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Lead story - Thursday November 15, 2007

EGYPT: IN HIDING, CONVERT CONTINUES FIGHT FOR RIGHTS

 Mohammed Hegazy battles for religious freedom as HRW report slams country’s abuses.

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CAIRO, November 15 (Compass Direct News) – Sick of hiding in a secret apartment in Cairo, Mohammed Ahmed Hegazy risked his life to shop for groceries late one night last week, a cap pulled low over his face.

 

The Egyptian convert from Islam to Christianity does not normally chance being recognized in public by running errands for himself. Death threats forced Hegazy into hiding in August after he made an unprecedented legal bid to have his national ID card changed to note his conversion.

The 24-year-old belongs to a new breed of Egyptian Christian converts who see no contradiction between their faith and political activism.

 

“The Bible says to love your enemy and your neighbor as yourself,” Hegazy explained. “Working politically to provide food for poor people or freedom for the oppressed is one way to fulfill this command.”

 

That conviction in part motivated Hegazy’s court case, but that same desire to take action has also frustrated him as he has sat idle for the past three months in hiding.

 

The Christian acknowledged that he was finding his new life extremely difficult. He said it was impossible to hold a job because he couldn’t leave his apartment regularly for fear of being attacked by Islamists or state security police.

 

On a rare occasion that Hegazy took the chance of shopping in public, a Christian recognized his face from a newspaper photograph.

 

“If you are who I think you are, then God help you,” the Christian told Hegazy.

 

Hegazy’s new lawyer, Gamal Eid, noted: “In a country like Egypt, his fears are credible.”

 

Egypt Condemned

A report condemning Egypt’s treatment of converts away from Islam and members of the Baha’i faith this week noted that until 1990 most Christian converts did not believe they could remain in the country.

 

 “Before [1990] it was just individual converts, and they left the country,” said an anonymous Christian convert quoted in the Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights report released Monday (November 12). “But fifteen converts … wanted to stay and stay together, this was something new.”

Since then, some converts have worked, albeit anonymously, to become more active in Egyptian society.

 

“The state does not recognize conversions from Islam and refuses to allow citizens to legally change their religious affiliation,” the report stated. It noted that because family law is governed by religion, converts face difficulties in the areas of divorce, marriage, inheritance, and their children’s mandatory religious education.

 

“The baby is the main reason for opening the case,” said Hegazy, whose pregnant wife is due to give birth in January. “All converts’ children have something like schizophrenia because they are Christians at home but have to act like Muslims at school.”

 

As a member of the Egypt Liberal Party, a group of secular-minded Muslims and Christians, Hegazy often attended demonstrations, fellow group members said. The party, not yet approved by the government, openly challenges Article Two of Egypt’s constitution, which designates Islamic law as the principle source of its legislation.

 

Islam forbids apostasy, a justification often used by government officials and Muslim fanatics when harassing converts from Islam.

 

“For Hegazy, challenging the government is as normal as eating breakfast in the morning,” one party member told Compass. “He’s not a coward, but that also means he doesn’t always think through the consequences of his actions.”

 

Hegazy said he had expected public opposition when filing his case but had not foreseen spending the next three months confined to his apartment. Massive publicity surrounding the announcement of his move caught the convert off-guard.

 

When lawyer Mamdouh Nakhla called Hegazy to say that he had filed the convert’s case and arranged an important interview with Agence France-Press, the convert said he went willingly.

 

“They told me that they would take photos and send them outside Egypt, and that no one in Egypt would know,” Hegazy said.

 

The next morning, Egyptian papers carried the convert’s picture and full story.

 

Within days, death threats forced Hegazy into hiding and Nakhla to withdraw. Newspapers have slandered the convert’s reputation, and on October 11 fanatics chanting Islamic slogans vandalized his former home in Old Cairo.

 

A journalist who later went to the scene told Compass that he had seen the remains of a large fire in the street where the group had burned the Christian’s belongings.

 

“By publicizing the case and then withdrawing, it was like putting Hegazy in the hands of society to be killed,” said one of Hegazy’s mentors, who said he had tried to persuade Nakhla against pulling out. “Every five minutes while we were talking, the security police would call Nakhla and tell him they could not protect him if he was attacked.”

 

On August 7, Nakhla held a press conference to announce his withdrawal, blaming Hegazy for not providing necessary documents.

 

Sitting in an undisclosed location in Cairo three months later, Hegazy did not seem angry with his former lawyer.

 

“Maybe this is part of God’s plan, and it may help other converts,” Hegazy said.

 

Trail-Blazer

The case has received much less public attention at its first two hearings, on October 2 and on Tuesday (November 13), than when it was first announced.

 

lawyer Gamal Eid
Lawyer Gamal Eid

Returning Tuesday from a Giza administrative court where he had represented the convert, Eid said that eight Islamist lawyers had intervened against his client.

 

Judge Muhammad Husseini adjourned the case until January 15, giving Hegazy time to acquire proof that Egypt’s Civil Status Department had rejected his request to change the religious designation on his ID.

 

Several Christians close to Hegazy said they were skeptical about the chances of winning, but agreed that the case would still help the rights of converts in the long term.

 

Despite a smear campaign against Hegazy in Egypt’s national media, a number of newspapers and talk shows had openly supported his right to convert, Christians said.

 

“This case has allowed society to openly talk about the case of converts and sent the government the message people will rise up when oppressed,” one convert said.

 

Requesting anonymity, the Christian said, “[Hegazy’s] role should be appreciated, in that he has taken the first step in confronting society, the government and even the church and other converts.”

 

Cautious Churches

Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox church, several million strong, has been careful to officially distance itself from the issue of conversion.

 

“The matter is highly politicized, and the [Orthodox] church has taken the side of the government,” lawyer Eid said.

 

An Orthodox priest requesting anonymity agreed with the lawyer’s assessment.

 

“Church leadership tells priests who are involved in baptizing Muslims to keep doing what they are doing, but that they are not responsible,” the priest said. “In other words, ‘God bless you but stay away.’”

 

Christians from all three major groupings, Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant, told Compass that fanatics could easily attack and destroy a church if word got out that it was converting Muslims.

 

“When a Muslim converts to Christianity here, the problem doesn’t stem from the government or security apparatus, it comes from society,” a spokesman for the Egyptian Catholic Church commented.

 

Father Rafic Greiche, a Greek Melkite priest, said that many Christians, not just Muslims, had difficulty accepting converts to Christianity.

 

“I am ashamed because our church is not ready to accept converts,” Greiche told Compass. “More cases like that of Hegazy’s on the long term will help people to change their minds, but the government has to help.”

 

Speaking to reporters Monday (November 12), HRW Midde East Deputy Director Joe Stork called on the government to cease forcing non-Muslims to designate Islam as their official religion.

 

“We are talking about a government policy that is requiring people to lie and punishing people for telling the truth,” Stork said. “There is something very wrong with that.”