08/29/2007, 00.00
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Hegazi case: Islam’s obsession with conversions

by Samir Khalil Samir, sj
The case of Mohammad Hegazi, young Egyptian converted to Christianity, who wishes to be legally recognized as such, has opened a new debate in the Islamic world on conversions, which are often seen as acts of apostasy that merit death. What has emerged is a veritable obsession in Islam for personal conversions, this religion having been reduced more to an ethnic and sociological submission. There is even talk of a plan to convert Europe and the world to Islam, to which European governments are giving a hand. The first part in an analysis by Fr Samir Khalil Samir, Egyptian Jesuit, expert on Islam.

Beirut (AsiaNews) - The case has received a lot of public attention: a young Egyptian, Mohammad Ahmad Hegazi, age 25, converted to Christianity some years ago (some say 9, others 6 years ago; according to the Islamic version, it was just a few months ago!).  He then married a woman named Zeinab, who also became Christian, taking the name Cristina.  In recent months, he asked that his documents show his new religious affiliation. In Egypt, identity cards must indicate the holder’s religion and, so far, Hegazi’s is officially Islam.  This means that he is considered to be Muslim for various legal questions pertaining to inheritance rights, family law etc. 

His request was effectively been turned down by administrative authorities, who did not see his request through.  So, Hegazi went to the government direct.Why did he ask for this change to be made only now, years after his conversion?  Perhaps because the couple is expecting a baby.  And if they are registered as Muslims, the child will have to be as well, regardless of the parents’ wishes. 

When administrative authorities balked at his request, Hegazi went to the courts to claim his rights, with the help of a lawyer from an NGO.The case is extremely important, more than it may appear, also because it has been reported by media around the world and now the press in Egypt is also discussing it.Initially, reactions came from imams, then from the general public.  The vast majority is saying that Mohammad Hegazi must be killed as an apostate.  Only a small part dares to quote the Koran – which states that “there is no compulsion in religion” – and states its support for his freedom.

Identity cards

The liberal world in Egypt has for decades been asking that religion be removed from official documents.  The specification of religious affiliation serves only to allow discrimination – of non Muslims, that is.I myself have experienced such discrimination many times and must say that, despite the promises of many politicians, religion is still indicated on identity cards.  There are for example Catholic seminarians who, according to their identity card, are “Muslim.”  Almost by default, newborns are registered as Muslim in public records.  If one wants the registration changed, he is told that “it’s complicated” and that “there are advantages to being Muslim.”All this is not a just a bureaucratic problem. 

 There is the desire, on the part of certain administrative offices, to use their position to “Islamize” Christians, or simply an aversion to making such a change.  This aversion is not due however to the inefficiency of Egyptian bureaucracy.  The proof is that, going the other way, there is never any difficulty in changing the identity card of a Christian who wants to become Muslim: this gets done right away!  This is therefore a lobby and a tendency in the public administration to Islamize people, starting with their official documents. Something similar happens even in Turkey – the secular Turkey! – where it takes years to change one’s name to a Christian name, as a confrère tells me. 

It’s a general phenomenon, aimed at Islamizing the greatest number of Christians possible (there are at least 7 million of them in Egypt.  The documents of a family related to me, third generation Christians, still say they are “Muslim.”  The children, who go to mass every Sunday, are registered as “Muslims.” This makes it difficult for them to marry Christians, and often in cases like this, people are forced to flee the country in order to be married in a Christian church.The problem is that this situation is upheld by the law. 

Under Egyptian law, children “belong to the better religion”, i.e. Islam.  That this is stated in a body of law explains the discrimination in question.  For example, a Muslim woman does not have the right to marry a Christian man: since children belong to the father, their children would be “Christian.”  Legislation as a whole is designed to Islamize.The consequences are felt also felt outside the Muslim world.  In Italy, last year, there was the case of a Tunisian woman who wanted to marry an Italian man, a baptized Catholic but non-practicing.  Italian laws required the woman to present a document from her country of origin showing that she is free to marry, which she sought from the Tunisian embassy.  In reply, the Tunisian consulate asked for a document that shows that her fiancé is “Muslim”! And to think that Tunisia is one of the few “moderate” and highly secularized Muslim countries!  Still today, the couple has not been able to marry due to the Tunisian consulates refusal to give the woman a document stating that she is free to marry.

A great debate has been underway in Egypt in past months over the case of 12 Christians: they formally converted to Islam to be able to divorce, obtaining a new identity card that shows their new religion right away.  Immediately after, they declared themselves to be Christian again and asked to have their old i.d. card returned.  It seems that the matter will take a positive turn for them and should be resolved favourably this September. As we can see, the “identity card” question has great political importance, and this explains the intensity of the debate underway in the Islamic world.  It is in fact a step that should bring the state to a certain neutrality vis-à-vis religions.

The conversion obsession

The Islamic world is truly obsessed with conversions.  At least 7 Islamic countries apply the death penalty to those who convert from Islam: Sudan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Mauritania.  But in other states, like Egypt, converts are condemned to prison, not as apostates but for contempt of Islam, as Hossam Bahgat, a member of the Egyptian Initiative for personal rights, explains.

According to government daily Al-Massa’, all imams are unanimous on the need to kill the apostate Hegazi.  They say that sharia (not the Koran) must be enforced and it calls for the death penalty.The more moderate say: if the apostate hides his conversion, does not broadcast his decision, then it is not necessary to kill him; he can live.  If he lets it be known, then he causes scandal (fitna) and must die. 

I happened to be looking through the web-site of the “Forum of Arab Aviation.”  This case – Hegazi’s conversion --  is the sole topic of the site’s “Islamic” section.  There are 8 reactions registered on the page and they all say that he must be killed.  Some are subtle, saying for example: “The government must take the harshest decision to eliminate this problem,” but all the others quote the Koran: “Fitna is worse than killing” (2,191 and 2,217); others say that “Islam is the better religion”; others still “Kill him to avoid fitna” (8,39); others: “He who wants a religion other than Islam, his worship will not be accepted and in the Hereafter he will be among the losers” (3,85).  No one quotes the Koranic phrase that affirms freedom of conscience, the one quoted by the Pope at Regensburg last September 12: “there is no compulsion in religion (2, 186); nor the other that says: “Truth comes from your Lord.  Let him who will believe and let him who will not believe” (18,29).This was the case in dozens upon dozens of comments in numerous Islamic web-sites in the last week alone.Generally, for every 10 people who call for his death, there is just one who said: "I think that Hegazi should be free to choose."Others say that, yes, the Koran has the verse that says "there is no compulsion...", but it has been cancelled (nusikha) by the famous "sword verse" (âyat al-sayf) that would have cancelled dozens of verses, which however no one can identify: if that would be verse 5 of chapter 9 (known as the "penitence" verse, al-tawbah), or verse 29, or 36, or else 41: all these speak of killing the other, and are often applied to apostates. (1)

Death at the apostate

In any case, 3 famous imam have pronounced themselves against Hegazi.  The first is Imam Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a big expert in his field, who cites dozens of references from the first centuries and concludes that Hegazi has to be killed because the group is in danger and the group takes priority over the individual.  The idea is: if this person begins to speak and says that he is happy to be Christian, and smilingly appears in photos with a Gospel in his hands, this is intolerable and is non-Muslim propaganda, which is officially allowed neither in Egypt, nor in other Islamic countries.  And since Hegazi is spreading Christian propaganda, he must be killed.

Suad Saleh, Muslim judge and dean of the Faculty of Islamic Science at Al-Azhar University, has stated: yes, in matters of faith there is no compulsion, but Hegazi is spreading propaganda and thus the law must be applied.  The judge advises that the apostate be given 3 days to repent and reconvert to Islam (istitâbah), then "apply the law" (i.e. execution). 

The Grand Mufti of Egypt, Dr Ali Gomaa, Egypt's highest religious authority, stated to the Washington Post last June that apostasy "should not" be punished by death, eliciting numerous reactions from Al-Azhar.  After many people expressed their approval for a death sentence, he retracted in a confused matter and his stance is still today unclear.  On the surface, he wanted to reassure the West by using ambiguous wording, like the one that goes: "Apostasy is to be punished when it represents fitna or when it threatens the foundations of society."

Instead, as we have said, there is no punishment in this world for the apostate according to the Koran.  But the imams rely on one of the Prophet's hadith of Islam handed down by Ibn 'Abbas: "Kill the one who changes religion."  And they rely on the fact that Mohammad applied this punishment to Abdallah Ibn al-Azhal who, to avoid being killed, had sought protection in the Kaaba shrine, but Mohammad ordered his companions to kill him.

To all this must be added the reaction of Hegazi's and his wife’s parents.  Questioned by Islamic judges, his father denied that his son converted to Christianity.  His mother began screaming hysterically: "My son is dead, there will be no relation between us until the judgement day!"  Ali Kamel Suleiman, the father of Zeinab, Hegazi’s wife, was more explicit.  He declared to the independent daily al-Dustûr: "Bring me my daughter in whatever way possible, even dead."  In our Egyptian mentality, this means: kill her, or bring her to me alive and I will kill her.

Because of the parents' behaviour, Mamduh Nakhla, a Copt, director of the "Al-Kalima" Centre for Human Rights, who had submitted to the administrative courts a request for the recognition of Hegazi's conversion to Christianity, then withdrew it for 2 reasons: "to not break Hegazi's ties with his family" and due to the "lack of a certificate of [Hegazi's] conversion to the Copt Church."  This was confirmed by Father Morcos, a bishop close to the Patriarch Shenouda, who stated, "The Church does not proselytize." In all such matters of conversion, the Copt Church is usually very prudent, because it must take account of the "common good," so as to not compromise other negotiations with the government.  Rumani Gad el-Rabb, another executive of the Al-Kalima Centre, instead told AFP that the group withdrew the request after having receiving threats.

[1]    Instead according to scholars this reading is not exact.  To be precise: there is a principle in Koranic exegesis by which a verse can be cancelled (Cf. Koran 2, 106).  But to know which verses are cancelled, it must be clear in the Koran, or there must be unanimity in the community of origins.  In any case, scholars says that in this specific case there is by no means unanimity.  According to the greatest of medieval scholars, Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti (d. 1505), only Koranic verse 21 responds to this criteria (cf. his book Mu‘tarak al-Aqrân, p. 118).

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See also
Debate on apostasy and political Islam
Hegazi Case: Islamic and Christian proselytising
The future of the "Arab Spring", held back by poverty and fundamentalism
A fatwa against religious justifications for Islamic terrorism
Benedict XVI and Islam: neither fundamentalism nor secularism


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