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, however, is simple in comparison, says Nakhla: "The convert registers at al-Azhar"—the center of jurisprudence for Sunni Muslims—"and goes with his paperwork to the Civil Registry. He then gets his ID card changed right away."
Technically this violates Egypt's civil code, which says "a change in religion must be based upon a judicial decision." But the law is typically enforced only when an Egyptian wants to leave Islam for Christianity.
In 2008, Mohammed Hegazy made headlines when he sued to change the religion on his ID card from Muslim to Christian. A judge rejected his lawsuit, arguing that Shari'ah provisions in Egypt's constitution forbid citizens from leaving Islam.
Five years later, Hegazy's appeal is still pending before Egypt's State Council. However, the Egyptian revolution of 2011 has changed the equation. Under Egypt's new constitution, approved this past December, al-Azhar now has the right to consult on all matters concerning Shari'ah. And many voices within al-Azhar take moderate positions on Shari'ah, paradoxically giving Hegazy and other Christians some hope of converting without penalty.
For example, take Mahmoud Azab, adviser to the Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar: "If someone wishes to change his religion, if it is based on conviction and full knowledge—without any pressures—he is free [to do so]."
Forced Into Fraud
Meanwhile, the existing legal barriers push new Christians to commit fraud.
"I was introduced to a certain priest—now deceased—who knew a certain Christian who works in the Civil Registry," says Sheikh Saber (using his Muslim name, not his forged Christian identity). "He takes the bribe and distributes the money around for assistance in covering it up." In 2003 Saber obtained new IDS, birth certificates, and a marriage license for his family. The cost of this illegal "service" now runs up to $2,500 per person.
But for Egyptians who are returning to Christianity—not converting to it for the first time—there is some hope. In 2011, the Civil Registry allowed 300 Muslims to change their ID cards and return to Christianity after the Coptic Orthodox Church provided documents proving their Christian heritage. These applicants had not complicated their cases by marrying Muslims, unlike the 3,200 applicants whose requests are still pending. In fact, marriage and divorce have proven the primary impetus for Christians adopting Islam—up to 90 percent of all cases, estimates Nakhla.
"Some women go to Islam not because they believe in it, but because it is the easiest way to get a divorce," says Ayman George, founder of the Coptic Right to Live Movement, which lobbies for civil marriage and divorce proceedings. Egypt has long allowed its religious communities to determine their own family law, a principle now enshrined in Article 3 of the new constitution.
Vivian Adel, an Orthodox Christian, married in 2011. The first day, her husband cursed her. After a week, he began beating her. After a month, he threw her out of their home.
Now separated, Adel still remains legally married—the Coptic Orthodox Church allows divorce and remarriage only in cases of adultery or a spouse's change of religion.
"For divorce, we can go only by the Bible, which permits it only for adultery, which must be proven to the court," says Bishop Boula. Since 1989, Boula has overseen a committee of 19 priests who review family matters. If adultery cannot be proven, changing to another denomination is unlikely.
Safwat el-Baiady, president of the Protestant Churches of Egypt, supports the concept of civil marriage and divorce. He says he has never issued a membership certificate to an Orthodox Christian seeking divorce; similar agreements exist with the Catholic Church.
Targeted by Muslims
So is converting to Islam the only option for women seeking escape from abuse?
Boula believes the issue is overblown. "I have not seen one case where someone converted to Islam in order to sidestep these regulations," he says. "This is said to put pressure on us. [But] conversion happens because they fall in love or have sexual relations."
However, George of the Coptic Right to Live Movement recently led a campaign in which more than 1,000 Christians formally resigned their membership in the Orthodox Church (but remained Christians). They hope to escape church jurisdiction and qualify for the much simpler divorce proceedings found in Shari'ah law.
But Boula is right on one front: Many convert to Islam because of romance—especially women for whom a kind Muslim man offers escape from social problems or poor relationships with family members.
Meanwhile, some Muslims target Coptic Christians for marriage to convert them. "The Coptic people are downtrodden," says Isaiah Lamei, a priest who provides pastoral care for troubled Copts. "Muslims take advantage and get them to sign papers of conversion [so Copts can] fix their problems."
Every year, Lamei ministers to 30-40 families in his diocese that have been approached by Muslims offering such "help." "These problems can be emotional or financial," he says. He estimates that in his diocese every year, "two or three convert to Islam."
It's hard to verify whether Muslims really marry Copts just to draw them into Islam. But it's also hard to verify the sincerity of Muslim conversions to Christianity.
"We must be cautious," says Cornelis Hulsman, editor in chief of the Arab West Report. "I have met converts who are sincere, and I've met converts who have other interests."
Nakhla agrees. "Some converts come to me and say they want to marry a Christian. Or they request money, or work, or an apartment," he says.
So while both sides accuse each other of using worldly motives to win converts, Christians especially have a complaint.
Prior to 2004, any Christian who wanted to become a Muslim first met with local priests for guidance. Al-Azhar—the Sunni Muslim center of learning—now wants these sessions reinstated. "We have agreed with the Egyptian churches that this is the way to make sure one enters Islam from conviction, and not from any level of pressure," says adviser Azab.
Ultimately, the best solution is biblical. "We visit them and try to find out their problem and solve it," says Lamei. "We must bring them closer to Christ to be convinced of their faith and to encourage them spiritually."
Jayson Casper is a Cairo-based researcher with Arab West Report and editor of Orient and Occident, a bilingual magazine of the Egyptian Anglican Church.
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