By BosNewsLife Middle East Service with reporting by BosNewsLife's Stefan J. Bos
CAIRO, EGYPT (BosNewsLife)-- Rights activists have expressed concern about the plight of Mohamed Hegazy amid fears the Christian convert may have been forced to publicly embrace Islam after he was allegedly jailed and tortured by Egyptian authorities.
The 34-year-old Hegazy, a journalist, announced his return to Islam in a message on YouTube, the video-sharing website. In what critics viewed as a well-rehearsed statement he was seen saying: "I say this out of my complete free will. I am not being held by any agency, nor am I under any pressure of any kind."
The statement, monitored by BosNewsLife, ended a nine-year-battle with Egyptian courts to be officially recognized as a Christian. Friends said he had endured "relentless persecution" since trying to change the religious status on his identity document card from Muslim to "Christian."
He also wanted to be known as Bishoy Armeya Boulos, his new Christian name after he converted to Christianity at age 17 in 1999. The YouTube video was posted however as Mohamed Hegazy.
Christians linked the latest developments to a perceived government-backed crackdown on Christian converts and other minorities. "His public request to change his religious status generated death threats" and forced his family into hiding, noted Voice Of the Martyrs Canada (VOMC) in a recent assessment.
YEARS IN HIDING
After spending several years in hiding his wife and two children were reportedly able to leave Egypt for asylum in Germany. Hegazy chose to remain in Egypt, fearing that if he left, he would never be allowed back in his home country, Christians said.
"His own experience in hiding and being constantly followed by police made him passionate for the rights of converts to Christianity. He spends his days documenting abuses against Egyptian Christians and advocating for fair treatment," explained VOMC.
Hegazy, who had been behind bars intermittently since December 2013, was sentenced to five years imprisonment on charges that included "protesting without permission" and "defamation of religion." His supporters said he was sentenced for both his Christian conversion and journalistic activities.
In late June, a court reportedly ordered his release on bail but it took an additional month before he was actually freed, according to Christians with close knowledge about the situation.
During the ordeal, his lawyer, Karam Ghobrial, was allegedly ensnared in red tape while Mohamed himself was apparently transferred to different police stations. Advocacy group Release International linked his Islamic statement to suffering."We must pray for Mohamed Hegazy," said its CEO Paul Robinson in published remarks.
INNER PEACE URGED
"We do not know what he has gone through recently, added to all that he has suffered since his conversion to Christianity. God knows his heart," he added.
VOMC agreed and said it had urged its supporters to pray that he may "receive inner peace and rest from the turmoil of his battered soul, as well as greatly needed healing and restoration – spiritually, emotionally, mentally and physically."
It also noted that his lawyer, Karam, has paid "a high price for defending his client" through the ordeal. "Pray that God will strengthen and protect him too," the group wrote to supporters.
And, "please uphold others of our extended Christian family in Egypt who are suffering great duress, that they will not be worn down by harassment and persecution but rather further strengthened and encouraged to stand firm in their faith," VOMC said.
Representatives of Christians, who comprise roughly 10 percent of Egypt's nearly 90 million people, have complained about wider harassment and attacks against churches or individual believers, including many Christian women and girls, who have reportedly been forced to marry and convert to Islam.