V. Conversion and Freedom of Religion

Egyptian Muslims who wish to convert to Christianity face a serious dilemma. The state does not recognize conversions from Islam and refuses to allow citizens legally to change their religious affiliation, or to change a Muslim name to a Christian name on national identification documents. Among other things, this means that converts face significant hardships in areas of family law governed by religion, such as marriage, divorce, and inheritance. They are also unable to legally raise their children in the faith that they now proclaim. Some obtain fraudulent documents recognizing their new faith, but this places them at risk of criminal prosecution and imprisonment on charges of forgery and falsifying documents.119

Neither the constitution nor Egyptian law addresses the question of conversion explicitly. Internal regulations of the Ministry of Justice specify procedures that the Ministry’s Public Notary Authority (maslahat al-shahr al-aqqari) should follow to register and validate (tawthik) conversions to Islam. According to Law 68 of 1947, public notary offices must validate all documents for Egyptian nationals.120 Law 70/1964 on Registration and Validation Fees exempts certificates validating conversion to Islam from any fees, a clear indication of official encouragement of this type of conversion over all others.121

The Regulations of the Public Notary and Validation Authority include a chapter entitled “Validating Declarations of Islam,” which includes detailed procedures to be followed in order to make official an individual’s conversion to Islam.122 Potential converts must be over 16 years old and must file a request at the local offices of the Security Directorate of the Interior Ministry. The police, in turn, set up a meeting between the potential convert and a representative of that person’s present religious denomination to advise the potential convert against leaving his or her present faith. The prospective convert then has the right to withdraw the request “if he accepts the advice of his co-religionists.” Otherwise the convert receives a clearance to validate his conversion to Islam at the local notary office.123

The authorities, however, do not always follow these procedures, with the result that conversion to Islam is even more straightforward than the regulations suggest. Mira Makram Gubran, 30, told HRW/EIPR that when she converted to Islam in 1994, she did not have to submit a request to police headquarters or meet with a representative of the Coptic Church. “The proceedings one is supposed to go through before announcing one is Muslim – none of that happened,” she said. 124 Nevertheless, she was able to validate her conversion at the Notary office and obtain an identity card from the CSD recognizing her adoption of Islam.

Converts to Islam also rarely experience difficulty acquiring identity cards that recognize their conversions. However, in the wake of widespread Coptic demonstrations in December 2004 protesting the alleged forced conversion to Islam of the wife of a Coptic priest, there have been reports that the State Security Intelligence bureau of the Ministry of Interior has instructed Al-Azhar, the religious authority that gives the initial approval of conversion to Islam, as well as the ministry’s local Security Directorates, to make it more difficult to convert to Islam in order to avoid contributing to sectarian unrest.125

HRW /EIPR are aware of four cases in which the CSD rejected requests by Christians wishing to convert to Islam to amend information on their national ID cards to reflect their Muslim identities. Those individuals have appealed the CSD decisions to the Cairo Court of Administrative Justice, and the court has found in favor of the plaintiffs in all four cases.126 In all of these decisions, the court found that restricting the plaintiffs’ right to convert to Islam violated Civil Status Law 143 of 1994 and Article 46 of the Constitution, which guarantees freedom of belief. The court also stated that security concerns should not constitute a factor in denying citizens their legal rights. In this respect, these rulings were consistent with Egypt’s obligations under international law.

Law 143/1994 governing civil status allows an individual to amend or correct information contained on his or her identification documents, including religion, on “demonstration of proof from appropriate authorities.”127 However, in the absence of any state law or decree recognizing and protecting the right to convert from one religion to another, the Egyptian government claims that it follows Shari`a on such matters. Egypt's Civil Code governs issues of conversion, and Article 1 stipulates that in matters not covered by the code and where there is no legitimate customary administrative practice, judges should apply the principles of Shari`a.128

Egyptians who are born Muslim and wish to convert to Christianity (or any other religion) thus confront the likelihood that they and their immediate families will face official as well as social discrimination, including the automatic nullification of marriage between the convert and his or her Muslim spouse and forced separation from children, who are compelled to reside with the Muslim spouse or a close Muslim relative.129

Converts also risk imprisonment. The government has used Article 98(f) of the Penal Code to criminalize actions or other expressions of unorthodox religious views, including conversion from Islam. The article prescribes, among other things, “disparaging or contempt of any divinely-revealed religion or its adherents, or prejudicing national unity or social harmony.”130 As the testimonies in this report indicate, officials have interpreted this article to proscribe conversion from Islam on the grounds that such conversion disparages Islam and is thus incompatible with public order.

In addition to these restrictive laws and policies, societal attitudes towards religious conversion, by both Muslim and Christian communities, remain highly negative and hostile. The last few years have witnessed an increase in sectarian tensions in Egyptian society, and one of the manifestations of this sectarianism is the extreme politicization of the issue of conversion. Conversions have often led to Muslim-Christian violence, especially when they have been accompanied by rumors of forced abduction of young women by men of the other religious communities or proselytizing by enthusiasts of the other faith.

For these reasons, few if any born Muslims have initiated the formal steps necessary to change their religion. One lawyer who represents a Coptic cathedral in dealings with the government told Human Rights Watch that

Muslims wanting to be Christians can go to prison. The only thing we can do is send them abroad, but this is very difficult after 9/11

Majdi Morcos, an Egyptian lawyer who represents persons trying to convert back to Christianity from Islam, said that he has “heard of many cases” of born Muslims converting to Christianity and “sat with them,” but has not represented any in court or administrative hearings because “the state does not allow such conversion.”132

Mamduh Nakhla, a lawyer who represents Egyptian Christians whom the state has wrongly classified as Muslims, told HRW/EIPR, “Since 1983, when I began to practice law, there has not been a single case of a Muslim officially converting to Christianity. They are unable to change their religious affiliation on their identification documents or get court rulings recognizing their conversion.”133 One aspect of the problem, Nakhla said, is that the law requires the “competent body” – the health department for births, Al-Azhar for conversions to Islam – to authorize the changes on ID documents, but there is no equivalent authorizing office for Egyptians wishing to convert to Christianity. The idea that the Ministry of Interior might approve of conversions of born Muslims to Christianity is, Nakhla said, practically unthinkable.134

The Egyptian state’s refusal to recognize conversions to Christianity is profoundly discriminatory, in addition to effectively denying persons who convert or wish to convert their right to practice their religion of choice. By contrast, Christians who wish to convert to Islam have, at least until recently, faced no problems whatsoever. Ghada, 26, who preferred not to give her full name, converted to Islam in 1996 and three years later tried to convert back to Christianity. “When I converted to Islam,” she said, “my papers were changed in the blink of an eye. Three years later, I went back to the Church, got a certificate of re-conversion, and went to change my [identification] documents, but in the eyes of the state, I remain a Muslim.”135 A lawyer familiar with conversion cases agreed that converting to Islam, unlike Christianity, generally occurs without difficulty. “Converts to Islam get a new birth certificate quickly and free of charge,” he said. “It’s the only free document in the entire Civil Status Department.”136

Mustafa al-Sharqawi grew up Muslim in Port Sa`id and converted to Christianity in the 1980s. He left Egypt in 1998, ten years after he was baptized, and now lives abroad. He told Human Rights Watch that State Security Investigation (SSI) officers detained him and two other converts for almost ten months, from September 1990 until July 1991, for possible violation of Penal Code Article 98(f). “My story had started to be well known,” he said. “By converting, I was denying Islam, insulting Islam. I was promoting corrupt ideas. I lived many years thinking I was the only convert. When I discovered there were others, we got together as a group.”137

Al-Sharqawi said that security agents subjected him to torture and ill-treatment during the first several weeks of his detention at SSI headquarters in Lazoghli in 1990.

I was beaten. They gave me electric shock three times, and hung me by my hands for five days and four nights. I was blindfolded for two weeks and handcuffed naked. What did they ask me about? Everything. My life story in full, seven times over. It was a mind battle.

The state never charged al-Sharqawi with a crime, but neither did it close the investigation. “After my release I was called in seven or eight times for ‘conversations,’” he said. “They would call my jobs and get me fired.”

Al-Sharqawi told Human Rights Watch that he never tried to change his religion on his national ID card.

I had a paper ID, “Muslim” written in the religion slot. They might have changed mine if I’d tried, but not my kids. They say that according to Shari`a, children must follow the “best religion”: Islam. I could try to change my name, but I can’t change my father’s name [Muhammad]. My son Fadi was born in 1992, but he has to carry my [Muslim] name. His son will carry Fadi, which can be Christian or Muslim. So it takes time. But Fadi Mustafa Muhammad cannot stand up in school and say, “I am not a Muslim.” In 1997 we named our second son Rafik, like Fadi, it works as a Christian or Muslim name.

The problem came when we enrolled Fadi in school in 1997. I left the space [for religion] empty. No one noticed; it’s a very long and complicated form. But you know kids; they ask each other, and religion is a big thing in our lives. This was a Christian school. He replies that he is Christian, but he understands when we visit our families we deal as Muslims. School is the challenge in Egypt. Your religion determines the curriculum. International schools, where it doesn’t matter, are very expensive.138

When al-Sharqawi tried to leave Egypt in 1997, he said, security officials confiscated his passport. Eventually he, his wife, who is also a convert, and two young sons were able to leave in 1998. When asked how he was able to leave despite having his passport confiscated, al-Sharqawi said, “God gave me a good one. I don’t know how.”

Samuel (not his real name), 31, is another convert to Christianity whom State Security agents detained arbitrarily in the 1990s. A former law student, he told Human Rights Watch that on the basis of the freedom of belief provisions in Egypt’s constitution, he expected converting would not be difficult. “I expected trouble from the fundamentalists, but not from the government,” he said.139 Samuel converted in 1994, and commuted between his family’s home in Tanta, where he was a law student, and Cairo, where he attended an evangelical Christian church. The SSI arrested him in Tanta on July 7, 1995. “Word got around; it’s a small city,” he said. “Conversion was seen as possibly sparking sectarian violence.” Samuel said that State Security tortured him several times a day and tried to recruit him to report on other converts. When they released him, he told his family that they had arrested him because he was working for an Islamist party.

In November 1997 Samuel married a woman who was also a convert, using their Muslim names. With the birth of their first child, in September 1998, he said,

I started to feel the need to change my ID. I discussed it with a lawyer. This double life was too much. I started this journey [to change my papers] in late 2000 – but not officially. The priest introduced me and other converts to government employees as people who lost their birth certificates and other papers, in return for bribes. These were civil service employees, Muslim and Christian, who had access to computer entries. Then we went with our [new] birth certificates that said we were Christians and got IDs that said we were single Christians, even though [my wife] was pregnant. The ID change process is long and expensive. The main advantage is for the children. I still face risk of arrest and three years in prison, but I have all my documents except military service.140

Samuel said that he uses two sets of identification papers, one with his Muslim name and identity and the other with his Christian name and identity.

Egyptians held in custody more recently following their conversion to Christianity also told Human Rights Watch that security officials had subjected them to torture. One 30-year-old man said that police identified him after interrogating persons arrested in Alexandria in October 2003 when the authorities broke up a group of some 32 converts and suspects involved in providing false identification documents to converts:

[Those arrested] knew me. They were pressured, tortured, to inform on me. These were converts, and they were put on trial. I was arrested later, on my own. Those people, someone from the church stood with them, so the case was dropped. No one stood with me. 141

The Civil Status Intelligence Unit, a law enforcement arm of the CSD, he said, arrested him on December 20, 2003. “They arrested the government employee who did it [provided a new ID card] for me,” he told Human Rights Watch. “They found out about me from his confession.” Initially, they held him at the Shubra police station where, he said, “They tortured me to the maximum, trying to convert me back. The first three days, they would not let me sleep. I was made to stand for seven days. My feet were swollen and bleeding. They brought in a Muslim Brotherhood lawyer to talk to me.” The torture stopped after the authorities transferred him to the State Security Intelligence bureau. He said they released him on bail after 50 days, and then he fled in October 2004. A court convicted him of forgery in absentia and sentenced him to fifteen years in prison.

I can’t work. My wife and child have left [emigrated]. I can’t leave this apartment. I only go to church. [Names two other converts in the apartment building] visit me. I see [names two other converts in Alexandria]. I feel abandoned.

When asked what steps the authorities should take, he responded that they should “remove the convictions of persons who obtained documents illegally solely because of government restrictions on converting.”

Samia (not her real name), 31, a Muslim convert to Christianity, also faces forgery charges stemming from her efforts to secure a new national ID card reflecting her actual religious identity. Samia married Nabil (not his real name), 33, a Christian and a classmate at `Ayn Shams University, in 1996. “I was raised among Christians,” Samia told Human Rights Watch.

Nabil was not a practicing Christian, but I found my interest in Christianity becoming strong. My family confiscated my passport after I told my older brother that I planned to go with Nabil to Cyprus to be baptized. They pressed me to get engaged to my cousin. My friends helped me [get away from my family], but my parents contacted the State Security.142

The authorities apprehended Samia when she and Nabil tried to leave the country on December 22, 2002. Their names were still on the SSI list as a result of her parents’ initiative seven years earlier. The authorities initially brought heavy pressure to bear on the couple.

State Security tried to persuade us both to be Muslims. We were exhausted, more than 24 hours with no food. When they failed to convince us to become Muslims, they referred us to criminal investigation. From five in the morning until five at night, the State Security grilled us. They said that they would bring forgery charges against both of us.

“They tried to convince me to accuse him [Nabil] of seducing me,” Samia told Human Rights Watch.

[At another point] they told me Nabil would convert to Islam, why not me? I told them this [being Christian] was not about him. Besides forgery, they accused me of insulting Islam. They asked, “What is it about Islam that led you to become Christian?”

“From 5:30 in the evening until 1:30 in the morning, they wrote police report after police report, each one stronger than the last,” Nabil said.

The interrogation finally finished at 8 a.m., after 27 hours. At no point did we have a lawyer. We were afraid to ask for our rights. Then they transferred us to the Nozha police station, around 4 p.m. The prosecutor ordered us both held for 45 days for forging papers.

Samia and Nabil were held in separate places of detention for 11 months while investigations continued. “Finally, they said they’d release us because of the children,” Samia said. “Like, they finally discovered we had children! We were detained on December 22, 2002 and released on October 28, 2003.” The state has dropped forgery charges against Nabil, but they remain against Samia. “There have been no hearings, but the case is still open,” Nabil said. “We’re afraid to send a lawyer to ask what’s going on.”

Mamduh Nakhla, the lawyer who represented Nabil in the case, said that the authorities held Nabil’s and Samia's marriage to be invalid (under prevailing interpretations of Islamic law, a Muslim woman cannot marry a non-Muslim man), but imposed no criminal penalty. He confirmed that the government has banned both from leaving Egypt. “There have been external pressures not to convict her, so the case remains in limbo,” he said.143

Samir, a Christian, worked as a musician and met Nura, a Muslim (not their real names), at a party where he was playing in 1991. They told Human Rights Watch that at the time he was not particularly religious, but after they started seeing each other, they both grew increasingly interested in Christianity. “We went to churches, but they were scared and wanted nothing to do with us,” Samir said.144 After several years, they said, they found a priest who talked them through conversion concerns. In 1998 Nura was baptized, and the priest married them. Nura had lived with her family up to this point, but they engaged her to someone else, triggering the couple’s decision to marry each other. Nura found a place to stay in `Abbud, a poor area in Cairo. “Both our families were well off, so this was a big change for us,” she said.

After Nura became pregnant, “I worked on getting her documents,” Samir said.

I paid for a marriage contract. But then in a police station one time, someone warned me that we were wanted by State Security. I had gone to get her birth certificate and to register as her husband. Until now we are fugitives. She’s wanted by her family, and now I am also. After our son was born, the police confiscated our IDs, but I managed to get away. This was just after our son was born; he’s three now. He can’t go to school; he’s not registered. We have no money, no jobs. The priest who married us has passed away, so there is no proof even that we are married.

Mahmud (not his real name), 36, grew up “a normal, practicing Muslim” in a poor area near Cairo. He said that his interest in Christianity developed in his late teenage years. He became acquainted with other Christian converts, and he himself converted around ten years ago. He said his family does not know that he has converted. About six months ago, he married a woman who is also a Muslim convert to Christianity. They were married in a church, and she is now pregnant. “The identity card is my challenge,” he said.

My ID card says I am Muslim. One option is to get a forged ID, but it’s not an option for me. The children are the key. We moved to Alexandria because it’s a lot bigger; we can disappear. But this can’t continue, for psychological as well as legal reasons. The children’s birth certificates will say Muslim, but they are raised Christian. When they start school, then the problems really start. Religion class starts in the first grade.145

Ahmad (not his real name), 37, is a friend of Mahmud. He told HRW/EIPR that he had been a salafi, but that he converted to Christianity in 1988, when he was about 18 years old.146 “Because I wanted to convert, I was threatened with death,” he said. He left Isma`iliyya, his home town, that year.

But then there were quite a few problems with security, beginning in late 1990. We were a group of about fifteen [converts]. The trouble came when we started getting unity. Before it was just individual converts, and they left the country. But fifteen converts who wanted to stay and stay together, this was something new. State Security arrested three of our group for “defaming Islam.” Mustafa al-Sharqawi [see above] was one of them. They came to my home [in Isma`iliyya], but I wasn’t there. My brother came and told me I need to go to the State Security when I go to Cairo. Because I was in the army, they treated me better [than Mustafa al-Sharqawi]. I wore my uniform. I was called back seven times, and my file was moved to military intelligence.

My family: that’s the typical persecution of a convert. That’s why I left home. I was three years in the streets, [then] changed residences frequently. [Since 2002] State Security follows me, calls me in every week. Now it’s about once a month.

I know ID is a big issue. I am against doing anything illegal. It is against my faith. I have a totally legitimate complaint. A Christian who converts to Islam has to meet first with the pastor, but there are no obstacles; the government facilitates it. For us, though, it’s a big deal, to change an ID.147

In Ahmad’s view, the problem is less with the government than with State Security, whom he characterized as “extremists [who] take it personally.”

[President] Mubarak is more flexible, but he is worried about facing down society, the army, intelligence services. Just apply the constitution to all is what we say, to Christian converts as well as Muslim converts.

It is difficult to know how many Egyptians are directly affected by official and societal discrimination, official harassment, and threats to their well-being because they have converted from Islam to Christianity. These unwanted consequences have forced an undetermined number to emigrate to other countries or to live anonymously and surreptitiously with ID cards and other documents obtained illegally, making them subject to criminal prosecution. One priest told Human Rights Watch that he had performed between 90 and 100 baptisms of converts each year for the past five years.148 Another priest said he had baptized perhaps 800 persons over the past fifteen years.149 One said that he knew of several priests who also baptized converts. HRW/EIPR were unable to confirm the figures they provided, but it is reasonable to assume that the total number is at least hundreds and perhaps thousands of persons.

The second priest told HRW/EIPR that following the arrests in Alexandria in October 2003 (see above), getting ID documents has become two-and-a-half times more expensive and that “the quality is down.”

119 Article 72 of the Civil Status Law stipulates a punishment of 5 to 15 years in prison for falsifying identification documents issued by the Civil Status Department.

120 Law 68/1947 on Notarization, Official Gazette, issue no. 58, July 3, 1947.

121 Law 70/1964 on Notarization and Registration Fees, Official Gazette, issue no. 67, march 22, 1964 article 34.

122 Ministry of Justice, Regulations of the Public Notary and Validation Authority, 3rd edition, 2001, pp. 333-336.

123 In January 2006 the Court of Administrative Justice decided that the requirement to validate conversion to Islam as a prerequisite for the finalization of conversion procedures is an impermissible restriction of freedom of religion. See Rosa al-Yousef, January 26, 2006, p. 1.

124 HRW/EIPR interview with Mira Makram Gubran, Cairo, November 12, 2005.

125 HRW/EIPR interviews with lawyers `Isam Sultan (Cairo, November 12, 2005) and Ahmad `Abd al-Mo`iz (Cairo, November 8, 2005). Sultan said that in the case of his client, the Al-Azhar authorities refused to give her the required certificate of conversion, apparently at the behest of the Ministry of Interior. See also "Secret Instructions Preventing Christians from Converting to Islam," Sawt al-Umma  weekly, March 21, 2005.

126 Cases no. 35721/59, 31890/59, 31895/59 and 41841/60.

127 Article 47.

128 On the few issues not already codified, Shari`a principles would apply to non-Muslims as well, although on family law matters Christians and Jews would come under the jurisdiction of their respective family courts.

129 See for example Cassation Court ruling in Case no. 1359/28 on November 27, 1984, in which the Court found that "the contract signed by the female apostate and her non-Muslim husband…is considered null and void".

130 Article 98(f) specifies penalties of up to five years in prison or a fine of up to LE 1,000.

132 HRW/EIPR interview with Majdi Morcos, Cairo, November 7, 2005.

133 HRW/EIPR interview with Mamduh Nakhla, Cairo, November 7, 2005.

134 In August 2007, lawyer Mamduh Nakhla filed an unprecedented lawsuit on behalf of a Muslim couple who converted to Christianity requesting that their new faith be recognized in their official documents. The case has not been heard by the Court of Administrative Justice as of this writing. See Nashwa Abdel-Tawwab, “Whosoever will, let him disbelieve,” Al-Ahram Weekly, August 9-15, 2007, available at

135 HRW/WIPR interview with Ghada, Cairo, November 12, 2005.

136 HRW/EIPR interview, name withheld on request, Cairo, November 8, 2005.

137 Human Rights Watch interview with Mustafa Sharqawi, London, November 3, 2005. See also Human Rights Watch World Report 1992, p. 642. The others detained with al-Sharqawi were Muhammad Sallam and Hassan Muhammad.

138 Article 19 of Egypt's Constitution stipulates that "Religious education shall be a principal subject in the curricula of general education."

139 HRW/EIPR interview, real name withheld on request, Cairo, November 10, 2005.

140 Military service is mandatory for all male adults with few exceptions. Adult Egyptian men must possess a certificate proving that they have served, or have been exempted from, their military duty.

141 Human Rights Watch interview, Alexandria, November 14, 2005. Thirty-two individuals from Cairo and Alexandria were charged with forging documents in case number 2793/2003 before the Moski prosecution office in Cairo. Twenty-three were detained for investigations and eventually released without being indicted.

142 HRW/EIPR interview with Samia and Nabil, Heliopolis, November 17, 2005.

143 HRW/EIPR interview with Mamduh Nakhla, Cairo, November 7, 2005.

144 HRW/EIPR interview, names withheld on request, Alexandria, November 14, 2005.

145 HRW/EIPR interview, name withheld on request, Cairo, November 10, 2005.

146 Salafi refers to adherents of current revivalist movements dedicated to sweeping away the accretions of intervening centuries and supplanting them with what they consider to be the original faith and practices of the Prophet Muhammad and his contemporaries (salaf).

147 HRW/EIPR interview, name withheld on request, Cairo, November 10, 2005.

148 HRW/EIPR interview, name withheld on request, Cairo, November 15, 2005.

149 HRW/EIPR interview, name withheld on request, Cairo, November 10, 2005.