Christians in the Cross Hairs

For Egypt’s Copts, Life Is Getting Harder

CAIRO, Egypt, DEC. 13, 2003 ( Christmas may be anything but merry for Egypt’s Christians. They are increasingly facing a harder time living under anti-conversion laws and legal discrimination. Not until Dec. 3, for instance, did police release the last of a group of 22 converts who had been arrested in late October, their only crime being an attempt to convert to Christianity from Islam, the Britain-based Barnabas Fund reported. Mariam Girgis Makar, the last detainee, was released on bail for 1,000 Egyptian pounds ($162).

According to the Barnabas Fund in its Dec. 4 report, the converts were arrested on charges related to falsifying their names on documents. In Egypt, a Christian who converts to Islam can change identification papers, inserting a new Muslim name within 24 hours. But there is no reciprocal arrangement for a Muslim who converts to Christianity. All citizens are required to have listed on their identity card whether they are Christian or Muslim.

According to Helmy Guirguis, president of the United Kingdom Coptic Association, Muslims who convert to Christianity and don’t change their names are forced to live a double life. “They convert, keep their [Muslim] names … go to church and take communion, [but] when they go out of the church, they behave like classic Muslims,” he said in an interview with Cybercast News Service published Oct. 29.

Usually, only the priests know about their true identity, Guirguis said. Converts are unable to befriend other congregants unless they too are converts living a secret life, he noted. If discovered and arrested, the converts are tortured and forced to reveal the identities of accomplices and other converts, Guirguis added.

On Dec. 2 the Barnabas Fund publicized another case of persecution, involving a convert’s Christian husband who was arrested while trying to leave Egypt. On Nov. 28, Bolis Rezek-Allah tried to escape what the Barnabas Fund termed “the mounting persecution he is suffering at the hands of the Egyptian authorities because of his marriage to Enas Badawi, a Christian converted from a Muslim background.”

The press release explained that he was put in the custody of Hussein Gohar, a security officer noted for his vindictive behavior to converts from Islam. Gohar has reportedly threatened Rezek-Allah that he will track down his wife Enas and execute her in front of her husband. Rezek-Allah was eventually released, but police say they will continue to block him from leaving the country even though he has the correct documentation to leave for Canada.

Rezek-Allah troubles started last summer when he was arrested on the charge of marrying a Muslim. It is illegal under Egypt’s Islamic law for a Christian man to marry a Muslim. Badawi had in fact converted to Christianity before the marriage, but the Egyptian authorities had failed to recognize her conversion.

Double standards

The organization International Christian Concern calculates that Muslims make up 85.4% of Egypt’s population. The government estimates the Christian population at 6%, but other sources put it as high as 14.2%. The vast majority of the Christians are members of the Coptic Church, which existed before the arrival of Islam in Egypt.

Despite being a long-standing sizable minority group in Egypt, Coptic Christians face numerous difficulties, said a background briefing by International Christian Concern. A major obstacle is obtaining permission to build churches. An 1856 decree dating back to the Ottoman Empire still requires non-Muslims to obtain a presidential decree to repair, remodel or build a place of worship.

A 1934 decree of the Minister of Interior added more 10 conditions to the 1856 law. They include not allowing a church to be built within 100 meters of a mosque, requiring the permission of any utility official when the construction is near that utility, and requiring that none of the Muslim neighbors object to the construction.

Another problematic area deals with names given to children. Youngsters with Muslim names are automatically enrolled in Islamic religion classes, regardless of parents’ wishes. Children with traditional Coptic names face the risk of a life of discrimination.

Killers go free

Further evidence of the partiality of the Egyptian legal system came earlier this year when those accused of a 2000 massacre were acquitted. A March 4 press release by Freedom House’s Center for Religious Freedom expressed alarm at the decision by an Egyptian court to acquit those charged in a massacre of 21 Christians in the village of El-Kosheh in January 2000. The Washington, D.C.-based center also called on the Egyptian government to investigate police misconduct in El-Kosheh.

Egypt’s State Security Court in Sohag found none of the 95 defendants guilty of the murders, in what was the largest massacre of Copts in several decades, according to the Center for Religious Freedom on Feb. 27. The court convicted only two men on manslaughter charges for the death of a Muslim in the nearby village of Al-Balabish.

A member of the Center Paul Marshall conducted a fact-finding mission to El-Kosheh in 2000 and interviewed eyewitnesses to the massacre. They named the murderers, many of whom are still living in the village and threatening further attacks.

Another example of discrimination against Christians was published in the November bulletin of the religious rights organization Compass Direct. The bulletin reported on the case of 19-year-old Ingy Nagy Edwar. The Coptic teen-ager was kidnapped in September by Muslims who claim she has now converted to Islam. Her family is being prevented from contacting her.

In fact, reported Compass Direct, state security police officials went so far as to temporarily detain her father and other male relatives a few days after the teen-ager’s disappearance. The police accused them of trying to interfere with her conversion to Islam and showed them an alleged declaration of conversion to Islam signed by Ingy. Under civil law, a daughter under age 21 cannot change her religion without the legal permission of her father.

Ingy’s family, who spoke to her by phone in October, believes the teen is being given mood-altering drugs that make “her personality different,” explained her brother, Nagy Edwar Nagy.

Meanwhile, Christians and Muslims are engaged in a bumper sticker war in Cairo’s streets. The Associated Press on Nov. 29 reported that some Copts imported fish bumper stickers from the United States. Soon after, Muslims responded with their own bumper stickers: fish-hungry sharks.

Emad, a Muslim, laughed when asked about the competing symbols but was unapologetic about the two shark stickers on his car. “The Christians had the fish so we responded with the shark. If they want to portray themselves as weak fishes, OK. We are the strongest,” said Emad, who would give only his first name.

Recent events show that behind the competition over bumper stickers lies a far uglier reality. Two thousand years ago Providence advised Joseph to take Mary and the child Jesus and escape persecution by fleeing to Egypt. That option no longer exists.

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