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Constitution’s Islamic law clause called “a sword aimed at the neck of Christians.”

ICC Note: The ruling of Egypt ’s Supreme Administrative council is a milestone development for the right of Christians in that country.

July 6 Egypt (Compass Direct News) – Egypt ’s Supreme Administrative Court this week quashed a previous ruling that had denied Coptic citizens the right to regain their legal Christian identity, ordering a retrial on the hotly contested case.

The 45 Coptic plaintiffs and their supporters greeted the ruling with cheers and ululating trills echoing through the courtroom, declaring it a victory for “citizenship rights,” sources at the national weekly Watani told Compass.

The court stated that it had based its ruling on the legal opinion of the State Commissioners Authority, which noted that Egypt’s civil law contained no reference to ridda [abandoning Islam], which is punishable by death under Islamic law.

Held under tight security on Monday (July 2), the final appeal hearing was punctuated by heated arguments between lawyers, angry chants from Islamists crowding the courtroom and near fist fights at one point.

When defense lawyer Naguib Gabriel declared that Egypt should be a civil state, not an Islamic state, courtroom observers began to chant, “Islamic! Islamic! Egypt is an Islamic state!”

The evening before the awaited verdict, Gabriel appeared on the “Al-Ashira Misa’an” (“Ten O’Clock P.M.”) talk show on the satellite TV Dream channel. Quoting Article 2 of the Egyptian Constitution, which declares Islam the state religion and Islamic law the main source of legislation, Gabriel said this clause would always be “a sword aimed at the neck of Christians.”

The plaintiffs’ defense team of well-known Coptic lawyers included Mamdouh Ramzi, Ramses el-Nagar and Mamdouh Nakhla. When government lawyer Mansour Abdel-Ghaffar declared to the court that the converts to Islam who then wanted to return to Christianity were “manipulators of religion,” defense attorney Ramzi reminded the court of the Quranic verse declaring, “There is no compulsion in Islam.”

Both Ramzi and Nakhla emphasized “glaring discrimination” against Christians in regard to religious conversion. Although a Copt can be legally declared a Muslim in a matter of 24 hours, they said, a Muslim’s conversion to Christianity remains “next to impossible.”

According to El-Nagar, this week’s ruling has established that the same legal principles apply to Muslim and Christian citizens alike. Because it applies “indiscriminately” to all conversion cases, the lawyer concluded, it thus obligates the Interior Ministry to change religious identities without the applicants having to take their cases to court.

During the initial appeal hearing on June 18, defense attorney Ramzi asked government lawyer Mazhar Farghali what he would do if a Muslim wished to convert to Christianity.

“I would cut his throat,” Farghali replied.

According to a report published July 1 by Watani, Farghali had insisted in his remarks that changing the religion category from Muslim to Christian “threatens public order.”

In response, El-Nagar expressed “amazement that correcting a mistake in one’s ID papers to reflect the true status of the holder . . . is described by the government’s attorney as ‘endangering public order’ instead of ‘defending public order.’”

El-Nagar had also pointed out that the nation’s laws restricting the right of religious conversion were clear violations of the international treaties that Egypt has signed.

Another state lawyer, Abdel Meguid al-Enani, had insisted that Islam was “a one-way road.” For a Muslim to leave Islam constituted “high treason,” he said.

“Just look,” Al-Enani had said, looking around the courtroom. “All the church is present here. It’s a conspiracy against Islam.”

The only Christian visitor to the courtroom was one Coptic priest.

Judge Essam Eddin Abdel-Aziz set September 1 for the case to be retried before the Supreme Administrative Court.

In an interview with the Middle East Times, El-Nagar predicted a “positive outcome” at the September hearing, declaring that this week’s ruling proved there was “still a window of freedom in Egypt .”