A Muslim convert to Christianity filed suit against Egypt last week for refusing to legally recognize his change of religion, sparking a reactionary lawsuit by Muslim clerics and death threats against his lawyer.

Mohammed Ahmed Hegazy, 24, brought a case against Egypt’s interior ministry on August 2 for rejecting his application to replace Islam with Christianity on his personal identification papers.

“I think it is my natural right, to embrace the religion I believe and not to have to have a double personality for me as well as for my wife and my expected baby,” said Hegazy, who converted to Christianity when he was 16.

Though Egyptian law does not forbid conversion from Islam to Christianity, it provides no legal means to make the change. Converts to Christianity usually hide their identity to avoid torture and forced recantation at the hands of family members and security police.

Hegazy, whose wife Zeinab is four months pregnant, said that he wants his child to be born with Christian papers. The couple, who were forced to hold an Islamic wedding ceremony because of their legal status as Muslims, know that a Christian ID card will allow their child to take Christian religion classes in school, marry in a church and even openly attend services without fear of harassment.

Mamdouh Nakhla of the Kalema Center for Human Rights has taken Hegazy’s case, telling Compass from Cairo today that the lawsuit has caused him “big problems.”

Several Muslim clerics and lawyers headed up by Sheikh Youssef el-Badry have opened a case against the lawyer on charges of causing sectarian strife and baptizing Muslims.

A source close to Nakhla told Compass that Egypt’s security police, the State Security Investigation (SSI), called the lawyer to tell him to withdraw the case or he may be killed.

“This is the first such case in the history of Egyptian justice,” Nakhla told Agence France-Presse (AFP) on Thursday (August 2).

Legal conversion from Christianity to Islam occurs regularly in Egypt – 7,000 Christians joined Islam between 2000 and 2006, according to a statement last year by Egypt’s top Muslim cleric, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Sheikh Muhammad Sayed Tantawi.

But conversion from Islam to another religion is impossible under Egyptian law.

“As long as Article 2 of the constitution remains unchanged, Christians, Jews and Bahai, anyone who is not Muslim, will be at a disadvantage,” Helmy Guirguis of the UK Copts Association told Compass from London today.

Article 2 of the Egyptian constitution designates sharia, or Islamic law, as the basis for Egyptian law.

Under most mainstream interpretations of sharia in Egypt, apostasy is a punishable offense.

Last month Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, a leading Egyptian cleric, backed down from earlier statements that Muslims should be free to choose a religion other than Islam.

Gomaa had written in a Washington Post-Newsweek online forum that leaving Islam was a sin punishable by God, but that the act warranted no worldly punishment, AFP reported. The news agency later published a clarification from Gomaa’s office stating that apostasy was subversion and therefore merited punishment.

In recent years, however, dozens of Copts who converted to Islam and later wished to return to their original faith have filed successful cases to have their legal status changed. Nakhla is one of several lawyers currently defending a group of Copts whose case is to be heard by Egypt’s Supreme Administrative Court on September 1.

Unprecedented Challenge

Hegazy, a native of Port Said, is the first Muslim-by-birth to openly challenge the government’s restriction of conversion away from Islam.

“I believe there are thousands of converts,” said Hegazy, indicating that he had attended large meetings and conferences of converts from Islam to Christianity.

Addressing this group, he said, “Get out of your ghetto and establish organizations to speak for yourselves and defend your rights. The answer is not to escape or to leave the country, but to fight and struggle for our rights here in our own country.”

In an interview, Hegazy called on the government to recognize the existence of converts and completely cancel the religion clause from national identification cards.

Jailed and tortured in 2002 when police discovered his conversion, Hegazy said that he was not optimistic about winning the case.

“Martyrdom would be much better than being jailed under such a radical and fundamentalist authority,” he said.

The convert has published a small book of 31 poems called Sherine’s Laugh. In one poem, he recalled mistreatment at the hands of Ahsraf Ma’alouf, an SSI officer who reportedly tortured him for his conversion to Christianity.

Last month, Egyptian police in Alexandria brutally tortured Shaymaa Muhammad al-Sayed, a Muslim woman who had converted to Christianity. They then handed her over to her Islamist family, who beat her behind the police station and are now keeping her in their home.

In April, security officials released another convert to Christianity, Bahaa el-Akkad, who had been jailed without charges for two years.

Source: Compass Direct News, Santa Ana, California/USA and Istanbul/Turkey/APD