'Fraud, not freedom'
An Administrative Court ruling prohibiting Copts who had converted to Islam from returning -- officially at least -- to their original faith has provoked uproar, reports Gihan Shahine
A Cairo Administrative Court ruling last week that the Ministry of Interior is not obliged to issue new identity documents for 45 Coptic Christians who converted to Islam and then decided to return to their original faith has sparked a heated public debate. Many Copts lambasted the ruling as discriminatory, and a violation of basic human rights and freedom of the creed enshrined in the constitution.
Coptic human rights activist Naguib Gabriel, involved in several reconversion cases, characterised the ruling as "unprecedented and regressive". It marked, he said, "a black day in the life of Copts".
Anba Daniel, bishop of the Maadi and Maasara diocese, argued the ruling "contradicts all principles of democracy, human rights and citizenship". Both Gabriel and Anba Daniel linked the ruling with Article 2 of the constitution which enshrines Islamic Sharia as the main source of legislation in Egypt.
"Had this article been abolished during the recent constitutional amendments, we would not be facing the dilemma we are in today," said Gabriel. "All talk of equal citizenship has been rendered meaningless by this ruling which exposes the kind of religious state in which we are living."
A majority of Islamic scholars, however, say there is no compulsion in religion under Islamic Sharia law. They point to the 2006 Administrative Court ruling allowing two young Coptic women, whose father had converted to Islam when they were infants, to retain their original religious identity. The court declared that it was "not in any way acceptable that the civil authorities take advantage of their influence to force the plaintiffs to embrace Islam". The same court, under presiding Judge Farouk Abdel-Qader, ruled in favour of 45 other cases of reconversion to Christianity in June 2006. This time, however, it seems the court did not view the issue as one of freedom of the creed, but rather as manipulation of religion.
Gabriel told Al-Ahram Weekly that most of those converting to Islam and wishing to return to their original faith were not doing so out of "any religious conviction". Rather, says Gabriel, they were seeking to resolve personal status dilemmas. Some were Coptic men seeking to marry Muslim women; others were Christians seeking a divorce. Yet others had converted, in an attempt to change their official identity to avoid indictment in minor criminal cases.
The Coptic Church rarely grants divorce, and allows divorcees to remarry only under very strict conditions. These include a marriage being terminated due to adultery or one partner converting to another religion. "I was very unhappy with my marriage and a friend told me that the only way out was to convert to Islam," one man told the audience on Dream 2 satellite channel. When he obtained a divorce, the man said he had returned to his original faith but has been unable to record his reconversion officially.
This television confession sparked outrage among many guest speakers on the programme. "This is an issue of fraud not freedom," thundered journalist Magdi Mehanna. "The issue is very serious: such people are playing with fire and use these issues to receive foreign assistance. The church should intervene to solve their social problems."
Another guest speaker, lawyer Mokhtar Nouh, agreed with Mehanna, arguing that the whole issue had been "blown up to pressure the regime to abolish any reference to Sharia in the constitution -- which has nothing to do with the real issues". Former head of the State Council Amin Mahdy points to several similar rulings, passed in 2001, 1982 and 1984, noting that they had passed almost unnoticed among Copts. Coptic thinker Rafiq Habib insists that the most recent ruling "should not have sparked all this anger on the part of Copts" since "it is totally unacceptable for people to use religion and claim they belong to a certain creed, simply to solve personal dilemmas".
Gabriel, though, remains concerned with the "uncertain fate" of 350 petitioners seeking to revert to their original Christian identity on official papers. Among such cases, says Gabriel, are children of fathers who converted to Islam when they were infants, and who now want to regain their religious identity as Christians, in order to sit for exams or get married. "There are also those nearing death and who are panicking that they will be unable to be interred in Coptic cemeteries without official papers proving they are Christian."
According to unofficial estimates, out of the 350 cases, 100 converted to Islam in order to obtain a divorce, 70 embraced Islam to marry a Muslim spouse and 50 changed their Coptic identity to avoid indictment in minor criminal cases such as forgery.
Habib does not preclude the possibility of court rulings in favour of the plaintiff, in future cases of reconversion. "The recent ruling, after all, did not say that the law prohibits converts from returning to their original faith though the judiciary, perhaps, wanted to send a message that it would not allow people to manipulate religion for their own ends." Gabriel, though, argued it is not "the court's business to look into the reasons why people converted. Courts should just apply the laws and principles of the constitution."
Gabriel deplores the judge "using his own interpretation of Sharia, essentially branding those reverting to their original faith as apostates -- something which may constitute a threat to their lives."
Gabriel claims that it is easier for Copts to convert to Islam than the other way round, since "Muslims wishing to embrace Christianity would automatically be considered apostates".
Mohamed Hamed El-Gamal, former head of the State Council, told the Weekly he believes the court should have granted the defendants the right to record their original faith on official papers, since it is not in the national interest to create such a fuss over the issue. He agrees with Gabriel that it is beyond the mandate of administrative courts to look into the reasons why people are converting.