Egyptian court dismisses case to recognise religious conversion

An Egyptian judge has rejected the unprecedented case brought forward by convert Mohammed Hegazy, who was suing the Egyptian Interior Ministry for the right to change his religion from Islam to Christianity on his official identification.

Judge Muhammad Husseini ruled last week that it was only lawful to convert to Islam, and not to another religion. Hegazy's lawyers told Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) that the judge argued in his ruling that Islam is the final and most complete religion, therefore to convert to a religion that preceded Islam is to insult the "great religion" and it cannot be allowed.

The judgment was based on Article 2 of the Egyptian Constitution which establishes shari'a law as "the primary source of legislation". Under traditional Islamic jurisprudence, apostasy, or converting from Islam, is punishable by death.

Although Egyptian law does not criminalise conversion, in practice converts from Islam to another religion often face legal barriers and risk serious harassment, including torture at the hands of the security police.

Hegazy and his lawyers are now waiting for the full transcript of the court ruling to be released before deciding whether they can appeal the decision. His wife, Zeinab, is also considering lodging her own legal challenge to change her religion to Christianity.

Since lodging the case, Hegazy and his wife have had to go into hiding as a result of threats made against them. Their daughter was born on 10 January while they were in hiding.

Hegazy's first lawyer, Mamdouh Nakhla, resigned from the case reportedly under duress. His current lawyers previously lodged a request to restart the court proceedings because of incomplete evidence presented to the court. However, the judge ignored this request when he rejected the case.

Hegazy started the civil action against the Egyptian Interior Ministry on 2 August 2007 after his application to change his religion on his official identification was rejected. He stated that one of the reasons for pursuing the case was the imminent birth of his daughter. As both parents are officially recognised as Muslims, Hegazy's daughter will also be registered and schooled as a Muslim even though she will live in a Christian household. This can result in the child being ostracised from both Muslim and Christian children.

CSW's Chief Executive, Mervyn Thomas, said: "We are dismayed at the decision of the judge to deny Mohammed Hegazy the right to change his religion. The Egyptian Constitution seemingly allows for religious freedom, and Egypt has ratified international human rights treaties which grant the individual the right to adopt a religion of their choice.

"Yet this ruling highlights just how different the reality is for converts like Mohammed Hegazy. We urge the international community to call upon Egypt to uphold the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion."