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An Egyptian Coptic Christian woman has been sentenced to three years in prison for failing to uphold her Islamic identity—an identity she did not know she had for more than four decades.

Bahia Nagy El-Sisi was arrested and tried this September for claiming Christianity as her official religious identity on her marriage certificate. Her sister, Shadia, received an identical sentence in November 2007 for doing the same. Unknown to the sisters, their religious identity had officially changed 46 years ago due to their father's temporary conversion to Islam.

Their father, Nagy El-Sisi, converted to Islam in 1962 during a brief marital dispute in order to obtain a divorce and potentially gain custody of his daughters, the sisters' lawyer Peter Ramses said. Egyptian law is influenced by Islamic jurisprudence (Shari'ah), which automatically awards child custody to whichever parent has the "superior" religion, and dictates "no jurisdiction of a non-Muslim over a Muslim."

A few years after his conversion, Nagy El-Sisi returned to his family and Christianity. He sought the help of a Muslim employee in the Civil Registration Office, who agreed to forge his Christian identification documents. Reversion to Christianity for converts to Islam has been nearly impossible in Egyptian courts.

The case is being appealed before Egypt's Supreme Court. If Bahia Nagy El-Sisi's identity as a Muslim stands, her religious status could potentially create a domino effect that would require her husband to convert to Islam or to nullify their marriage. Her children would also be registered as Muslims. Both sisters are married to Christians.

"All of their children and grandchildren would be registered as Muslims," Ramses said. "[The ruling] would affect ...

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November 2008

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