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EGYPT : OFFICIAL REBUFFS U.S. RELIGIOUS FREEDOM REPORT

ICC Note

“The security services reportedly maintain regular and sometimes hostile surveillance of Muslim-born citizens who are suspected of having converted to Christianity,”

September 21 Egypt (Compass Direct News) – Egypt has denounced a U.S. report on the African nation’s worsening condition of religious freedom.

The State Department’s annual International Religious Freedom Report, released on September 14, says that within the past year the Egyptian government’s respect for religious freedom had “declined.”

Harsh treatment of converts from Islam to Christianity, ongoing difficulties building churches and official discrimination against the country’s Baha’i minority topped the report’s list of violations.

A spokesman for Egypt ’s foreign ministry said he regretted “fallacies” in the report, according to semi-official daily al-Ahram on Monday (September 17). He said that the United States had “no right to interfere in the internal affairs of Egypt ,” al-Ahram reported.

The official did not elaborate on any of the report’s purported mistakes.

The U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Religious Freedom noted worsening conditions for Egyptian converts during a press conference on the report’s release last week.

“The government of Egypt has denied conversion to Christianity even by people who were born into a Christian family, later converted to Islam and then want to go back,” John Hanford told journalists in Washington , D.C.

In April, a Cairo court rejected the right of converts to Islam to return to Christianity, the report says. The decision overturned three years of rulings that had allowed at least 32 “re-conversions” to Christianity.

Egypt ’s Supreme Administrative Court is due to rule on the appeal of 12 of these former Christians on November 17.

At least 200 cases of Christian converts to Islam who now wish to return to their original faith are pending in Egyptian courts, the report states.

Much is at stake for would-be converts. The report notes that marriage, divorce, alimony, child custody and burial are based on one’s religion under Egyptian law.

“Under sharia [Islamic law] as practiced in the country, non-Muslim males must convert to Islam to marry Muslim women, but non-Muslim women need not convert to marry Muslim men,” the report states.

A Muslim woman who marries a non-Muslim abroad could be arrested and charged with apostasy on her return to Egypt , according to the 13-page document.

In cases where a Christian woman converts to Islam, her husband is given the chance to follow suit. If he refuses, the couple is automatically divorced and the children awarded to the Muslim mother.

“The minor children of converts to Islam, and in some cases adult children, may automatically become classified as Muslims in the eyes of the government irrespective of the religion of the other spouse,” the U.S. report notes. It says that the practice is based upon the administration’s interpretation of Islamic law, which dictates “no jurisdiction of a non-Muslim over a Muslim.”

Christian twins Mario and Andrew Medhat Ramsis, 13, have brought a case against the government for changing the religious designation on their birth certificates to “Muslim” after their father converted to Islam. Their case is pending before a Cairo court.

Threatened Converts

Conversion away from Islam remains a sensitive issue in majority-Muslim Egypt . Enshrined in the constitution as the basis for the nation’s legislation, Islamic law forbids a Muslim to leave the faith.

Ambassador Hanford pointed to problems faced by Muslim-born converts to Christianity at last week’s press conference, mentioning the case of convert Bahaa al-Accad.

“We are pleased that one particular case where – where a gentleman was held for 25 months, Bahaa al-Accad, that he was released not long ago, but now his life is under threat,” Hanford said.

The former sheikh, 58, had been held without charge, though official interrogations indicated he was suspected of “insulting Islam.”

Still living under threat from radical Islamists, al-Accad’s case typifies difficulties faced by converts from Islam to Christianity discussed in the U.S. report.

“The security services reportedly maintain regular and sometimes hostile surveillance of Muslim-born citizens who are suspected of having converted to Christianity,” the report states.

Many mainstream Egyptian Islamic scholars consider death the appropriate punishment for apostasy.

In recent years, converts in Egypt have not been charged with apostasy, but some have been held for “insulting Islam.”

The report notes that there is no legal way for Muslim-born converts to Christianity to amend their legal records to reflect the change.

In a case that arose after the period covered by the U.S. report (July 1, 2006 to June 30, 2007), a Muslim convert to Christianity last month announced his plan to sue for the right to legally change his identification papers.

Death threats have forced Mohammed Ahmed Hegazy into hiding since he first announced his intention on August 2. The convert has provoked a storm of criticism from Egyptian media, which claimed that he became a Christian for money and to insult Egypt .

By contrast, the religion section of semi-official daily al-Ahram often covers conversions to Islam, stating that converts improved their lives and found peace, the U.S. religious freedom report states. Hegazy’s first hearing is set for October 2.

The convert has not been willing to publicize the name of his new lawyer after his first attorney backed out over death threats.

Discrimination

The report also notes that the government discriminated against non-Muslims in the public sphere.

“There are no Christians serving as presidents or deans of public universities, and they are rarely nominated by the Government to run in elections as National Democratic Party candidates,” the report states.

It notes that for the first time in 30 years a Christian had been appointed in 2006 as one of the nation’s 26 governors.

“Christians, who represented between 8 and 12 percent of the population, hold less than 2 percent of the seats in the People’s Assembly and Shura Council,” the document says. It states that that government money pays Muslim imams but not Christian clergy, and it notes that there are very few Christians in upper positions in the security services and army.

Kidnapping and forced religious conversion of Christian women to Islam remained a contentious issue, the religious freedom document states.

“Reports of such cases are disputed and often include inflammatory allegations and categorical denials of kidnapping and rape.”

It states that Egypt ’s National Council of Human Rights received 32 complaints of missing Christian women between March and December 2006. In most cases the Ministry of Interior responded that the women had eloped with Muslim men and converted to Islam of their own free will.

“There were reports of government authorities failing to uphold the law in sensitive conversion cases,” the report notes.

Though the minimum age for marriage is 18, authorities often allowed Christian women to marry at a younger age after converting to Islam and having their custody automatically transferred to a Muslim guardian.

Within the past year, the government apparently ceased requiring Christian-born converts to Islam to hold one counseling session with a priest before changing faith, according to Watani newspaper editor Youssef Sidhom, cited in the report.

The session had often been instrumental in resolving disputed conversion cases, Sidhom said.

Church Buildings

Legal obstacles to building and repairing churches were also high on the list of violations in the U.S. report.

The report notes that despite a 2005 presidential decree aimed at speeding up the process of granting permission for church repairs, many churches continued to encounter delays often measured in years.

The unlicensed evangelical church in Maadi, a Cairo suburb, has been unable to obtain a license for 50 years, the report states.

Only 21 new churches were approved between July 1, 2006 and June 30, 2007, the report states. Of these, 20 had been previously unrecognized and one was newly constructed.

The report estimates that there are between 6 million and 10 million Christians in Egypt .

Baha’i Identity

The religious freedom report notes that Egypt ’s tiny Baha’i community also faces difficulties printing their religion on legal documents.

Egypt ’s Supreme Administrative Court ruled against the group listing its religion on civil records in December 2006, on the premise that Baha’ism is not one of three “heavenly religions” (Islam, Christianity and Judaism) recognized by Islam.

Two 14-year-old Baha’i twins are suing the government for the right to leave religion off their official papers.

This month an administrative court delayed ruling on the case until October 30.