November 12, 2007

VI. No Return: Official Obstacles to Re-converting to Christianity

There are hundreds of known cases of Coptic Egyptians who converted to Islam and subsequently decided to return to Christianity. The reasons why Christians convert to Islam are numerous, including marriage and divorce, and improved social and economic opportunities, as well as religious conviction. They typically face no difficulties converting to Islam and acquiring identity documents recognizing their conversions, but those who subsequently wish to return to Christianity meet with refusal and harassment from the Civil Status Department (CSD) of the Ministry of Interior.

At least 211 Egyptians wishing to reconvert to Christianity have appealed the CSD's decisions before the Cairo Court of Administrative Justice since 2004. The court, which before then had consistently found that re-conversion to Christianity is a form of apostasy that a Muslim state may not endorse, reversed its position in April 2004. Over the following two years, the court found for the plaintiffs in all of these cases. In April 2007, however, following the retirement of Judge Faruq `Abd al-Qadir as its head, the court reverted to its previous position of allowing freedom to change one's religion only in cases of conversion to Islam. Many similar cases are still pending before the court, and the Supreme Administrative Court is expected to hear the appeals of those who have lost their suits before the lower Court of Administrative Justice. Meanwhile, these individuals continue to be unable to lead normal lives without basic identification documents recognizing their true faith.

Unlike conversions to Islam, there are no written regulations at the Public Notary and Validation Authority setting out the procedures for conversion to Christianity. A circular of the Public Notary Office, issued in 1971, instructs employees that in cases where local security directorates inform them of "apostasy," local notary offices should note the person's return to their original faith on the same certificate that validated their conversion to Islam. Local offices may not validate certificates of re-conversion to Christianity because, "Apostasy from the Islamic religion is a matter that the esteemed Islamic Shari`a does not recognize."[150]

Civil Status Law 143/1994 states that amendments to or corrections of information pertaining to religion are entered "based on rulings or documents issued by competent authority." [151] HRW/EIPR have documented the cases of 167 individuals in which the CSD has refused to acknowledge re-conversions to Christianity, despite the fact that the applicants presented official documents from the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchy sanctioning their return to the Church, which should, in theory, be considered the "competent body" for the purposes of the Civil Status Law.

The CSD's refusal to grant national ID cards recognizing the Christian identities of persons who re-convert from Islam forces these individuals to live with a dual identity Christian in their faith, but Muslim in the eyes of the state and much of society. "I don't know how to live with this split identity," Ghada told HRW/EIPR. [152] They have difficulty marrying because potential Christian partners fear they risk excommunication from the church for having married Muslims, that they will be subjected to Muslim personal status laws, and that their children will automatically be classified as Muslim.

Theresa Husni Mahir, 29, who reverted to Christianity in 1998 after her divorce (she had converted to Islam at the time of her marriage to a Muslim man), explained the difficulties she faced as a result of the refusal of CSD officials to issue her an ID recognizing her return to Christianity. "Since 1998, I can't travel, I can't work," she said. Mahir wants to remarry, but worries about the consequences. "I got permission to marry in the Church, but to register my marriage, I need an ID." [153] An unregistered marriage poses a severe problem because the state considers any children the couple might have to be illegitimate, with the result that they lose inheritance rights and face social ostracism.

One 32-year-old Egyptian, who asked to remain anonymous, told HRW/EIPR that he converted to Islam as a result of a deal with Islamists in prison after he was convicted for allegedly supplying arms to Christians during sectarian unrest in the Cairo neighborhood of Imbaba in the early 1990s. The Islamist prisoners promised him that upon his conversion to Islam they would testify in his favor, thereby shortening his sentence. Upon his release, Islamists took him to Al-Azhar to declare his conversion. He subsequently did his obligatory military service, where he had acted like a pious Muslim, performing the rituals of the religion.

He reverted back to Christianity in 1999 and obtained an official document to that effect from the Patriarchy in 2004. The CSD denied his request for an ID listing him as Christian. This prompted him to attempt to falsify his paper ID to read Christian; but the forgery was transparent, making him vulnerable to arrest for document forgery. As a result, he said, if he wants to marry in the Church:

Problems would come with children. If my brothers and sisters want to marry and ask me to be their representative I can't use my ID. I can't be a partner in business transactions. By remaining Muslim, I hurt my family; my sister can't marry. [154]

Not having one's true religious identity reflected in official documents can have other consequences. Mira Makram Gubran converted to Islam, along with her ex-husband, in 1994, and they subsequently reconverted to Christianity with the permission of the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchy. In 2002, her husband again converted to Islam and listed her as a Muslim on his family ID. After marital problems developed, he filed a complaint against her, claiming that she had forged her ID identifying her as Christian.

The police intelligence unit of the CSD then subpoenaed her and confiscated that ID. She told HRW/EIPR that the officer in charge refused to issue her a new ID unless she accepted being identified as Muslim. "He said, 'By the time you finish your coffee, your Muslim ID will be ready, and your Christian ID will be buried.'" [155] She told HRW/EIPR that in the CSD computers she is identified as Christian, but that her file reads "frozen for security reasons," and any official calling it up would automatically send her back to that same officer.

"Without my ID, I lost custody of my son, lost my alimony, and lost my flat," she said. "The officer offered money, custody of my son, and marriage on condition that I get a Muslim ID."

Gubran filed a lawsuit before the Court of Administrative Justice in March 2004 against Interior Minister Habib al-`Adli and `Isam al-Din Bahgat, then president of the CSD. On April 13, 2004, she won a favorable ruling and subsequently received her national ID card listing her as Christian, although at the time she spoke with HRW/EIPR her son remained with her former husband in Canada.

Golsen Sobhi Kamil, 33, also confronted official obstruction when she attempted to amend information on her national ID card. When she was 16, she converted to Islam to marry a Muslim man. She saved her Christian identification card, but received a new computerized Muslim ID as well, which reflected her new Muslim name, `Ismat, and her religion as Islam. After divorcing her husband in 1998, she obtained permission from the Coptic Church to re-convert to Christianity. She then married a Christian man and attempted to get a new national ID card listing her name as Golsen and her religion as Christian. At the CSD, afraid to mention her conversion to Islam or her marriage, she claimed that she was applying for an ID for the first time. The Police Intelligence Unit of the CSD called her in and questioned her. The same official who pressured Mira Makram Gubran to remain Muslim also pressured Golsen Sobhi Kamil. "He started with a nice tone, trying to persuade me to stay Muslim," she told HRW/EIPR, but then

He said I'd committed a sin against God. He asked why I wanted to go back to Christianity. "If you had bad luck with your first husband, you should have found another Muslim man." He offered me assistance and favors. "I can find you a good Muslim man," he said. "If it's financial, we can help you find a job. If you went back to your family for lack of any alternative, we'll help you find an apartment." When I insisted on staying a Christian, he said, "Well, we have to start an investigation into the forgery." [156]

At one point, the official sent Golsen and her mother to the Daher police station. "He tried to handcuff my mother and me, but [my mother] broke down, so he said, 'OK, handcuffs are not needed,' and took us in a police car to the station." There, she said, they were handcuffed and kept for the night. The police then transferred them to the public prosecutor's office, where they charged Golsen with document forgery. Police released the two on bail after they spent the night in detention. On April 19, 2005, a criminal court sentenced Golsen to a six-month suspended sentence and insisted on using her Muslim name, despite her request that the verdict use her Christian name. Her Christian husband, who wished to divorce her, was subsequently able to win a court case nullifying their marriage, since the state does not recognize marriages between Christian men and Muslim women. Because her marriage was nullified, she had no legal rights to alimony and return of her dowry.

HRW/EIPR examined 211 lawsuits filed by Egyptians who have converted from Islam back to Christianity before the Court of Administrative Justice challenging the CSD's refusal to reflect their actual faith in their national identity cards and other vital documents. The plaintiffs maintain that the CSD's refusal to recognize their re-conversion to Christianity violates the Civil Status Law and Egypt's Constitution, which guarantees freedom of belief and prohibits discrimination based on religion.

In all these cases, government lawyers argued that because apostasy in the form of abandoning Islam is a matter not regulated explicitly by Egyptian law, it should be governed fully by the relevant provisions of Shari`a, in accordance with the Civil Code and the Personal Status Law.

Given that the provisions of apostasy under Islamic Shari`a are clear, including that an apostate should not have his apostasy recognized, this lawsuit therefore has no accurate basis in Shari`a or law and therefore must be dismissed. [157]

Government lawyers also argued that CSD officials are justified in denying the plaintiffs their right to national identity cards and the consequent ability to exercise numerous civil rights. The government claimed that it no longer regards the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchy as the "competent body" for the purposes of the Civil Status Law since the plaintiffs, having converted to Islam, are now governed by the principles of Shari`a.

Similarly, the State Commissioners Authority, a body of legal experts attached to administrative courts and mandated to submit advisory opinions to the court before it reaches a decision, supported the government's position. [158] In Ghada's case (see above), the report of the State Commissioner assigned to the case concurred that, in the absence of specific legislation on the matter, Shari`aprinciples must apply to the facts of the case. [159]

Neither the government lawyers nor the State Commissioners Authority acknowledged that, in fact, there is a law governing the matter in questions, namely the Civil Status Law, which regulates change of religion in official identification documents, as detailed above. The report concluded that the government was under no obligation to recognize the plaintiff's reversion to Christianity and saw no conflict between this policy and the constitutional protection of freedom of belief:

Apostasy provisions do not contradict or nullify freedom of belief, because these provisions apply to Muslims exclusively and not to others. If a non-Muslim refrains from endorsing Islam voluntarily he should be left to what he believes in. But if he endorses Islam he then becomes subject to the rule of Islamic Shari`a including on apostasy which prevents a Muslim from changing his religion once he has adopted Islam. [160]

On April 23, 2004, the First Circuit of the Cairo Court of Administrative Justice, then presided over by Judge Faruq` Abd al-Qadir, found in favor of Mira Makram Gubran (see above) and decided that the Interior Ministry and the CSD were legally obliged to recognize her conversion back to Christianity and to allow her to regain her former Christian name. Since then and until September 2006, when Judge `Abd al-Qadir retired, HRW/EIPR documented at least 22 similar decisions, all in favor of the plaintiffs.

These ground-breaking decisions constituted a major shift in the position of the Court of Administrative Justice. The court had, in the past, consistently maintained in its decisions that the CSD was under no legal obligation to recognize re-conversion to Christianity, reasoning that Egypt, as a Muslim state, should not recognize decisions by Muslims to change their religion, as such decisions constitute apostasy. [161] One of these decisions, issued in 2001, stated, "Although the constitution guarantees freedom of belief and the freedom to perform religious rites, this constitution has taken Islamic Shari`a as the principal source of legislationincluding the provisions related to apostasy." [162]

In his decisions, Judge `Abd al-Qadir reasoned that the Civil Status Law requires identity cards to reflect a citizen's correct civil status, and that all changes to that status require only the approval of the competent official body. In cases of return or conversion to Christianity, he asserted, the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchy is the competent body. He concluded that the refusal of CSD officials to amend the plaintiffs' information constituted a breach of that law. The decisions also stated that allowing the plaintiffs to change their religion to Christianity on their identity cards merely confirmed a reality and did not establish a new situation.

There is a legal obligation on the administration to intervene and recognize the true religion adopted by the plaintiff in order to preserve the rights of others [who may come in contact with her]. Moreover, it is not permissible in any manner for the administration to use the administrative power vested in it by law as a vehicle to force the plaintiff to remain in Islam.[163]

The decisions reaffirmed that the state had an obligation to prevent discrimination and to protect freedom of religion under the constitution and added:

Needless to say, an undeniable relationship exists between allowing for freedom of belief and the consequences that stem from that freedom. To say otherwise is to void that freedom of its substance and render it as mere rituals and rhetoric with no real essence. [164]

The court also stated that the constitutional protection of freedom of religion and non-discrimination is in line with both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international treaties, such as the Arab Charter on Human Rights.

Judge `Abd al-Qadir stated that his decisions were fully in accord with Shari`a, which provides for freedom of religion.[165]He also dismissed the claim of CSD officials that the plaintiffs were apostates by stating that Islamic jurisprudence only considers an "apostate" deserving chastisement to be a Muslim who repudiates Islam and "who finds comfort in disbelief."

Refusal by the CSD to issue identity cards recognizing the plaintiffs' correct religion, the decision concluded, constituted "an unjustifiable interference and use of coercion to compel [the plaintiff] to choose a certain religion or creed against her wish."

The government did not appeal any of the 22 decisions issued by Judge `Abd al-Qadir as president of the Court of Administrative Justice. [166] This was likely an admission that the plaintiffs should not have been required to resort to courts in the first place in order to ascertain rights that are explicitly guaranteed by the constitution and the Civil Status Law. Officials at the Interior Ministry and its CSD were evidently reluctant to accept responsibility for applying the law, preferring to leave this up to the judiciary to settle each case individually, without formally amending their arbitrary and discriminatory policy against Christians who have converted to Islam and wished to revert back to Christianity.

Yet even those who spent months in courtrooms trying to obtain accurate identity documents and won favorable court rulings in the short period before Judge `Abd al-Qadir retired and the Court of Administrative Justice reverted to its previous position on the matter continued to face difficulties in the implementation of these rulings. HRW/EIPR are aware of several cases in which CSD officials subjected citizens who converted back to Christianity to further questioning, insults, and pressure to remain Muslim before they implemented the court rulings and finally issued them new ID documents reflecting their true religious affiliation.

For example, Ghada (see above) obtained a favorable ruling from the Court of Administrative Justice in April 2005, but she was unable to obtain her new identity card until September 2005. CSD officials transferred her on two occasions to different offices; at each stage, the officials refused to amend her information despite the fact that she presented them with the court order. They reluctantly proceeded only after her lawyer sent complaints directly to the Interior Minister and the Public Prosecutor.

Her lawyer, Peter Naggar, told HRW/EIPR that ministry officials told him to see the director of the local CSD office in the Zaitoun neighborhood, but there officials informed him that the files had been transferred to Sharabiyya, Ghada's birthplace. The officials there at first refused. "I won't write something like this," Naggar quoted one as saying. [167] When Ghada finally went to the CSD headquarters in Cairo's al-`Abbassiyya district, around September 25, 2005, to get her new national ID card, they first compelled her to meet with a female psychologist who probed her reasons for reconverting and tried to persuade her to remain Muslim. "The woman took me upstairs, alone, and kept asking me why I re-converted," Ghada told HRW/EIPR. "She kept asking, 'Did they pressure you? Do you need us to stand by you?' I said, No, I'm doing what I believe in." [168]

Theresa Husni Mahir (see above) started trying in 1998 to get her new ID documents recognizing her return to Christianity. "Without an ID I couldn't travel, I couldn't work," she said. [169] She filed suit in 2004 and received a favorable court ruling on April 26, 2005. Only in November 2005 was she able to secure her national ID card. Until then, each time she presented herself to the Zaitoun and `Abbassiya CSD offices, officials asked her for different non-required documents. "Every time I went, they found a new obstacle," she said. [170]

She said that on one occasion, in September 2005, a senior official with the Legal Affairs office at the CSD insulted her and made her wait for hours with her toddler before sending her home empty-handed. The official threatened to have criminal charges brought against her for forgery because a Coptic Orthodox Patriarchy document listed her as a virgin despite the fact that she had been married. [171] As in Ghada's case, CSD officials violated the law and exceeded their legal powers in refusing to implement the Administrative Court's decision. "They will change [her] ID, but they are trying to discourage us from doing this [filing suit] ever again," said Mahir's lawyer, Ramsis Naggar. [172]

By April 2007, the Court of Administrative Justice, with a new president and panel appointed in September 2006, decided to reverse the rulings the court had issued in the previous three years and to return to the position it had maintained at least since the early 1980s that the Muslim state may not recognize a decision by any Muslim to change his or her religious affiliation [173] On April 24, 2007, the court issued another batch of 22 decisions, all of which rejected the request of plaintiffs and upheld the decision by the Interior Ministry to deny them new documents identifying them as Christians. [174]

The court, now presided over by Judge Muhammad al-Husaini, reasoned that, according to Islam, "to accept the return of someone who abandons the Islamic religion to a different religious affiliation is an assault on the Islamic religion he had endorsed." [175]

The "assault," the court explained, happened because the plaintiffs "manipulated religions":

A large distinction exists between freedom of belief and of religious rites on the one hand, and the freedom that some seek to manipulate beliefs by switching from one religion to another in order to achieve earthly interests.

With its rulings, the court effectively stripped these plaintiffs of their right to freedom of religion by deciding that either or both their initial and subsequent conversions were not the result of genuine conviction. Not only did the court attempt to judge the sincerity of the religious conversion of each plaintiff, but it also did not include any facts or evidence to support any of the 22 decisions. The court effectively decided that the plaintiffs were not genuine when they endorsed Islam or decided to leave it and thus constitutional guarantees of freedom of belief provided no protection for them.

The court reiterated the earlier position of Egyptian courts that "freedom of belief as guaranteed by the Constitutionmust not undermine public order" and that, because Shari`a is part of public order and prohibits "apostasy," it is proper for the state to deny recognition to individuals who wish to convert from Islam to another faith. [176]

HRW/EIPR are aware of at least 120 other lawsuits still pending before the same chamber of the Court of Administrative Justice requesting identity documents that recognize the plaintiffs' return to their original faith. It will be the Supreme Administrative Court (SAC) that will have the final say on the issue once it starts to hear the 12 appeals filed by those plaintiffs who lost before the lower court. On July 2, 2007, the SAC's Appeals Inspection Chamber rejected the Interior Ministry's plea to dismiss the appeals and referred the matter to the First Chamber of the SAC, which began considering the merits of the cases on September 1, 2007.

[150]Circular no. 5 issued on June 10, 1971. HRW/EIPR were unable to verify the authenticity of this circular. HRW/EIPR addressed questions related to this issue to the Interior Minister and the President of the Civil Status Department in January 2006 but as of writing received no answer.

[151]Article 47.

[152] HRW/EIPR interview with Ghada, last name withheld on request, Cairo, November 12, 2005.

[153] HRW/EIPR interview with Theresa Husni Mahir, Cairo, November 12, 2005.

[154] HRW/EIPR interview, name withheld on request, Cairo, November 11, 2005. Christian men would normally refuse to marry a woman with Muslim siblings for fear that the Muslim family members will enjoy preferential treatment in possible family law disputes.

[155] HRW/EIPR interview with Mira Makram Gubran, Cairo, November 12, 2005.

[156]HRW/EIPR interview with Golsen Sobhi Kamil, Cairo, November 15, 2005.

[157]Court brief submitted by the State Lawsuits Authority to the First Circuit of the Court of Administrative Justice in Case no. 24673/58 on 29 March 2005.

[158] Judges of administrative courts are required by law to see the views of the State Commissioners Authority before reaching a decision on any case. A case is typically referred to one commissioner who prepares an advisory report. The report is then shared with the parties to the case who are allowed to comment on it. Courts follow the recommendations of these advisory reports in the majority of cases.

[159]Report submitted by the State Commissioner to the First Circuit of the Court of Administrative Justice in Case no. 24673/58, January 2005. While government lawyers in the case justified the reliance on Shari`a with Article 2 of the constitution, the State Commissioner argued that Article 2 only applies to the legislature. The application of Shari`a to the case in question, the State Commissioner argued, is based on Article 1 of the Civil Code, which stipulates that Shari`a should govern civil matters on issues where there is no legislation or customary norms.

[160] Ibid.

[161] See for example decisions in Case no. 2011/33 on March 25, 1980 and Case no. 1290/39 on December 1, 1987.

[162] Decision in Case no. 1300/55 on July 8, 2001.

[163] See for example Decision in Case no. 24673/58 on 26 April 2005. All decisions issued by Judge `Abd al-Qadir in similar cases included the same reasoning.

[164] Decision in Case no. 24673/58 on 26 April 2005.

[165] The rulings cite verse 256 of the Cow surra: "There is no compulsion in religion; truly the right way has become clearly distinct from error." The Administrative Court also cited the Yunus surra as affirming the principle of freedom of religion in verse 99: "And if your Lord had pleased, surely all those who are in the earth would have believed, all of them; will you then force men till they become believers?" (English Translation of the Holy Qur'an, available at

[166]Some of the decisions were appealed before the Supreme Administrative Court by a private lawyer but the Supreme Administrative Court declared them all inadmissible saying the lawyer had no legal standing in the cases.

[167] HRW/EIPR interview with Peter Naggar, Cairo, November 12, 2005.

[168] HRW/EIPR interview with Ghada, last name withheld on request, Cairo, November 12, 2005.

[169] HRW/EIPR interview with Theresa Husni Mahir, Cairo, November 12, 2005.

[170] Ibid.

[171] According to Mahir's lawyer, Ramsis Naggar, the Patriarchy does not recognize marriages outside the Church, such as Mahir's first marriage to a Muslim man. HRW/EIPR interview, Cairo, November 12, 2005.

[172] HRW/EIPR interview with Ramsis Naggar, Cairo, November 12, 2005.

[173] All judges are appointed by a presidential decree based on recommendations from the Supreme Judicial Council. Judges may not be impeached and they serve until compulsory retirement at the age of 70.

[174]"Court decision on conversion a setback for religious freedom," press release by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, April 29, 2007, available at

[175]See for example decision in Case no. 7403/60 on April 24, 2007. All 22 decisions issued on that date in similar lawsuits contained identical reasoning.

[176] Decision in Case no. 7403/60 on April 24, 2007.