Al-Ahram Weekly Online   14 - 20 February 2008
Issue No. 884
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Shed light or take heat

Gamal Nkrumah examines the ramifications of this week's ruling that Christian converts to Islam who revert back to Christianity be officially classified as such

The ruling on 9 February by Egypt's Supreme Administrative Court allowing 12 Christian converts to Islam to officially "re- convert" back to Christianity, widely considered a landmark development, comes at a defining moment in Egypt's contemporary history. The laws of the land are fast being modified to accommodate human rights and democracy. New laws are being promulgated to enhance citizenship rights for all Egyptians, regardless of religious affiliation. However, not everyone is content with the ruling that triggered a media jamboree reflecting public deliberations on the subject. Debate concerning the contentious ruling, however, is not likely to die down.

Flagellating unfair laws is one of the most venerable traditions of fledgling human rights groups and civil society organisations in contemporary Egypt. This week's ruling is a striking contribution to this tradition. "The Supreme Administrative Court's ruling is a welcome rejection of the government's policy of discrimination against religious converts," Hossam Bahgat of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) told Al-Ahram Weekly.

"The judges' decision marks a happy ending to an absurd and unnecessary court fight," Bahgat explained. "The constitution protects the right of an individual to change his or her religion. Theoretically it is perfectly legal for a Muslim, for instance, to become a Christian. In practice, however, this constitutional right is denied," Bahgat extrapolated.

"The Court of Cassation has persistently ruled that apostasy is not a criminal offence. However, an apostate loses the ability to conduct any valid legal transaction and any valid legal right. For example, an apostate is automatically divorced, is denied the right to marry and all inheritance rights," Bahgat stressed.

The timing could not have been better because of the climate of escalating sectarian tensions. There is a national argument over identity. "We, as Muslims, distinguish between the [secular] law and Sharia [Islamic law]. I personally believe that the latest ruling is just, fair and balanced. It reinforces the concept of religious freedoms. However, according to Islamic Sharia law, those who forsake Islam are considered apostates. The Islamic jurisdiction differs on the period specified before a person is pronounced an apostate. Some say three days, others contend that six months must laps before a Muslim who converts to another religion is regarded as an apostate," preacher and professor of religious studies Souad Saleh told the Weekly. Militant Islamists believe that apostasy should be punishable by death. Some schools of Islamic jurisprudence argue that there should be no punishment whatsoever for apostasy.

The EIPR urged "the government to take immediate steps to correct its systematic policy of forcing converts from Islam to accept a religious identity that was not their own in order to obtain essential identification documents," meaning converts to, say, Christianity find themselves pressured to continue identifying themselves as Muslims for official purposes. The next step, Bahgat contends, was that Christian minors forcibly converted to Islam when their father becomes Muslim, be permitted to chose their own religious affiliation themselves.

The ruling comes barely two weeks after the Supreme Administrative Court's ruling to permit Bahaais the right not to list any religious affiliation on their computerised personal identification cards.

The slot reserved for the identification of an individual's religion on the personal documents issued by the central Civil Registry Office in the Ministry of Interior is a contentious issue that has become the focus of human rights organisations. The National Council for Human Rights, an advisory government body, headed by former United Nations secretary-general Boutros Ghali urged the government to remove the slot in ID cards indicating an individuals religion altogether.

This victory for the likes of the EIPR finds its reaction in critics of conversions who worry that the process could accelerate to the detriment of the essentially Islamic character of Egypt. The core fear is that unscrupulous individuals would manipulate religion to their own ends.

This week's ruling, EIPR notes, overturned an April 2007 lower court decision that upheld the government policy of refusing to reflect in mandatory national identification cards the conversion back to Christianity of citizens who had earlier converted to Islam.

"There may be situations where there is a need to reconcile Sharia and international human rights standards, but this is not one of them," Bahgat told the Weekly. "There is no consensus among Islamic jurists that there should be any worldly punishment for relinquishing Islam," he stressed.

Bahgat contends that the previous situation persisted for so long partly because of the difficulty of reconciling Sharia and civil legal traditions. The painful situation in the past was not based on Islamic law, "but on what government officials understood to be the Sharia, or Islamic law, in reference to the prohibition against apostasy." National ID cards are necessary for education, employment and the most basic financial and administrative transactions, not for Sharia law.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) and EIPR documented 211 similar lawsuits that have gone before Egypt's administrative judiciary in Cairo since April 2004. "In all these cases the plaintiffs were challenging the policy of the Interior Ministry's Civil Status Department to misidentify them as Muslim in official records," Bahgat explained.

"This designation subjected the parties involved to Muslim family law and predetermined the religious affiliation of their children and the mandatory religious education they will receive in public schools," he added.

According to the HRW-EIPR report entitled Prohibited Identities: State Interference with Religious Freedom, the onus is now on the government to uphold religious freedom as enshrined in the constitution.

"The Egyptian authorities automatically convert Christian children to Islam if one of their parents, usually the father, converts to Islam, without regard to their wishes and often without their knowledge," Bahgat said. He also referred to the plight of yet another persecuted category. "Muslim-born converts to Christianity are similarly denied identification documents reflecting their conversion and are often subject to official and social harassment, detention and sometimes even torture by security officers."

Many Muslims steeped in the traditions of Islam concur. "The crux of the matter is that these converts were Christian before they became Muslim, many because of personal matters, marital problems and other challenges such as a Christian man wishing to betroth a Muslim woman," Sheikh Mahmoud Ashour, former deputy grand sheikh of Al-Azhar, told the Weekly. "In other words, many of them converted for the sake of convenience," he added. "Therefore, this is a legal question. The converts need to confirm their true religious identity before the law. They cannot be considered apostates under the law since the issue at stake is their citizenship and legal rights. They need proper religious identification for legal matters such as inheritance, for instance, otherwise they might be in a position to deceive, defraud and break the law. On the other hand, they can also be subjected to victimisation. This ruling is long overdue," Ashour stressed.

Gamal Qutb, former head of the Fatwa (Religious Edicts) Committee at Al-Azhar, the country's highest Sunni authority, concurred. "Islam doesn't restrict the freedom of religious belief save in exceptional cases." Qutb cited the example of the Banu Nadeer Jews of Medina, a tribe that connived with the enemies of the nascent Islam to destroy the Islamic state in Medina. It was under such difficult circumstance, when the Muslims were in a state of war, the very existence of the Islamic state and religion itself at stake, that the admonition "kill the apostates" was introduced. Qutb asserts that under peaceful conditions such a rule does not apply, except of course, if an individual deliberately incites others to change their religion, secretly propagating another faith.

However, the debate will continue, since secularists do not agree that religion should be part of one's official identity, which the Bahaai ruling, just as the conversions ruling, supports. There are die-hard Islamists who believe otherwise and adamantly refuse to cower to the requisitions of contemporary human rights.

The other reason why the debate will continue is that there are concerns that the speed in which new laws are promulgated will lead to certain friction and might ignite sectarian strife.

Civil and democratic rights are fast advancing in the legal sphere, though not uncontested by those who want to maintain the predominantly Islamic character of the country. "There is a difference between one who is born a Christian and remains so, and one who though born a Christian becomes a Muslim only to revert back to Christianity later. Society, individuals and institutions have the right to know the true religious identity of the individual concerned," Qutb concluded.

The new ID cards will indicate that the holder was a former Muslim who became a Christian. This is considered by some to be a contentious issue because it might leave the card holders liable to assassination as apostates by fanatics. Yet the fact is that times have changed.

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