Threats force Egyptian convert to hide  

 By MAGGIE MICHAEL, Associated Press Writer 

CAIRO, Egypt - An Egyptian Muslim who converted to Christianity and then took the unprecedented step of seeking official recognition for the change said he has gone into hiding following death threats.

Mohammed Hegazy, who sparked controversy when pictures of him posing with a poster of the Virgin Mary were published in newspapers, was shunned by his family and threatened by an Islamist cleric vowing to seek his execution as an apostate.

"I know there are fatwas (religious edicts) to shed my blood, but I will not give up and I will not leave the country," the 25-year-old Hegazy told The Associated Press from his hideout Thursday.

Hegazy made a public splash when he took the unusual step of going to court to change his religion on his national ID card. His first lawyer filed the case, but then quit after the uproar; his second is still considering whether it's worth pursuing.

Hegazy said he received telephoned death threats before he went into hiding in an apartment with his wife, a Muslim who took the name Katarina when she converted to Christianity several years ago. She is four months pregnant.

He said he wants to change the religion on his ID for two reasons: to set a precedent for other converts and to ensure his child can openly be raised Christian. He wants his child to get a Christian name, birth certificate and eventually marry in a church. That would be impossible if Hegazy's official religion is Muslim, because a child is registered in the religion of the father.

There is no Egyptian law against converting from Islam to Christianity, but in this case tradition takes precedent. Under a widespread interpretation of Islamic law, converting from Islam is apostasy and punishable by death — though killings are rare and the state has never ordered or carried out an execution on those grounds.

Most Muslims who convert usually practice their new religion quietly or leave the country. Egypt is overwhelmingly Muslim. Only 10 percent of the 76 million population is Christian and converts are typically ostracized by their families. If the conversion becomes known, they may receive death threats from militants or harassment by police, who use laws against "insulting religion" or "disturbing public order" to target them.

Christians who become Muslim can get their new religion entered on their IDs and face little trouble from officials, though they too are usually thrown out by their families.

There have been a few similar cases in other parts of the Muslim world. In May, Malaysia's highest court refused to recognize the conversion of a Muslim woman to Christianity, saying the case should be handled by religious authorities.

Hegazy, who took the Christian name Beshoy after an Egyptian monk, converted to Christianity nine years ago and began attending church in his hometown of Port Said on the Suez Canal.

"I started readings and comparative studies in religions," he said. "I found that I am not consistent with Islam teachings. The major issue for me was love. Islam wasn't promoting love as Christianity did."

He said after his conversion was discovered, police detained him for three days and tortured him. He said he was harassed several more times.

Then, in 2001, he was arrested again after publishing a book of poems critical of the security services. He said he was held for three months on suspicion of sedition, disturbing public order and insulting the president, though he was ultimately released without charge.

Hegazy's first lawyer, Mamdouh Nakhlah, told the AP he initially accepted the case because of an editorial last month by one of Egypt's highest Islamic clerics, the Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa. He wrote against the killing of apostates, saying there is no worldly retribution for Muslims who abandon their religion.

Gomaa's comments were sharply criticized by Muslim conservatives, who claimed the remarks opened the door for Muslims to leave their faith.

Nakhlah said he had hoped Gomaa's statement could signal a chance to set a legal precedent. But he ultimately backed out saying "the atmosphere is not suitable."

Hegazy's new lawyer, Ramsis el-Nagger, says he had not decided whether to pursue the case, but is pessimistic about winning because of the conflict around it.

If the case makes it to court, it will open an unknown realm of Egyptian law. Earlier this year, a court rejected an attempt by a group of Christians who had converted to Islam but then returned to Christianity and sought to restore their original religion on their ID cards. The case has been appealed

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