Egyptian Christian's recognition struggle  By Christopher Landau 
 BBC Religious Affairs correspondent, Cairo 

Maher al-Gohary has converted from Islam to Christianity. In spite of
facing death threats, he's engaged in a legal battle to have his
changed religion recognised on his official Egyptian documents.  
We drive through the chaotic streets of Cairo to meet Mr Gohary's lawyer at a 
petrol station. 
His client lives in hiding, and doesn't disclose his address. 
He faces threats to his life - as a result of abandoning Islam for 
When we meet, in a small first floor office on an anonymous Cairo
street, Maher al-Gohary is matter-of-fact about the dangers he faces. 
“ The problem is that some judges rule according to their beliefs, not 
according to law  ” 
Nabil Ghobreyal, lawyer 
"I am afraid. Many, many people can kill me and my daughter anytime," he says. 
I asked him whether he felt these threats to his life were serious. 
"Yes," he replied. "Anyone may kill us in the street." 
His teenage daughter, also a Christian, sits at her father's side. 
She, too, has been warned about the consequences of religious conversion. 
"While I was going to school, someone stopped me and told me if my
father does not go back to Islam, they will kill him and kill me," she
tells me. 
Legal recognition  
Her father's legal challenge is a simple one. 
He wants his state identification documents amended, so that his religious 
status is described as Christian. 
Such a change would also mean his daughter could receive Christian religious 
His lawyer, Nabil Ghobreyal, has already represented his client at
several legal hearings - but no judge has yet issued a final verdict. 
At the most recent, on 7 February, Mr Ghobreya believes
he made a convincing case that Egyptian civil law offers no obstacles
to religious conversion. 
He believes the real problem is that the law is being ignored. 
Who are Egypts' Christians? 
        * Egypt has the oldest and largest Christian community in the Middle 
        * About 10% of Egypt's 80 million people are Christians 
        * Egyptian Christians are known as Copts, a word derived from the Greek 
word Aigyptos, meaning Egypt 
        * The Christian community is divided into: Coptic Orthodox, Coptic
Catholics, Coptic Evangelicans (Protestants) and other minorities 
        * They have their own pope, Pope Shenouda III, and give allegiance to 
him rather than to Rome 
"The court should have ruled in the first session of this case to allow
Mr Gohary to change his religion from Muslim to Christian," he
"But the problem is that some judges rule according to their beliefs, not 
according to law." 
Those beliefs lead some Muslims to support harsh penalties for those who 
abandon the Muslim faith. 
Some believe that to renounce Islam - known as apostasy - should be punished by 
But human rights lawyers in Egypt are convinced that the country's law allows 
for the freedom to change religion. 
At the Arabic Human Rights Information Network, I met Gamal Eid, a
lawyer fighting a similar case on behalf of another religious convert. 
He believes that if Mr Gohary's case is successful, it could have far-reaching 
"Many people in their ID are Muslim, or Christian, or Jewish - but they believe 
different things," he says. 
"Many of them are afraid to convert officially. If that door opens -
huge numbers of people will try to convert from Muslim to Christian.
The law gives them this right." 
Existing in secret  
Egypt's Christian communities have deep roots - with many churches pre-dating 
But some feel as though they have to exist in secret, or at the very least to 
be discreet about their activities. 
At morning prayer at a Catholic church in Cairo, I come across Father Rafiq 
He tells me that while his church is free to hold services when it
wants, he is prevented from sharing his Christian faith as widely as he
would like. 
“ All my hope: peace, and peace. Only peace. We didn't find it in Egypt now  ” 
Maher El Gohary 
And he says that some women in his congregation, who have converted to
Christianity, go to great lengths to hide their changed religious
status from friends and family. 
"When they go out from the church, they put their veil
on again, and they go home with their veil as if a Muslim woman," he
"Because she's afraid from her brothers, her father, in
her work, she cannot say she was converted - and this is part of our
Mr Gohary's legal challenge is being watched closely by
supporters of religious freedom who believe it is under threat in many
Middle Eastern countries. 
Any change in the law would not necessarily improve his
personal safety, but it would mean recognition for the faith he holds
He told me that what he really wants is to be able to
live a normal life, without fearing for his safety. And that several
other countries have now offered him asylum on religious grounds. 
But all he wants is to be able to stay in the place of his birth - and freely 
practise the religion he's chosen. 
"All my hope: peace, and peace. Only peace. We don't find it in Egypt now." 
Story from BBC NEWS:

Published: 2009/02/13 14:27:29 GMT


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