Egypt Court To Rule In Historic Conversion Case

Despite reported death threats, Mohammed Ahmed Hegazy, 25, is currently suing Egypt for rejecting his earlier application to officially change his religion on his identification papers. Egyptian identity cards must report the faith of the holder. While freedom of religion exists theoretically, in practice Muslims are not allowed to change their religion in the municipal register.

There were no indications Tuesday, January 29, that an exception would be made. Judge Muhammad Husseini already vowed that he would never let Hegazy be registered as a Christian during a previous turbulent hearing this month. The January 15 hearing, which Hegazy did not attend due to security concerns, was cut short after over a dozen Islamist lawyers apparently tried to attack his attorneys.

Hegazy and his pregnant wife Katerina, who is also a Christian convert, have been in hiding – often sleeping in different places each night – since Muslims threatened to kill him for leaving Islam.

"CONSUMED BY LOVE" 

Hegazy converted to Christianity and took on the Christian name Beshoi, after a classmate left a book with quotations from the Bible on his desk. "I began to read the book and was consumed by the love of Jesus," he explained last year in interviews at a secret location. "The major issue for me was love. Islam wasn't promoting love as Christianity did."

When his wife became pregnant last year he decided to make the change official. "Otherwise my child will automatically be registered as a Muslim," he said in published remarks. However, his application was rejected.

Hegazy's lawyer Ramsis el-Naggar, who specializes in conversions, told Radio Netherlands there "there is no freedom of choice in Egypt, unless you're a Muslim." His law firm now represents some 400 converts. Most of his clients were originally Christian, for one reason or another converted to Islam, and now want to return to Christianity.

CLIENTS REGRETTING FAITH

Sometimes his clients are people who regret that they changed their faith. However, many times his clients are the victims of government bureaucracy, such as children whose Christian fathers became Muslims, he said. “Many civil servants are overzealous. If a man changes his faith to Islam they also change the listing of his children. Others function on the automatic pilot. They type the word “Muslim’ on the card as a matter of habit. A lot of mistakes are made and it takes years to correct them.”

An estimated 90 percent of Egypt’s population of roughly 80 million people is Muslim. Coptic Christians are the largest minority and often face difficulties, human rights groups said.

Besides ruling on Hegazy's request to correct "legal mistakes", the court was also to decide on other religious freedom issues. They include a case by Islamists to force the government to implement a legal punishment for “apostasy,” or conversion away from Islam. Muslim activists have accused the government of doing not enough to stop Christian evangelization in the country. (With BosNewsLife's Stefan J. Bos and reporting from Egypt.)

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