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Egypt: Islamists Join Case Against Convert to Christianity

ICC Note

“I’m full of heartache that in my own country, society has been radicalized to such an extent that I can’t have the right to convert,”

October 10 Egypt (Compass Direct News) – Conservative Islamic lawyers came out in support of the Egyptian government last week at the opening court hearing of a Muslim convert to Christianity.

In a move that has caused national uproar, former Muslim Mohammed Ahmed Hegazy is suing Egypt to change the religion listed on his identification papers to Christianity.

Islamist lawyers associated with radical cleric Youssef al-Badry attended the October 2 hearing in Cairo and legally joined the case on the government’s side, Hegazy told Compass.

Hegazy’s lawyers confirmed that Magdy al-Anany and at least three other fundamentalist Muslim attorneys filed to support the government.

Al-Badry was one of several clerics who called for Hegazy’s death in Egypt ’s national media, following the announcement of the case in early August. The radical Islamist also filed charges of inciting sectarian strife against Hegazy’s original lawyer, Mamdouh Nakhla.

Under public criticism and death threats, Nakhla withdrew from Hegazy’s case days after it became public. Fanatics began harassing Hegazy and his pregnant wife, also a former Muslim, with angry telephone calls, forcing the couple into hiding.

“It’s quite sensitive,” Hegazy’s new lawyer, Rawda Ahmad, told Compass through a translator. “It would be the first time that someone who converted to Christianity would be able to change his ID card.”

Though Egyptian law does not forbid conversion from Islam to Christianity, it provides no legal means to make the change. Converts to Christianity usually hide their identity to avoid torture and forced recantation at the hands of family members and security police.

“I’m full of heartache that in my own country, society has been radicalized to such an extent that I can’t have the right to convert,” Hegazy told Compass this week.

Hegazy and his wife Zeinab hope that their first child, due in January, will be born with Christian papers. Forced to hold an Islamic wedding ceremony because of their legal status as Muslims, Hegazy and his wife know that a Christian ID card would allow their child to take Christian religion classes in school, marry in a church and openly attend services without fear of harassment.

For the moment, threats from Muslim fanatics have forced the couple to stay in hiding, with Hegazy not even able to attend his own hearing last week.

The convert told Compass that he and his wife were healthy but frustrated with having to stay indoors.

“It’s like we are in prison and have no way out,” the Christian said.

Hegazy said that he did not believe police were aware of his location. He told Compass that officials had detained a number of converts in the past two months, interrogating them about his whereabouts.

Egyptian media have criticized Hegazy in recent months, claiming that his conversion was motivated by money, blackmail, and foreign forces hoping to destabilize Egypt .

“The pro-government media is ferociously standing against Hegazy,” a representative for the Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) said today. “This has definitely had a negative affect on his case, causing it to take a more politicized turn.”

By contrast, last week’s hearing received no coverage in the Egyptian press.

The administrative court hearing in Cairo ’s al-Doqi district was brief. Judge Muhammad Husseini adjourned the case until November 13, giving Hegazy’s new lawyers time to legally take over from their predecessor.

Ahmad and Gamal Eid of ANHRI must either obtain official permission from Hegazy to represent his case or file a new complaint, an ANHRI spokesperson said.

In April, judge Husseini rejected the case of 45 Christian converts to Islam who wished to return to Christianity. Their appeal is pending.

Since 2004 several dozen Coptic converts to Islam have won the right to return to Christianity, but Hegazy is the first Muslim-born Egyptian to attempt the legal change.

Taught to Hate Christians

Now 24, Hegazy said he first made the decision to become a Christian when he was 16.

“My father was not a practicing Muslim, but he hated Christians and Jews as he believed Islam taught us to do so,” Hegazy said in a website statement. “As a child I was taught not to love or respect Christians, but rather treat them harshly because God hates them.”

As a teenager Hegazy enrolled in an institute to train as an Islamic preacher but said he did not like what he learned about Islam’s teaching on women and various subjects.

It was only at the age of 16, when he transferred to a class that had seven Christian students, that he began to think seriously about Christianity.

“It was the first time that I lived close to Christians, and their lives were like lights for me,” Hegazy said. One day he borrowed a Christian book from one of his classmates and read about the conversion of Saul. The story created a desire in him to know more about Christianity.

Hegazy said that he quickly became convinced of the truth of Christianity and wanted to convert.

“Christ appeared to me several times as I kept on reading the Bible,” the convert said. “My father was very angry [when] he found out that I was going to church and reading Christian material.”

State security police soon arrested the young man and tortured him for three days. Despite using a Coptic Orthodox priest to convince Hegazy to recant, the young convert said that police were unable to persuade him to revert to Islam. He eventually returned home, his father under the illusion that he was once again Muslim.

Hegazy said he continued to be active in his faith, writing and publishing some of his own poetry. Police again arrested the convert in 2002 and held him for 10 weeks at a “concentration camp,” where he said he met other converts.

Potential Repercussions

The convert is aware that much is riding on his case.

“I put my trust in God, and I feel I need to persevere,” Hegazy said. “This is my duty to myself, my family, all Muslims who converted to Christianity, and all Christians.”

But while his case may win rights for converts in Egypt , it also has the potential to backfire on Christians.

In order to make his conversion legitimate in the eyes of the state, the Christian may have to produce church documents in court. The repercussions could be dangerous for those involved in his conversion.

“I can only say that I have documents to show that my wife and I were baptized, and I can produce them if necessary in court,” the convert said. He refrained from naming the church that baptized him and provided the documents.

Though no official statistics are available, Copts are estimated to make up between 8 and 15 percent of Egypt ’s population. The number of converts to Christianity is unknown