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A Question of Identity

In April a Cairo court ruled that the Ministry of the Interior is not obliged to issue new identity documents to ten Coptic Christians, who after having converted to Islam decided, to return to their original faith. As far as the law is concerned they will remain Muslims for the rest of their lives. It is precisely for this reason that the ten Copt converts, after having rejected Islam and returned to Christianity, with a public ceremony, asked the ministry for new ID documents. But the ministry refused, on the grounds that according to Sharia law it was impossible to renounce the Islamic faith. “The tribunal cannot uphold the request of the citizens” who were calling on the judiciary to force the government to issue new documents as “neither this nor other tribunals are able to see into the depths of the heart of a man, where only God can arrive.”
The law based on the Koran in fact forbids the faithful from passing from one religious creed to another and anyone who pronounces the Shahada or declaration of faith will be considered a Muslim forever.

Subsequently Egypt’s Supreme Administrative Court agreed to hear the appeal of the Coptic converts to Islam on 1 September and was adjourned further until 17 November.

Church Rumours incite Mob Attack in Egypt

In May, in the village of Bamha, about 40 miles south of Cairo, following a Friday prayer meeting where an inflammatory sermon and leaflet distribution followed rumours that the Christians were planning to build a church without permission, a Muslim mob attacked Christian homes, shops were set on fire and eleven Coptic Christians were injured in clashes. Hundreds of people took up arms brandishing sticks, hatchets and hurling bricks and firebombs.
However, some Muslims ran into the burning buildings to try to help trapped Christians. “Not all Muslims there were happy with what was happening. There were Muslims who risked their lives while trying to rescue Copts,” one resident reported.Five of the 11 wounded were women, said Abdullah Fawzi, director of the ambulance staff.

Under Egyptian law, no church can be constructed without a presidential decree, although the construction of mosques in Egypt is almost unrestricted. It is still unclear, however, whether the Christians were planning to construct a new church or expand a house used for prayer and whether or not they had a building permit.

Hundreds of police reportedly intervened and stopped the fight after at least 27 Christian-owned houses and shops were damaged by fire. Egyptian security forces arrested 59 Muslims and charged them with arson and spreading sectarian strife. No Christians were arrested.

Human Rights activists charged

On 7 August 7 Peter Ezzat and other members of the Canada based Middle East Christian Association (MECA) were investigating reports that a Coptic worker in the suburb of Cairo was thrown off his balcony by two members of the Egyptian police after he refused to cave in to their demands and pay them extortion money. It appeared that two policemen had stopped Nasser Sediq Gadallah on his way home from work and demanded money by force. He refused to pay and filed a report with the prosecutor’s office charging them with extortion and brutality. Eyewitnesses reported that both members of the police visited Naser’s home shortly after he filed his report and tried to force him to withdraw his complaints from the prosecutors’ office. When he refused, they threw him off his balcony in the presence of his family and other eyewitnesses. Shortly after, the local police investigating the murder wanted to report the murder as a suicide.

At that time, Peter Ezzat and other members of the Middle East Christian Association visited Nasser’s family where they took pictures of the crime scene, interviewed witnesses on film and encouraged the family and witness to file a murder charges against both policemen with the prosecutors’ office. It appears that their involvement outraged the State Security which may have preferred to file the murder as suicide. Less than 24 hours later, the State Security raided Dr. Faltas’s apartment and confiscated computers and other publications about Egyptian Copts. They arrested Peter Ezzat and Dr. Fawzy Faltas. Dr. Faltas is 61 years old retired physician who is in poor health and requires constant medical attention.The men are now charged with a number of charges including; religion incitement, propagation of false news with the intent to incite sectarian strife and Confusing the Public Security. The men are believed to be at the State Security Intelligence (SSI) headquarters at Lazoghly Square, where they remain incarcerated. The two men were interviewed by the Supreme State Security Prosecutor who issued a decision to imprison the defendants fifteen days pending the investigation. At a further hearing on 5 September, the court ruled that the two activists should remain in custody for a further 15 days. No reasons were offered as to why the custody was extended.

The U.S. Copts Association called for the immediate release of these two innocent Copts. The Association is appealing to the Ministry of Interior to stop all forms of harassments and unlawful detentions of Coptic activists.

Church caught in land dispute between ministries

On 14 August morning a dispute erupted between the security forces and the congregation of the Holy Virgin and St Marina’s church, on Egypt’s north coast, 107km west of Alexandria.

The church was licensed by republican decree no 457 of 1999 and was built on a 1000 square metre plot of land allocated for that purpose by the State. In 2000, a 5000-square-metre plot adjacent to the church’s western wall was also allocated to the church In February 2007 Matrouh governor Lieutenant General Mohamed Abdel-Hamid al-Shahaat re-allocated 1000 sq.m of the land to the research body Protecting Marina’s Coast Authority, and the remaining 4000sq.m. to Esprit tourist investment company, which accordingly erected a barbed wire fence around the land.

Those in charge of the church filed a complaint to the President and to minister of local development Abdel-Salam Mahgoub who asked Lieutenant General Shahaat to annul the allocation to Protecting Marina’s Coast

In the morning of the next day a building squad arrived at the site on the pretext that Matrouh governor had ordered a road to be built on the land. The congregation reacted angrily. The men and women gathered at the construction site, throwing their bodies on the ground to prevent the work. The security forces were called in; they harshly questioned the church’s priest Father Angelious Ishaq, as well as four other priests who were then present at the church: Fr Aghathon, Fr Abadir, Fr Abakir, and Fr Mitiass. Eleven men were detained.They surrounded the site, but the congregation kept their ground. The next day the stand-off ended when the security forces withdrew, and the 11 detainees were released.

Metropolitan Bakhoumios of Beheira, accompanied by several members of the clergy and prominent Coptic laymen, including MP Georgette Qellini, headed to the site to officially receive the land from a hand-over governmental committee, but the committee never showed up. The ministry had promised to hand over the land to the bishopric at 11. 00 a.m. but, when no hand-over committee showed up the date was postponed to 2.00 p.m. then again to 5.00 p.m. Finally, the Metropolitan was informed that no hand-over would take place that day, with the possibility that the matter would be taken to court for judgement.

The issue is now not one of a dispute between the Church and the government, but is more between the Local Development Ministry and Matrouh governorate, both of which claim the right to dispense with the land. If the matter cannot be settled between them on the administrative level it will have to be taken to court.

Metropolitan Bakhomios described his relationship with Matrouh governor as cordial. In an interview with the Coptic weekly, Watani, he explained that the congregation was steadily increasing. The Church serves thousands of Copts in some 80 villages, in addition to travellers between Alexandria and Salloum. In summer, the congregation swells because of the numerous holiday makers on the coast. For these reasons, the bishopric requested an additional allocation of the 5000-sq.m. area adjacent to the church. Before 2004, applications were filed with the New Urban Communities Authority (NUCA) which is affiliated to the Ministry of Local Development, but after 2004 they were filed with the Matrouh governorate. The land from Alamein to Salloum on Egypt’s western border, some 500km long, is wide, sparsely inhabited, desert land. It can accommodate countless projects.

The following day, however, and in response to intervention by the presidency, the security forces withdrew and the detainees were released. The NUCA promised to hand over the land to the Bishopric the following Sunday, a move which never materialised.

Convert from Islam takes courageous stand

In August, Mohammed Ahmed Higazi, a 25 year-old Egyptian Muslim who converted to Christianity, who filed a suit for his conversion to be officially recognized, was forced into hiding after his lawyer withdrew from his case.

Higazi converted at the age of 16 Hegazy and attended church in his hometown of Port Said in northeastern Egypt.“I started readings and comparative studies in religions. I found that I am not consistent with Islam teachings. The major issue for me was love. Islam wasn’t promoting love as Christianity did.” Hegazy said he was detained and tortured by Egyptian police for three days after they found out about his conversion. He was again arrested in 2001 after he published a book of poems criticizing the country’s security services.

He was now trying to get this officially recognized so that the unborn baby being carried by his wife, who has also converted, would be born a Christian. The Kalima Centre, a Coptic group specialising in human rights, initially brought a case for recognition on Higazi’s behalf but then withdrew, with director Mamduh Nakhla saying that it did not want to break Higazi’s ties with his family and also because of “lack of a church certificate certifying his conversion.” The lawyer said at a press conference that he did not want to cause greater division in the country and blamed Hegazi for not giving him the proper paperwork proving Egyptian officials rejected his application. However, another centre official, Rumani Gad Al Rabb, said that the centre withdrew after receiving threats.

Higazi’s fears for his life came after receiving death threats for apostasy, a punishment supported by many Muslim clerics. From his hideout he is quoted as saying, “I am in hiding now, far from the security services and other people. I’ve had death threats on my mobile phone. Each time I change the number some fanatics get it and call to threaten me with being eliminated.”

Higazi’s wife has changed her first name from Zeinab to the Christian name of Katerina, but her father says that he will go to court to force a divorce. “I want them [the judges] to make her divorce and that she returns to me – even dead,” Ali Kamel Suleimane was quoted as saying in the independent daily Ad Dustour. Higazi’s father denies that his son has converted, saying that he continued to attend the mosque with him, something that the son totally denies.

Higazi says that he has finally found a lawyer to act for him, but refused to name him to prevent him becoming a target of fanatics and the media.
The government daily Al Messa published an opinion poll in which clerics declared themselves unanimous on “the need to kill the apostate.” Sheikh Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, Imam of Al Azhar, was quoted as saying that “Islam can manage without those who opt for apostasy and renounce Islam.” but he would not be drawn on whether death was the punishment for apostasy, or comment on the statement of the Mufti of Egypt, Sheikh Ali Gomaa, who, in July, reaffirmed that Muslims could choose their own religion, although apostasy would still amount to a “grave sin.”

In Egypt, a child’s registered religion is based on the father’s official faith. As a result, Hegazi has to change his religion to Christianity in order for his son to be raised openly as a Christian and be able to enroll in Christian religious classes at school, wed in a church, and attend church services openly without harassment. His case has put the media spotlight on the inequality of religious conversion in Egypt. Although there is no law in Egypt banning conversion from Islam it is almost impossible for Muslims to legally change their status to Christian, but Christians are free to convert to Islam. Between 2000 and 2006, some 7,000 Christians legally became Muslims.

Egyptian twins Andrew and Mario want to remain Christians

In September, an Egyptian court temporarily adjourned a hearing for two Christian brothers who, when ordered to take a school test that would result in their conversion to Islam wrote, “I am Christian,” on the exam papers.

Their parents, Medhat Ramses, a Sea Captain and Camillia Medhat a Taxation Expert, were both Coptic Orthodox, when the boys were born, but the father later divorced the mother, leaving his sons behind, and converted to Islam to marry a Muslim. Under Shar’ia law, children are required to follow the faith of any parent who converts to Islam. The boys, Mario Medhat Ramses, 11, and Andrew Medhat Ramses, 13, are being forced to take Islamic education because their father, who abandoned the family years ago and remarried, has adopted Islam.

The boys, classified as ‘brilliant’ students at the French Lycee school of Alexandria, were ordered in May to take their Islamic religion exam in order to pass to the next grade. Following the publicity, Egyptian’s Education Minister announced that he would automatically pass the boys on to the next grade, but their mother noted the underlying problem remains.

The case is a significant one as it will oblige the court to choose between civil law or Shar’ia law. Their lawyer, Naguib Gabriel, planned to be absent from the hearing, when the court was expected to rule on the boys’ future, causing the court to adjourn indefinitely. He wanted to delay the final hearing until after 17 November, when a ruling is expected in another case, that of 12 converts to Islam seeking “re-conversion” to Christianity.

Article 40 of the Egyptian Constitution (adopted in 1971) declares that “All citizens are equal before the law. They have equal public rights and duties without discrimination between them due to race, ethnic origin, language, religion or creed” and article 46 also guarantees Freedom of belief; “The State shall guarantee the freedom of belief and the freedom of practice of religious rite.” However, in 1980 article 2 was added declaring “Islam is the religion of the state and Arabic its official language, Islamic jurisprudence is the principal source of legislation.” The fact that this article was inserted as the second amongst two hundred and eleven articles indicates its importance and hierarchal power to the legislator. This becomes apparent in courts when other articles of the Egyptian Law are made subordinate to the Islamic Shar’ia law, which severely curtails the principle of equality.

Although the Egyptian Constitution considers any International Law or Treaty ratified by the Egyptian government to be part of the Egyptian Law, by attaching a qualification to the adoption of International Laws and Treaties which states “taking into consideration the provisions of the Islamic Sharia and the fact that they do not conflict with the text annexed to the instrument, we accept, support and ratify it.” It has effectively nullified any legislation which is incompatible with Sharia.

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