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Middle East

Surprise! You're a Muslim!

Brief conversions can be a family affair for generations.

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 many people."

Other sources said it is too soon to determine the fate of the sisters' marriages and families, as neither of the cases has been finalized. Legal experts believe that when Bahia Nagy El-Sisi's case comes before the Supreme Court, her sentence will be retracted like that of her sister, who was released from prison in January.

Egypt's constitution guarantees freedom of belief and practice for the country's Christian minority, who composes 10 percent of the population.

The case is also an example of the social pressure put on Egyptian non-Muslims to convert when a parent embraces Islam, despite the constitutional guarantee of equality, said Youssef Sidhom, editor in chief of the national weekly Watani, the only Christian newspaper in Egypt.

"This is a sick environment that we struggle to change," Sidhom said. "According to what is taking place here, freedom is protected and provided for Christians to convert to Islam, while the opposite is not provided."

Ramses is appealing the case to Egypt's Supreme Court. He said he worries the case could further erode the precarious situation of religious minorities in the Muslim-majority country of 79 million.

"How can the government say to [someone] who has lived 50 years in a Christian way that they must become a Muslim and their children must be Muslims and their whole family must all be Muslims?" he said. "This is very important for the freedom of religion."

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Christianity Today has special sections on Islam and Egypt.

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