One attorney correctly observes that “unfortunately this verdict does not represent a legal sea change, he said, but rather the correct decision of an individual judge.”
In any event, it should not be an isolated case to which the Egyptian government can point as evidence for all time that Egypt respects its citizens’ freedom of conscience while resuming business as usual toward ex-Muslims and non-Muslims.
“Egypt: Citizen wins rare legal victory to revert to Christianity,” from Compass Direct News, January 8:
ISTANBUL, January 8 (Compass Direct News) — An Egyptian convert to Christianity who spent 31 years officially identified as a Muslim has won a rare legal victory to be officially registered in his “new” faith.
An Alexandrian administrative court awarded Fathi Labib Yousef the right to register as a Christian at a Dec. 20 hearing in the Mediterranean coastal city.
Yousef, in his early 60s, was raised Coptic but converted to Islam in 1974 in order to divorce his Christian wife. Becoming Muslim typically allows for an easy nullification of marriage to a non-Muslim within sharia (Islamic law), and conversion is often employed for this reason by both men and women in Islamic countries.
He reverted to Christianity in 2005 after an Orthodox clerical council gave its official permission, according to the advocacy group US Copts Association.
Yousef applied to the civil registry to acknowledge his change of religion the same year. But the government refused to acknowledge his re-conversion, so he filed a lawsuit against the Egyptian prime minister, interior minister and Civil Status Organization chairman.
The court awarded him the right to revert to Christianity since it is his right according to Egyptian civil law, said Peter Ramses, an attorney familiar with Yousef’s case.
Ramses said this case is an important development for Egypt to live up to freedoms promised in the constitution. Unfortunately this verdict does not represent a legal sea change, he said, but rather the correct decision of an individual judge.
“We only have some judges giving these decisions,” he said. “In Egypt we have many judges who don’t work by the law, but by sharia.”
And Yousef is not assured that his official religious identity will stand. His attorney, Joseph Malak, said other Egyptian Christians have won the right to return to Christianity only to see government officials stop implementation.
“The stumbling block is the police or civil registry office could refuse to carry it out on paper,” he said. Other measures that could block implementation, he said, include appeals against the decision by courts “infiltrated by Muslim fundamentalist ideologies.”
Last year Egypt’s top administrative court allowed 12 converts to Islam to return to Christianity, but the decision was appealed before the country”s Supreme Constitutional Court.
The court was going to rule in November concerning the legality of reversion to Christianity, but its decision has been postponed indefinitely. If the court had upheld the decision, Egyptian converts to Islam would have had the constitutional right to return to Christianity.
But for now, victories such as Yousef’s depend on the will of each judge.
“It means every judge issues a ruling at their own discretion, [even though] the law in existence is in favor of these people,” said Samia Sidhom, English editor of Egyptian Christian weekly Watani.
Changing an official religious identity from Islam to any other religion in Egypt is extremely difficult. While Article 47 of Egypt’s civil law gives citizens the right to choose their religion, Article II of the Egyptian constitution enshrines sharia as the source of Egyptian law.
Traditional interpretation of sharia calls for the death of Islamic “apostates,” or those who leave Islam, but in Egypt legal authorities give somewhat more flexibility to those born and raised as Christians before converting to Islam.
But not always, even if they don’t even know they’re legally designated as Muslims.
Yousef decided to return to Christianity as a matter of religious belief and doubts about Islam, his lawyer said.
Ramses said he hopes to see more decisions in favor of Christians wanting to revert to their religion. He said many in Egypt convert to Islam not for religious reasons, but to secure a divorce, attain higher social status or marry a Muslim.
Religious reversion cases are difficult to win, but far more difficult is for Muslim-born converts to Christianity to officially change their religion, although a few have tried. One such person is Maher Ahmad El-Mo”otahssem Bellah El-Gohary, a convert with an open case at the State Council Court to replace the word “Muslim” on his identification card with “Christian.”
El-Gohary, 56, has been a Christian for 34 years. His case is only the second of his kind in Egypt. Muhammad Hegazy filed the first in August 2007, but his case was denied in a January 2008 court ruling that declared it contrary to Islamic law for a Muslim to leave his religion.