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ICC Note

An Egyptian convert to Christianity is abandoned by his lawyer as he fights to change his official religion status from Islam to Christian on his identity paper. His lawyer abandoned him due to death threat.

August 8,2007 Egypt (Compass Direct News) – An Egyptian convert to Christianity who filed suit for his conversion to be officially recognized is in hiding after his attorney announced he would withdraw from the case yesterday.

Though the lawyer has received death threats from Egypt ’s security police, he claimed he had made his decision in the interest of “national unity.”

Mamdouh Nakhla, director of the Al Kalema Center for Human Rights, said yesterday that he would no longer represent convert Mohammed Ahmed Hegazy because he did not want to offend Muslims or “provoke public opinion.”

At a press conference at his downtown office, Nakhla rested some of the responsibility for his decision with his client. He said that Hegazy had failed to provide important documents showing that authorities had refused to issue him an identification card.

As the lawyer was giving his statement, however, a member of Nakhla’s organization shouted, “He is being threatened, he is doing this under pressure.”

A source close to Nakhla confirmed that Egypt ’s security police had telephoned the lawyer to say he would be killed if he continued the case.

Several Muslim clerics and lawyers headed by Sheikh Youssef el-Badry have opened a case against the lawyer on charges of causing sectarian strife.

Nakhla requested that Muslims and Christians refrain from talking about the sensitive issue, referring to the uproar the case has created in national media.

Several newspapers have attacked Hegazy’s motives in front page coverage. Arabic daily Al-Masry al-Youm reported today that Hegazy had been in contact with a “Christianization network” that promised young Muslims money and Greek nationality if they converted.

The article inaccurately reported that the lawyer said at yesterday’s press conference that he was dropping the case because Hegazy was “seeking publicity and fame.”

Additionally, the newspaper reported that Hegazy’s father said yesterday that his son was being blackmailed by Christian missionaries to open the case.

In an interview on Dream satellite channel talk show al-Ashira Masaa’an on Sunday evening (August 5), Hegazy said that no Christians had pressured him to convert.

“They just told me to go read the Bible well and make up my mind,” said Hegazy.

Forced into Hiding

Ongoing threats and attacks in the national media have forced Hegazy underground while he continues the search for a new lawyer.

The conversion issue highlights the inequality between religions in Egypt . A Christian is free to convert to Islam, but Muslims have no legal means to change their identification papers to reflect a conversion to Christianity.

The disparity hinges on sharia (Islamic law), which many mainstream Muslim scholars believe prescribes death as the punishment for abandoning Islam.

Last month one of Egypt ’s top religious advisors said that “apostasy,” though a grave sin, merited no “worldly punishment.” Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa later clarified his controversial statement by saying that only “apostates” who “actively engaged in the subversion of society” should be punished, Agence France-Presse reported on July 26.

But with sharia enshrined as the basis of Egypt ’s legal code in Article 2 of the constitution, many Muslims see no distinction between “apostasy” and subversion.

“Is religion deemed any less than the state order?” Dr. Mohamed Mukhtar al-Mahdi wrote in the leftist daily al-Badeel last week.

Since 2004, dozens of Coptic converts to Islam have won the right to return to their original faith, but Hegazy is the first Muslim-by-birth to attempt the legal change.

Though conversion is not specifically outlawed in Egypt , Muslim converts to Christianity are often forced to live double lives, hiding their faith to avoid torture at the hands of family members and police.