil law, every citizen is required within six months of their 16th birthday to obtain a personal identity card.

Nearly three years ago, the Ayet sisters were surprised to learn that, before his death, their father had changed their identities from Christian to Muslim on government records. The change also left them with new Muslim names.

Although the father had divorced their mother and married a Muslim wife, he had never interfered with his daughters being baptized and raised as Coptic Orthodox Christians by their mother.

When Olfat Ayet turned 16, she had applied for her national ID card in order to qualify for her school’s final examinations and to apply for university acceptance. But the Civil Affairs Department refused to accept her Christian birth certificate, insisting she was legally a Muslim and would be committing apostasy to leave Islam and “convert” to Christianity.

Once issued, Egypt ’s bar-coded national ID cards are difficult to change. Government-recognized authorities must issue documented certificates to alter the details of marital status, religion or profession.

If the Ayet sisters had been issued Muslim identities, they would have been prohibited under the statutes of Islamic law enshrined in Egypt ’s legal codes from marrying Christians.

So in May 2003, the two minor girls filed a case through a maternal relative against the Interior Ministry and the Civil Affairs Department, requesting the right to change their identities back to their original Christian names and religion.

Key documentation for the girls’ case included official certificates from the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate confirming their Christian identity at birth, as well as the Christian marriage certificate of their parents. They also had proof that their father had falsified his own birth certificate when he altered their records, claiming that his new Muslim name taken in 1986 was the one given him when he was born in 1955.

The sisters’ legal counsel, Gibrael, is a well-known Coptic lawyer who had won a previous landmark case reinstating Christian identity to a Coptic woman who came back to her Christian faith after converting to Islam.

In that April 2004 verdict, an Egyptian administrative court validated the return of Mira Makram Gobran Hanna to the Coptic Orthodox Church 13 months after her conversion to Islam. A certificate issued by the church and approved by the State Security Directorate had confirmed this change in Hanna’s religious status, but years later civil authorities intervened and demanded she return to Islam.

Under the dual standards of Egyptian law, Christian citizens are free to convert legally to Islam, but Muslims are prohibited from changing their religion. At least 10 percent of Egypt ’s population is Coptic Christian