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 Ministrys 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 individuals 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 persons 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 ministrys 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 Egypts 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
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 states 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. Its 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.
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.
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 dont 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 Egypts 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 familys 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; its 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,
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:
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.
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.
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.
They tried to convince me to accuse him [Nabil] of seducing me, Samia told Human Rights Watch.
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.
Samia and Nabil were held in separate places of detention for 11 months while investigations continued. Finally, they said theyd 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. Were afraid to send a lawyer to ask whats going on.
Mamduh Nakhla, the lawyer who represented Nabil in the case, said that the authorities held Nabils 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 couples 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.
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.
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.
In Ahmads view, the problem is less with the government than with State Security, whom he characterized as extremists [who] take it personally.
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 http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2007/857/eg9.htm.
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.