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By Barbara G. Baker

ISTANBUL, June 25 (Compass Direct News) – Egypt’s Supreme Administrative Court heard a final appeal last week for 45 Coptic Christian citizens who were denied their attempt to legally reclaim their Christian identities after officially converting to Islam.

Of the 45 plaintiffs, half were adults when they changed the required religion section on their national identity cards from Christian to Muslim. The remainder were children whose Coptic parents had become Muslims. All have declared they want to return to their Christian faith.

Arguing before presiding Judge Essam Eddin Abdel-Aziz on June 18, Coptic lawyer Naguib Gabriel declared that a lower administrative court’s April ruling against his 45 clients’ joint-action suit had “embarrassed the Egyptian government at an international level.”

“This [refusal] says that the government is forcing people to embrace beliefs against their free will,” Gabriel said. “It is forcing them according to their official papers to belong to a religion they don’t believe in.”

Egyptian Christians can easily change their religious status to Muslim, which allows them to receive incentives ranging from employment and marriage options to custody of their children in divorce cases. But the nation’s Muslims are not permitted to leave their religion for any other faith.

Gabriel presented an exhibit portfolio of 29 previous verdicts issued by the administrative courts to allow Copts to regain their Christian identities. None of these decisions handed down in the past three years had been challenged or appealed by the state.

The government’s attorney, however, argued that the initial verdict issued on April 24 by Judge Muhammad Husseini was “completely consistent with the principles of Islamic sharia [religious law].” He accused the Coptic appellants of adopting Islam for the purpose of “religious manipulation.”

Pending an expert legal opinion requested from a state commissar, the court declared it would announce its final verdict on Sunday (July 1). The higher court’s ruling is not subject to further appeal.

‘Manipulating’ Religious Freedom

In the initial court ruling, as reported by Al Ahram newspaper on April 26, the lower court had declared there was a “huge difference” between giving freedom of belief and “manipulating” this freedom by changing from one religion to another.

“Muslims have not forced anyone to believe in Islam, so they are not allowing anyone to desert Islam and leave it,” the court was quoted as saying.

But in the same verdict, the court declared that according to the principles of Islamic law, no citizen can be forced to reveal his religious beliefs. It remained unclear whether this stipulation could allow Egyptian citizens to leave blank the religion section on their identity card.

According to a report published on May 8 in the weekly Sout el Oma newspaper, Interior Minister Habib el-Adly threw his support behind the ruling a week later.

In his May 1 memo to the administrative court, El-Adly requested blanket rejection of all cases involving Copts trying to return to their Christian identity after having converted to Islam.

The interior minister insisted that Islam, as the state religion of Egypt, demands that any Muslim man who abandons his faith should be killed. But a Muslim woman “apostate,” he wrote, should only be imprisoned and beaten every three days until she returns to Islam.

The newspaper said El-Adly accused the several hundred Copts who have opened court cases to retain their Christian identity of “playing with religion” and disrupting national unity.

Dangerous Double Standard

But according to Dr. Muhammad el-Sayed, an expert in the Al Ahram Center for Strategic and Political Studies, such a verdict can be expected to fan religious hatred and sectarian strife in Egypt.

Quoted in Watani newspaper on April 29, El-Sayed stressed that the ruling contradicted the constitutional guarantee that all citizens are equal.

It is unclear whether the final ruling on July 1 will be enacted retroactively, cancelling previous court rulings that granted Coptic converts to Islam the right to return to their Christian birthright identity.

“We have to appeal this ruling,” General Secretary Hafez Abu Saada of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights told Watani after the April ruling. “This is simply because we know that converting to Islam could be under pressure, such as getting a divorce or financial problems. So the individual has the right to choose his religion.”

After the initial lower court ruling, Coptic lawyer Gabriel told Compass, “In practice, Egypt has a double standard for any citizen who wants to change his religion.”

According to Article 47 of Law No. 143 of the Egyptian civil code, all citizens are required to carry on their person a national identity card. The law stipulates that a change in the citizen’s name or religion can only be made by producing either a legal certificate or a court verdict authorizing the change.

“Those who convert to Islam only have to produce a formal certificate of conversion from Al-Azhar [Egypt’s official Islamic establishment],” Gabriel said. “But for those coming back to Christianity, a certificate from the Coptic Patriarchate is not enough. They are also required to request a court verdict.”

“This process takes at least two years in court,” the lawyer noted.

Moderate Islamic scholars in Egypt contend that only birthright Muslims who attack the Islamic faith can be judged as “apostates.” They exclude from this category any converts to Islam who later return to their previous faith.

But the Muslim Brotherhood and other hardliners insist that anyone who embraces the Muslim religion and then abandons it is an apostate who should be executed.

Legal Stalemate for Non-Muslims

Although next week’s verdict will directly affect citizens from Christian background, it will also impact the legal stalemate against both the tiny Baha’i religious community and Egypt’s growing number of ex-Muslims who have become Christians.

“This verdict indirectly targets converts to Christianity, and the Baha’is, too,” one former Muslim in Cairo told Compass.

“During the past three years, it had become so much easier for former Christians to change back,” he said, referring to the first watershed decision in April 2004, which permitted a Coptic-born woman who had converted to Islam to recover her legal Christian identity.

“Now, this ruling is saying, indirectly, that it is impossible to let any Muslim change his religious identity.”

Although there is no legal means for Egyptian Muslims who have converted to Christianity to register a change in religious status, this prohibition has yet to be tested in the courts.

When a Baha’i couple launched such a test case several years ago, a landmark lower court ruling in April 2006 recognized the right of Egyptian Baha’is to state their religion on official documents. But six weeks later, the Supreme Administrative Court suspended the verdict and cancelled its implementation, followed by a final overruling of the decision in December 2006.