(AINA) -- An Egyptian court refused on Saturday, 6/13/2009 a request by Muslim-born Maher El-Gowhary, who converted to Christianity 34 years ago, to order the Civil Registry to alter his religious designation on his ID. The Civil registry had refused to amend his State identification documents to show his Christian name Peter Athanasious and his Christian affiliation, leading him to file a lawsuit against the Ministry of Interior.
According to the Court ruling, the religious conversion of a Muslim is against Islamic law and poses a threat to the "Public Order" in Egypt.
"It is a sad day for freedom of religion in Egypt," said Fayez Saeed, a member of the legal team working on El-Gohary's case, to the Coptic News Bulletin. "Today the Egyptian judiciary was struggling between establishing the principle of religious freedom to which Egypt is committed and its support for the Islamic State advocated by the Salafis in Egypt (fundamentalist Islamic thought), but it (the judiciary) sided for the victory of an Islamic State at the expense of Freedoms."
The judge in his ruling accepted the legal form of the case, but rejected the "subject" of the lawsuit, which is the conversion of a Muslim to Christianity. "In other words, the judge told us although the case is legally correct," said Saeed, "but Sorry! I cannot grant the right to convert, as this would upset the Muslims."
The Egyptian Constitution, under Article 46, provides for freedom of belief and the practice of religious rites; while Article 2 which was introduced in 2007 states that Islamic Shari'a is the primary source of legislation. Many Coptic lawyers and activists see a contradiction between those two articles and believe that Article 2 supercedes Article 46.
A few days ago the Supreme Constitutional Court refused to consider Muslim converts reverting back to Christianity as "apostates" from Islam, and it did not find anything in the Egyptian law regarding Apostasy.
"Are we governed by civil or Shari'a law?" asks Nabil Ghobrial, one of the attorneys representing El-Gowhary.
In spite of the present setback, the optimistic legal team considered Saturday's ruling as 'historic', in that it proves beyond doubt that there is judicial inadequacies pertaining to the laws on religious freedom in Egypt. "By going through implications of the ruling we found out that Al-Azhar is the only authority in Egypt which can give a conversion certificate." Saeed said. "So what happens if a Muslim wants to convert to any other religion? The implication is there no other authority in Egypt, and that lawmakers ought to legislate for one."
Ghobrial said he was very pleased with the ruling because it is proof that Egypt encourages Salafi ideology. "The verdict is not final, and will be appealed before the Supreme Administrative Court, and if the State will not correct its attitude towards the principles of democracy and freedoms, then we will go to the International Court of Justice and oblige Egypt to adhere to its rulings."
He stressed that it is also El-Gowhary's wish to go to any lengths to obtain his rights. "He is a Christian, lives as a Christian, and insists on obtaining the documents to reflect his Christian faith. He believes if he cannot get his rights here, then there is no other way but to take his case to the international arena."
Maher el-Gowhary who converted to Christianity 34 years ago, was baptised in the Roman Catholic Church of Cyprus. However, during a court hearing in February 2009, the judge asked for a certificate from the Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church, which the legal team obtained and submitted to the Court. To their surprise, Saturday's ruling said that the court does not recognize the Roman Catholic Church of Cyprus as it is not 'authorized' in Egypt, and consequently the Coptic Church's endorsement of its baptismal certificate is void. "Also a certificate from H.H. Coptic Pope Schenouda is not acceptable." Ghobrial said, "So why did the judge ask us to get him one from the Coptic Church then? Maybe he did not expect us to produce one."
The churches in Egypt do not 'officially' baptize converts for fear of Muslim backlash, and when they do so secretly, they do not issue baptismal certificates, leaving Muslim-born converts in a dilemma. But in El-Gowhary's case, the Coptic Church gave him a certificate of joining the Coptic Orthodox community.
"We are faced with a brick wall, but we have vowed to break through it, piece by piece. "said Saeed . "We insist on showing the shortcomings of the Egyptian law for conversion to Christianity."
The Supreme Administrative Court upheld in March 2009 a lower court's 2008 ruling that all Egyptians have a right to obtain official documents, such as ID cards and birth certificates, without stating their religion. "If Baha'is are now allowed, why can't ex-Muslim converts to Christianity also be allowed?" Ghobrial asks.
Outspoken Attorney Ghobrial believes that what the ruling meant by posing a threat to 'Public Order' in Egypt is the Government knows that once the right to convert from Islam is given, then millions of ex-Muslims who hide their Christian faith and live in fear of being found out, will come out in the open and apply for conversion, which will create havoc.
By Mary Abdelmassih