Nadia Mohamed Ali was raised in a Christian home, but when she married Mustafa Mohamed Abdel-Wahab in 1990, she converted to Islam. After his death, she obtained new identity cards—required under Egyptian law—that declared her and her seven children Christians.
Then came the ruling by a criminal court this January: "Egyptian Court Sentences Family to 15 Years for Converting to Christianity" read the Western headlines. Several U.S. religious freedom watchers declared Ali's sentence a "real disaster" that "underscores the growing problem of religious intolerance" under Egypt's new, Muslim Brotherhood-backed government. A shocking headline, indeed.
A cut-and-dry case of religious persecution? Not quite.
"They were imprisoned for fraud, not for conversion," says Mamdouh Nakhla, founder of the Word Center for Human Rights in Cairo. The Coptic lawyer claims the family paid government workers to forge new identity cards. They registered their religion as Christian under Ali's maiden name so that she could obtain her inheritance.
In a time when Western analysts are watching new president Mohamed Morsi, cases like Ali's become barometers of Egypt's direction toward or away from democracy. And while Ali's case may not be a simple case of persecution, it does, say experts, underscore that Egypt still plays favorites when it comes to conversion.
A Biased Bureaucracy
Every Egyptian is born legally into one of three religions—Islam, Christianity, or Judaism—which is recorded on all official documents. Unlike conversions in the West, a conversion in any direction in Egypt is a troublesome family and social matter.
Converting to Islam, ...