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Nine years ago, Mohammed Hegazy, then 16, dropped out of an Islamic school after deciding he didn't want to be a Muslim preacher. He transferred to another school, unknowingly joining a class that included seven Christians.

That fateful transfer in 1999, and Hegazy's later conversion to Christianity due to the witness of those seven students, set in motion events that led to Cairo's highest civil court. In late January, Judge Muhammad Husseini refused to issue Hegazy a new identity card registering him as a Christian. "He can believe whatever he wants in his heart," the judge said, "but on paper he can't convert."

Hegazy wasn't the only Egyptian convert taking his cards to court. In a second case, a judge has allowed Christians who had converted to Islam for divorce or employment to "re-convert" to Christianity. But the ID cards of these 12 re-converts will include the potentially stigmatizing words, "Christian, previously proclaimed Islam as his/her religion." In a third case, an administrative court ruled that the government must issue ID cards omitting any religious designation to followers of Baha'i, a marginalized religious minority.

In Egypt, a person's identity card is destiny. It is required, for example, to rent an apartment, hold a job, enroll in school, vote, travel overseas, and receive government services. The cards establish citizenship, legal residence, and religious affiliation. But the only religious options are Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.

All three cases gained enormous attention in the Arabic media, in part because Egypt is creating a new national ID-card database. They also sparked fresh public arguments over punishment for apostasy and Egypt's poor human-rights record.

Tip of the Iceberg

At one of the ...

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Egypt's Identity Impasse
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April 2008

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