Egypt's Identity Impasse
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 largest and most influential evangelical congregations in the Middle East, the senior pastor sees a spiritual victory in the recent media coverage.
"We are in a better day for freedom of expression," the pastor told Christianity Today in a lengthy interview. "For Hegazy to go to court and to ask such a requestit never happened in the last 1,400 years."
Surveying the big picture, this pastor believes a religious earthquake is shaking the Middle East, leading to many new conversions from Islam. "For years, there were only hundreds converting from Islam to Christianity. Very confidential, very low key," he said. "Now [converts] are writing their stories. They are in chatrooms. The voice of converts for the first time is being heard. The numbers are beyond estimation. It's an iceberg. If you hear a thousand, then there are 100,000 beneath the surface."
The pastor traces the roots of this evangelistic surge to a church-based awakening in the 1970s. A Presbyterian pastor (then leader at the downtown church) and a Coptic Orthodox priest were among the few Christian leaders willing to baptize new believers with a Muslim background. Coptic Orthodoxy represents up to 6 million people in Egypt, while Protestants number fewer than 250,000.
But long-simmering tensions within the Orthodox Church caught up with the priest. In 1978, Pope Shenouda III suspended him from ministry. Egyptian authorities twice imprisoned him for falsifying ID cards. In 1989, he fled the country, and since his 2003 retirement has hosted an influential program on the Al Hayat Christian satellite channel.
The Presbyterian pastor has also faced years of opposition, once even facing an angry Muslim man pointing loaded handguns at him in his office. "I was threatened that I would be killed," he told CT. "That's okay." At the time, he was more troubled by the threats to burn his landmark church, opened in the heart of Cairo by Presbyterians in 1950, on the authorization (later regretted) of King Farouk. He said, "The church session [board] met. They said, 'If they burn the church we will rebuild it. We will not stop evangelizing.' "