A decision by an Egyptian administrative court earlier last month has sent the Christian community into an uproar over what they have termed the continuation of religious intolerance by the government.

The controversial new law states that Christians who convert to Islam for whatever reason and wish to revert to their Christian status on identification papers are forbidden from doing so. Muslims converts to Christianity wishing to go back to being listed as followers of Islam, on the other hand, are not barred from such an act.

Christian clergy and intellectuals in the country have expressed resentment toward the ruling, calling it a “step backward” and contradictory to Egypt’s citizenship laws. They argue that the court’s decision undoubtedly moves Egypt nearer to being a theocratic state.

In Egypt, Christians have been known to convert to Islam in order to marry Muslims – non-Muslim men must convert on paper to Islam before being allowed to marry Muslim women. The new law, the government argues, is an attempt to maintain religious integrity, but many Egyptians believe it is a move to ensure that Muslim numbers are maintained.

“As a Muslim, I say that there is no limit to the freedom of religion and, without it, heaven and hell would be … meaningless as the Koran assures the individual freedom of belief and disbelief [and] in return [people] are responsible for their choice,” Mohammed Munir Mogahed, a founding member of Egyptians Against Religious Segregation, said recently in the Egyptian daily, Al Masry Al Youm.

Mogahed added that the Muslim holy text did not give rules concerning apostasy, arguing that religious scholars’ opinions on the matter had been controversial.

“We can compare this issue to citizenship, as every Egyptian has the right to give up his or her citizenship and take on a different one, and there is nothing against him or her” for doing so, he pointed out.

The case began in 2005 when 45 Christians wishing to convert back to Christianity from Islam asked Egypt’s ministry of interior for new identification papers and birth certificates that stated they were Christians.

The interior ministry refused to issue the papers saying it didn’t see a legal reason for doing so, regarding the petitioners’ request as playing with religion to suit their needs.

The Egyptian constitution grants freedom of religion to all citizens.

Meanwhile, Christian clergy have also voiced their concern over the new law, saying that Christians must take a serious stand against the law and object to the oppression of the government.

Morqous Aziz, a Coptic priest, recently told reporters that there would be an appeal of the ruling.

“This is … oppression against all religions and the [Egyptian] Constitution. The Pope will do something about the matter,” Aziz said.

The decision comes as religious tensions in Egypt are mounting. Last year, the Supreme Authoritative Court of Egypt ruled that Bahais were not allowed to be identified by their religious beliefs on their personal documents.

The court’s decision upheld government policy to deny Bahais the right to receive identification cards, birth certificates, education, and even medical care, compelling many to declare themselves on official documents as followers of one of the three officially permitted religions (Islam, Christianity, and Judaism) – in effect, committing fraud – out of necessity.

Meanwhile, Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights director Hossam Bahgat told the Middle East Times that the controversial law was a “manipulation of Islam,” reflecting moral prejudice by the government.

“The right to freedom of religion, including the right to change one’s religion, is guaranteed under the Egyptian Constitution, the Civil Status Law, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and, notably, Islamic Sharia [Muslim law].”

In December 2004, Egypt’s Grand Mufti, Ali Gomaa, issued a fatwa (religious edict) on the matter, saying that those who return to Christianity after adopting Islam were “apostates.”

“The religion of Islam vis-à-vis the state and the social structure is a matter to be left to the administration, according to an assessment of benefits and harms, and of how this conduct is in accordance with the constitution and the applicable laws, and of its impact on social security and national peace,” Gomaa said in 2004.

The ruling has left many activists sour, especially those striving for a more open and tolerant society in the Arab world’s largest nation.

“Islam, in my opinion, is a religion of mercy and justice, and it cannot be treated as a trap [so that] once you are in it, there is no way out,” Mogahed maintained.

Source: Middle East Times (MET)Joseph Mayton, Middle East Times