August 9, 2007 Special Dispatch No. 1675

Egyptian Court in Controversial Ruling: Christians Who Convert to Islam Cannot Convert Back

August 9, 2007
Egypt | Special Dispatch No. 1675

A public debate has been underway in Egypt over the regime's treatment of the country's Christians. This debate emerged following lawsuits by Christians who had converted to Islam and then reconverted to Christianity, and who were now demanding that the Egyptian Interior Ministry issue them new official documents in their original names and with "Christian" in the "religion" entry field.

In April 2007, the Egyptian administrative court rejected an appeal by Christians who had converted to Islam and then reverted to Christianity, and also accused them of apostasy against Islam – the punishment for which is death, according to the common interpretation.

Two months after the court ruling, the plaintiffs' appeal was accepted. The Supreme Administrative Court instructed the Interior Ministry to permit the plaintiffs to have their identity cards again denote them as Christians, and called for a new law banning "playing" with religions. Further ruling in the case was postponed until September 2007.[1]

The Egyptian religious establishment backed up the court's rulings, and at the same time argued that repeated conversion creates confusion that endangers societal stability. The Egyptian press published articles with a similar view, claiming that religion should not be changed with the aim of obtaining material aims. In protest, representatives of the Christian community and human rights organizations in Egypt called this discrimination and violation of freedom of religion.

The following is a review of responses in the Egyptian press to the court ruling:

Egyptian Court: A Christian Who Converts to Islam and Reverts to Christianity is Murtadd[2]

In December 2005, Bashi Razaq Bashi, a Christian who converted to Islam, changing his name to Muhammad Razaq Mahdi, and who subsequently reverted to Christianity, filed a lawsuit against the Egyptian interior minister and the head of the civil affairs department for refusing to issue him an identity card and birth certificate in his original name and with his original religion in the "religion" entry field.[3] The court also had dozens of similar cases awaiting decisions.[4]

The court explained its actions by stating that Egypt's constitution guaranteed the principle of equality of public rights and obligations and freedom of belief and worship, which are also anchored in the international conventions, without discrimination as to gender, origin, language, religion, or belief, as long as this did not harm the public order. At the same time, the court decided that shari'a law took precedence over international convention and the Egyptian constitution in establishing freedom of belief, stating that "there is no coercion in religion [Koran 2:256]."

However, the court ruling went on to state: "There is a big difference between freedom of belief and worship and the freedom that some seek to play with belief by moving between one religion and another for material aims. This game has two stages: first, playing with the [Christian] religion that [a person] adopts and in the name of which he receives official documents from the Interior Ministry and conducts social relations with the rest of the citizens, and second, playing with the religion [of Islam] to which he devoted himself for part of his life and during which he conducted social relations with others, with the intent of reverting to his first religion... "

Another explanation presented by the court ruling was: "The laws of Islam, to which anyone who joins it agrees, forbid someone born a Muslim, or someone who [begins] to believe in Islam [at some point in his life] of his own free will, to rebel against Islam and to move to any other religion... Anyone who leaves his Christian religion in order not to return to it and enters the religion of Islam entirely of his own free will and without coercion is committed to its laws and principles, including not harboring any intentions to deny Islam or to leave it afterwards... Islam does not permit anyone who enters it of his own free will to leave it... for the sake of a particular aim or to change his religion as the wind changes direction..."[5]

Playing With Religions Sparks Civil War

Senior officials in Egypt's religious establishment stated that the issue must be examined with an eye to the extent of the damage caused to society by the transition between religions, and that such examination must be carried out by an Egyptian court. Egyptian Mufti Dr. 'Ali Gum'ah explained that shari'a forbids a Muslim to change his religion, but that the punishment for this crime cannot be meted out in this world, rather by Allah on Judgment Day – because this is a matter of conscience between the individual and his God. He said that only if the apostasy constitutes a danger to the public must the matter be brought to the court, which will determine the required punishment.

Referring to the first ruling by the Egyptian court on a lawsuit to change the denotation of religion in an identity card, Gum'ah said: "These Christians, even if they have denied Islam [as defined by Islamic] religious law, their civil rights when they deny Islam... are a matter for the state apparatuses... with no connection to religious rulings on the matter."[6]

Even after the plaintiffs' appeal was accepted, Gum'ah backed the judicial system. He said that religious belief is a personal matter, in which society intervenes only when it becomes a public matter that threatens the good of society: "The essential question before us is, can a person who is Muslim choose a religion other than Islam? The answer is yes, they can, because the Koran says, 'Unto you your religion, and unto me my religion [109:6],' and 'Whosoever will, let him believe, and whosoever will, let him disbelieve [18:29],' and 'There is no coercion in religion [2:256]'. However, from the standpoint of religion, a person's abandoning his faith is a sin for which he will be punished by Allah on Judgment Day… If the case in question is one of merely rejecting faith, then there is no worldly punishment. If, however, the crime of undermining the foundations of the society is added to the sin of apostasy, then the case must be referred to a judicial system whose role is to protect the integrity of society..." [7]

Dr. Abd Al-Mu'ati Bayoumi, member of the Academy for Islamic Research at Al-Azhar, explained that a Christian who converted to Islam and wanted to revert to Christianity was a threat to society, and that the judicial system was obligated to bring him to trial. In an article in the Egyptian government weekly Al-Misawar, Bayoumi wrote: "In an era of actual clash [between] civilizations, of rivalry between ideologies that harms the sanctity of the beliefs and of the religions and does not shun any means of buying supporters with bribes, incitement against the holy places, and abandoning the homeland, the murtadd should be treated in accordance with [the extent of] the danger he poses to the public order and to society... He must pass a strict test as to whether he endangers society and is likely to spark civil war. If he [does indeed] constitute the head of the arrow in inciting civil war, he must be treated according to Islamic religious law, and the safety of the national community must be protected – because in such a case the murtadd is like anyone spying for the enemy...

"[The plaintiffs'] abandonment of Christianity means that the Christian faith did not give them spiritual wholeness and internal [tranquility]. Also, their turning to Islam and then leaving it means that Islam did not give them spiritual wholeness and [emotional] security. Thus, they are restless, abnormal individuals... [and] their insistence on returning to Christianity is illogical... They need therapy more than they need a change to their [identity] card.

"If an examination of their mental and emotional state finds that they are not ill, then they are necessarily toying first with Christianity, and then with Islam. Playing games with faiths is outside of [what] freedom [permits]... it sparks civil war..."[8]

Former Editor of Government Religious Weekly: There Must Be No Playing With or Trading In Religions

Al-Sayyed 'Abd Al-Raouf, former editor of the Egyptian government weekly for religious affairs 'Akidati, expressed support for the court's decision to prevent Christians who converted to Islam from officially reverting to Christianity. He wrote: "[This phenomenon] appears to be a kind of game, and pursuit of private interests and personal aims – whether in the case of adopting Islam or in the case of abandoning it. Or, some of them [i.e., the plaintiffs] were subject to pressures that forced them to return to their [original] religion, whether family pressure or pressures from another source.

"The court has uprooted the game [of moving between religions], by ruling that the Interior Ministry has the right not to permit conversion in the [official] personal documents of Christians who converted to Islam and then converted back – because this should be seen as a toying with religion. While we believe in the right of the individual, whoever he may be, to adopt any religion, we [also] believe that playing with religion must not be permitted. We believe that no one should be allowed to trade in religions, and to use this as a means of obtaining dishonorable profit or to spark ethnic war [between Christians and Muslims]..."[9]

The Coptic Community: Court Ruling Contradicts Democracy

Members of the Egyptian Coptic Church expressed protest over the first ruling (i.e. against changes to religion and name in identification documents). Coptic Church Patriarch Shinoda sent a memo to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak demanding that repression of Copts end, that the sections of the constitution concerning citizenship be implemented, and that the ruling that a Christian who converts to Islam cannot officially revert to Christianity be revised by the court.[10]

The bishop of the Coptic community in the Al-Ma'adi district said that the ruling contravened democracy as well as human and civil rights. He added: "This ruling muddies the close Muslim-Copt relations. [Why] does this freedom go only one way? When a citizen chooses Islam, everything goes easily, while the opposite [action] is called riddah..." He said that this logic was against the principle of tolerance in which Islam took such pride, and called for real change in the laws so that they would be compatible with the international conventions to which Egypt was a signatory.

Coptic intellectual Dr. Wasim Al-Sisi said that Egypt would gain nothing from this ruling, except for defamation abroad. He called for changing Article 2 of the Egyptian constitution, which states that shari'a is the primary source of legislation in Egypt, and proposed that the laws of all the monotheistic religions be considered additional sources of legislation. [11]

Coptic researcher Hani Labib wrote: "This ruling [banning reversion to Christianity] reflects trends that are contrary to recent constitutional amendments, including placing the primacy of the principle of citizenship as the first article of the constitution. These trends are against the overall Egyptian tendency to stress the values of the civil state and the principles of freedom for every citizen. In addition, rulings such as this bring Egypt into conflict with the outside world, because they contradict many of the international treaties and conventions to which Egypt is committed by law... particularly in light of the fact that in the past, the administrative court issued rulings [in similar issues] that contradict this ruling [that is causing such an uproar]...[12]

Egyptian Human Rights Organizations: Stop Religious Discrimination

Criticism of the ruling came also from Egypt's human rights organization. The Egyptians Against Discrimination organization even called for abolishing the "religion" entry in the national identity card altogether. In a communiqué addressed to the People's Council, the Egyptian government, and the civil society organizations, 150 Egyptian intellectuals called for at least making the "religion" entry in the national identity card optional. The communiqué stated that in light of the rise in the number of rulings prohibiting Egyptian citizens from having their religion noted on personal documents, a national committee should be established for examining Egyptian laws that harm Egyptian citizens' right to choose their own religion. These rulings, it noted, were unconstitutional, since the constitution prohibits discrimination among citizens and assures freedom of belief and worship for all.[13]

In a communiqué, the Egyptian Union for Human Rights stated: "This ruling constitutes a violation of the constitution and of the public order."[14] Organization chairman and legal advisor to Patriarch Shinoda, attorney Nagib Gabra'ail, who also represented the plaintiffs in the trial, added: "The ruling shamed the country in the international community, and presented it as forcing people to adopt beliefs that they do not advocate..."[15]

The Egyptian Initiative for Individual Rights organization also issued a communiqué denouncing the ruling. It stated that the organization regretted that there was no recognition of citizens' right to revert to Christianity after converting to Islam, and added: "This ruling is a kind of additional regression in the stance of the State Council with regard to the constitutional and legal protection of the right of freedom of religion and belief."[16]

[1] Al-Misriyoun (Egypt), July 2, 2007.

[2] The 'ulamaa agree that someone who has left Islam is a murtadd. With regard to the punishment of a murtadd, it is customary to differentiate between two situations: 1) If he changed his belief in his heart without changing his belief or behavior in public – he must not be punished, and his punishment is in the hands of Allah, and 2) if he declared publicly that he was abandoning Islam, and did not recant within a few days – he must be punished. Opinions regarding the proper punishment in the latter case are mixed. According to the prevailing interpretation, the punishment of a Muslim who has publicly renounced Islam is death. This tradition dates back to the Prophet Muhammad, who said: "Whoever changes his religion must be executed." According to a minority opinion, the punishment of such an individual must be decided by a court, which discusses each case on an individual basis. October (Egypt), May 6, 2007.

[3] Roz Al-Yousef (Egypt), May 11, 2007.

[4] Al-Masri Al-Yawm, Al-Wafd (Egypt), April 26, 2007.

[5] Roz Al-Yousef (Egypt), April 13, 2007, May 11, 2007.

[6] , May 14, 2007.

[7] Gumah's statements were published in English on the "On Faith: Muslims Speak Out" blog belonging to Newsweek and The Washington Post., July 21, 2007. The Egyptian daily Al-Masri Al-Yawm quoted some of these statements (May 24, 2007). The next day, Guma'ah's office contacted the paper to complain that the quotes were inaccurate, and sent the full Arabic version for publication.

[8] Al-Misawar (Egypt), May 4, 2007.

[9] Akidati (Egypt), May 1, 2007.

[10] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), May 29, 2007.

[11] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), April 27, 2007.

[12] Roz Al-Yousef (Egypt), May 18, 2007.

[13] Al-Qahira (Egypt), May 15, 2007.

[14] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), April 27, 2007.

[15] Al-Misriyoun (Egypt), June 18, 2007.

[16], May 14, 2007.

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