By: WEA RLC Principal Researcher and Writer, Elizabeth Kendal
A hugely important appeal is presently being considered by Egypt's Supreme
Administrative Court. The judgment is due to be handed down on Sunday 1 July.
This apostasy case has had virtually no coverage in English language media.
The appeal, which bears striking similarity to Lina Joy's appeal in Malaysia,
has been filed by 45 Copts (Egypt's indigenous, traditionally Christian
people) who had either converted to Islam for various reasons or been deemed
Muslim on account of their parents' conversion to Islam. These 45 Copts want
to officially return to their Christian faith and be legally recognised as
Christians on their national identity cards.
For Copts, this process of re-conversion to Christianity requires a court
ruling. In more tolerant times the courts have been lenient towards the Copts
and ruled to permit the re-conversion. But on 24 April 2007 these 45 Copts
discovered that the times have definitely changed, because for them permission
was denied. They decided to appeal.
During the 18 June appeal, the Copts' attorney, Coptic lawyer Naguib Gabriel,
decried the fact that through the ruling of the lower court, "the government
is forcing people to embrace beliefs against their free will. It is forcing
them according to their official papers to belong to a religion they don't
believe in." Meanwhile the attorney for the government argued that the initial
verdict issued on 24 April by Judge Muhammad Husseini was "completely
consistent with the principles of Islamic sharia law".
Egypt's Islamic scholars have been divided, with moderates advocating that
apostasy should only be prohibited for those born Muslim; and fundamentalists
maintaining that Islam decrees that any apostate should be executed. Egypt's
Interior Minister Habib el-Adly takes the fundamentalist view and has publicly
supported the initial ruling. Compass Direct reports, "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'
should only be imprisoned and beaten every three days until she returns to Islam."
Compass Direct notes: "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."
But there can be little doubt that the prohibition on Muslim conversion to
Christianity will be tested in the courts soon. Escalating Islamic
radicalisation and intolerance, and the amazing and dynamic growth in Arab
Christianity are destined to clash in the courts eventually. In the face of
rising repressive intolerance, Arabs will demand their right to liberty. Let
the debate begin!
The Compass Direct report of 25 June 2007 entitled "Egyptian Copts Appeal
Religious Identity Ruling", can be found online at:
Here is the report in full.
>> [email protected]
Egyptian Copts Appeal Religious Identity Ruling
Interior minister demands execution of Christian 'apostates.'
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
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
"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
"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
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
"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.
*** A photograph of Coptic lawyer Naguib Gabriel is available electronically.
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