ISTANBUL -- In the latest hearing of a Muslim-born Egyptian's effort to officially convert to Christianity, opposing lawyers advocated he be convicted of "apostasy," or leaving Islam, and sentenced to death.
More than 20 Islamic lawyers attended the hearing on Sunday (Feb. 22) in Maher Ahmad El-Mo'otahssem Bellah El-Gohary's case to obtain identification papers with Christianity designated as his religious affiliation. Two lawyers led the charge, Ahmed Dia El-Din and Abdel Al-Migid El-Anani.
"[El-Din] started to talk about the Quran being in a higher position than the Bible," one of El-Gohary's lawyers, Said Fayez, told Compass. "[El-Din said] people can move to a higher religion but not down, so people cannot move away from Islam because it is highest in rank."
Memos submitted by opposing lawyers asserted that cases such as El-Gohary's form part of a U.S. Zionist attack on Islam in Egypt, that Christianity is an inferior religion to Islam and that Copts protect and defend converts from Islam at their own peril.
"We received 150 pages from them that talked about religion," said Fayez. "We are not in a position to talk about religion, we are only talking about the law."
El-Gohary was not present at the hearing, as attendance would put him at extreme personal risk. He had planned to obtain papers authorizing attorney Nabil Ghobreyal to act as his proxy representation in court, but staff members at the registry office swore at and beat him, lawyers said.
Judge Hamdy Yasin was forced to adjourn the case until March 28 because El-Gohary did not obtain the necessary proxy representation documents.
"I am now in a position where I can't do anything else," El-Gohary, who has been in hiding, told Compass. "I have to go [to court] despite the danger. I believe God will protect me. It's a very hard decision, but I have to go."
Copts and Christian converts have to face such systemic prejudice daily in the battle for their rights, he said.
"Our rights in Egypt, as Christians or converts, are less than the rights of animals," El-Gohary said. "We are deprived of social and civil rights, deprived of our inheritance and left to the fundamentalists to be killed. Nobody bothers to investigate or care about us."
El-Gohary, 56, has been attacked in the street, spat at and knocked down in his effort to win the right to officially convert. He said he and his 14-year-old daughter continue to receive death threats by text message and phone call.
But he also has received text messages, he said, of encouragement from other Muslim-born converts too fearful to take a similar stand.
"Everyday I get calls from people who have converted but are secret," said El-Gohary. "They ask me every day about what is happening, because it affects their future."
The danger to himself and his daughter has led El-Gohary to suggest that he will most likely leave Egypt, but not until the case is over.
"He wouldn't go without doing this trial, he doesn't want to leave before it is finished," said attorney Ghobreyal. "Because it [conversion] is his right, then he will do whatever he likes."
El-Gohary said he feels a responsibility to witness about God and Jesus. "I have to do what I am doing for the sake of God and the sake of the converts, to the glory of God," he said.
He decided to legally change his religious affiliation out of concern over the effects that his "unofficial Christianity" has on his family, saying he was particularly concerned about his daughter, Dina Maher Ahmad Mo'otahssem. Though raised as a Christian, when she reaches age 16 she will be issued an identification card stating her religion as Muslim unless her father's appeal is successful.
At school, she has been refused the right to attend Christian religious classes offered to Egypt's Christian minorities and has been forced to attend Muslim classes. Religion is a mandatory part of the Egyptian curriculum.
Despite setbacks, delays and the vitriol on display in the courtroom, El-Gohary and his lawyers reserve optimism not only about the future of the case but the future of the country as well.
"There is evidence and signs on the horizon that are very encouraging, that there will be a time in the future that equal rights will be achieved," said Fayez. "People have started to ask for their rights and demand to have the freedom of religion. This is a good sign."
Mohammed Hegazy, the first Muslim-born Christian convert to attempt to have his new religion officially registered, is also in hiding after receiving death threats.
Despite a constitution that grants religious freedom, legal conversion from Islam to another faith remains unprecedented. Hegazy, who filed his case on Aug. 2, 2007, was denied the right to officially convert in a Jan. 29, 2008 court ruling that declared it was against Islamic law for a Muslim to leave Islam.
The judge based his decision on Article II of the Egyptian constitution, which enshrines Islamic law, or sharia, as the source of Egyptian law. The judge said that, according to sharia, Islam is the final and most complete religion and therefore Muslims already practice full freedom of religion and cannot return to an older belief (Christianity or Judaism).
Compass Direct News