By Peter Lamprecht
ISTANBUL, March 26 (Compass Direct News) – Christian-born converts to Islam in Egypt wishing to return to their former faith have found their way blocked by an appeal before the country’s Supreme Constitutional Court.
Judge Muhammad Husseini asked Egypt’s top judicial body on March 4 to review the constitutionality of a law granting citizens the right to change religions.
Egypt’s top administrative court used Article 47 of Egypt’s civil law to justify allowing 12 converts to Islam to return to Christianity last month. Husseini has demanded that the constitutional court rule on whether Article 47 conflicts with the Egyptian constitution’s second article, which designates Islam as the main source of legislation.
“The test before the Supreme Constitutional Court is if there is a conflict between Islamic sharia and the right to change one’s religion,” said human rights activist Hossam Bahgat.
Mainstream interpretations of Islamic law forbid apostasy, leaving Islam.
“This is a new legal fight that the Supreme Constitutional Court has never dealt with in the past,” said Bahgat, of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR). “We see it as the single most important court case since the amendment that made Islamic sharia the main source of legislation.”
Egyptian President Anwar Sadat amended the constitution in 1980 to make sharia the main source of legislation, in order to bolster support from Islamists against his secular and leftist rivals.
“There are two views, one from the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic groups saying that all the law in Egypt must follow Islamic law,” activist Hafez Abu-Seada said. “My view and the view of some legal experts is that you do not have to enforce Islamic law directly. It is only directed to the legislators and not to the people or the courts.”
Return to Christianity Impeded
The cases of several hundred converts to Islam seeking to return to Christianity have been frozen pending the constitutional court’s verdict.
Even the 12 Christian converts to Islam who won a legal battle to return to their original faith last month have been blocked from obtaining documents listing their change of faith.
Egypt’s Civil Status Department turned down Bishay Farag Bishay, one of the 12, when he requested new documents, Egyptian Christian weekly Watani reported. The newspaper reported on March 9 that officials claimed their computerized system could only enter one word in the religion section. But Egypt’s top administrative court had stipulated that Bishay and the 11 other converts write “Christian, previously proclaimed Islam as his/her religion,” in the February 9 ruling.
Human rights groups condemned the reference to the convert’s former religion, saying it endangered the former Muslims in a society openly antagonistic to apostates from Islam.
“Any such public reference could subject converts to social stigma and discrimination,” Human Rights Watch said in statement following the decision.
But one human rights activist said that Egypt’s Interior Ministry had promised to solve the issue.
Abu-Seada of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights said that authorities planned to list only converts’ current faith on official documents, while keeping their religious history on file.
The current legal battle over sharia’s role in Egyptian law promises to be sensitive because of unique restrictions Islamic law places on non-Muslims.
Many of the converts to Islam now attempting to return to Christianity left their original faith to marry a Muslim. Under Islamic law it is illegal for a Christian man to marry a Muslim woman.
A number of the converts had never consciously changed faiths, Watani reported. According to sharia, if a parent becomes Muslim, his or her underage children automatically follow suit.
Conversion Illegal for Muslim-Born
Egypt has yet to grant citizens born to Muslim parents the right to leave their faith.
A Cairo administrative court ruled against a Muslim convert to Christianity in January based on sharia’s prohibition of apostasy. Mohammed Hegazy went into hiding to escape death threats and a mob attack on his home after announcing his decision to leave Islam last August.
But not all conversions are based on Islamic pressure on non-Muslims. Some converts to Islam now seeking to return to Christianity originally left the Coptic Orthodox church because it refused to sanction divorce except in cases of adultery, a stance for which it has come into conflict with the government in recent weeks.
Egypt’s tiny Baha’i minority has continued to face difficulties obtaining official documents after winning a legal battle in January to leave the religion section of their IDs empty.
Islam does not recognize Baha’ism for its “blasphemous” acceptance of a prophet after Muhammad, believed by Muslims to be God’s final prophet. Previous court rulings cited Islamic law when turning down the minority religion’s request to list the Baha’i faith on official documents.
In January, three Baha’is won the right to place a dash in the space reserved for designating their religion. Subsequent appeals by Islamist lawyers have obstructed the implementation of this decision. But Bahgat from the EIPR said that he hoped these appeals would soon be dismissed, allowing Baha’is to obtain necessary documents.
Less than 2,000 Baha’is are estimated to live in Egypt. Though no official statistics exist, Christians are estimated to number around 10 percent of the population.