Presumably, religion is a private affair, concerning only the believer and his/her deity. In Egypt, however, this is hardly the case, and in no instance is this clearer than when an individual wishes to convert.
As the state continues to name Islam as its official religion, it welcomes those who embrace it, while those who question its tenets—or worse, attempt to turn their backs on them—are subject to a range of punitive measures from social ostracism to physical assault, and in extreme cases, to death.
Though the Egyptian Constitution enshrines the freedom of belief for all citizens, thousands of Egyptians suffer from the the obstacles of changing their beliefs in official documents. This often impairs their personal lives and disrupts their personal well-being, which is further exacerbated by pressure from family members and clerics, who often urge them to keep their faith and not bring shame to their families.
The State Does Not Recognize Non-Muslims
The Egyptian Constitution explicitly states that freedom of belief is guaranteed to every Egyptian. However, on the ground, the law allows anyone to convert to Islam by proclaiming their conversion to al-Azhar and through obtaining the correct documents from there. Al-Azhar notifies the authorities, paving the way for a change of religion in official identification papers.
Egyptian law, however, does not allow Muslims to convert to any other religion.
The first case of a Muslim wishing to convert to Christianity in the official papers went to court in 2007, paving the way for a number of cases that would follow suit in the following years. However, all were rejected. The courts justified their rulings by pointing to the Islamic Shariah—the basis of the Egyptian Constitution—stating that Islam forbids “apostasy.”
Reasons for Converting in Egypt
The reasons for Egyptians wishing to convert to another religion are numerous. Notwithstanding personal changes in convictions and beliefs, they might also be driven by the wish to marry a person from another religion, whereby civil marriages are prohibited. Meanwhile, many Christians convert to Islam to evade the stringent restrictions imposed on divorce and second marriage in Egypt’s Coptic community.
Hany A. is an Egyptian citizen who converted to Islam due to personal conviction. He was subjected to great pressure from his family and the Christian clergy, and also had difficulty completing official procedures.
He tells Raseef22 that his family and the church tried to force him to remain a Christian, but he refused to give in to pressure."The hardest thing was having to leave my family," he says. "The treatment of my childhood friends was also painful, but I made my decision and stood my ground."
In his new community, Hany is treated well by his new Muslim friends. This is the norm in Egypt. When someone converts, the community of his new religion is generally very welcoming, hoping to honor their journey to their new faith.
Similarly, when Karim Issa converted from Islam to Christianity, his new fellow Christians surrounded him with love and affection.
Issa tells Raseef22 that he was convinced by the tenets of Christianity and found personal peace in it. However, he did not try to change his religion in the official papers to avoid the hassle that would ensue. "The issues I faced with my family were challenging enough, I did not want to go through more struggles," he notes.
Issa faced several attempts from his family and some Muslim clerics to coerce him out of his decision to convert. He, therefore, eventually decided to keep his Christian faith a secret, to avoid further tensions.
His family knows that he no longer believes in Islam, but the issue remains the elephant in the room, which they willfully choose to avoid.
Only a few individuals are explicitly aware of his conversion, and he can discuss it with them openly. "I am completely at peace," he says.
The social difficulties are not limited to those who wish to convert from Islam to Christianity and vice versa. They even extend to converting between denominations and sects within the same religion. For example, converting from the Sunni to the Shi’ite doctrine is a grave ordeal.
Though freedom of religion is enshrined in the Egyptian Constitution, the reality on the ground tells a different story...
From social ostracism to death threats and arrests, such is the fate of Egyptian religious converts.
Marwa S. tells Raseef22 that she has been living in fear that her family might find her new books or see her praying, ever since she converted to the Shi’ite sect.
On her journey to her new faith, Marwa experienced great social and psychological pressure. She told some of her colleagues about her decision to convert, and they often reacted violently, threatening to inform her employers and get her fired. From within Egypt’s small, low-profile Shi’ite community, she has also faced pressure to tell her family.
"I do not regret embracing my new faith, despite everything," she said. "I may even convert again in the future, because I believe those who do not question and seek answers are oblivious."
Outside of the confines of Islam and Christianity, Yossef K. went through a unique experience when he converted to Judaism. Unable to confront his community, he traveled abroad to complete his conversion.
Youssef's family similarly exerted great pressure on him to back down from his decision, and clerics tried to discourage him from abandoning Islam. Fleeing the country was the only option that would allow him to live as he saw fit.
With some reluctance, he admits to Raseef22 that the pressure he faced went as far as facing death threats. After leaving Egypt, he lost contact with his family.
Egyptian Atheists Are Not Welcome
For Egyptian atheists and agnostics, things become even more complicated. The Egyptian state does not recognize atheism, and all citizens are required to list a religion on their identification cards. Worse, those who openly profess their atheism are often accused of a set of charges, such as showing contempt of religion or pausing a threat to public peace. In extreme cases, they are subjected to physical violence and abuse, and even death threats.
“As an atheist, my only hope is to seek asylum in a secular state,” Nesma tells Raseef22.
Coming from a religious Muslim family, Nesma grew up as a practicing Muslim, and when she questioned few religious ideas, she was met by violent backlash. Her mother threatened to kick her out of the family home.
Moreover, on social media platforms, she regularly receives death threats and messages referring to her as an infidel.
Sarah N., also an atheist, faced a similar response from her mother when she confessed her atheism. Her mother’s extreme reaction forced Sarah to keep her thoughts to herself, to avoid further social ostracism.
The Frightening Consequences of Women Converting
If it is risky for a man to convert, the risk multiplies exponentially for women. In such cases, religion is no longer the only problem, but is coupled with concepts of “honor”, often leading to sectarian conflicts, at the very least.
As an upshot of women converting, a series of murders have struck Egypt’s various regions over the past decades. In one notorious instance, a woman named Marwa Ahmed abandoned her family in Fayoum to marry a Christian man, only to be slaughtered by her uncle and two cousins upon her return in November 2015.
But the injustice did not end there. Her family held a customary reconciliation session with the family of her Christian husband, during which Marwa's family demanded that they sell their house and leave the village. When they refused, the situation flared up and the police had to set up a checkpoint next to the Christian family’s house to prevent further violence.
While killings, beatings, confinement, and stalking are often the fate of women who choose to convert, displacement becomes the collective punishment for the Christian families involved in these cases. Oftentimes, what begins as a dispute between two individuals or families quickly escalates into full-blown sectarian strife.
On the other end of the scale, Christians often resort to demonstrating in front of the churches to protest a woman’s choice to convert. If a Christian woman converts to Islam or flees with a Muslim lover, Copts rally in front of the church at their village to bring her back.
Such was the case of a young woman named Jacqueline, from the low-income suburb of 10th of Ramadan City, who ran away with her lover, Shukri, and married him in a ‘urfi agreement (off the records), in May 2015. However, the police tracked down her location in Alexandria and brought her back to her family.
Muslims likewise demonstrate in front of churches, as what happened in May 2011, when hundreds of Salafis demonstrated in front of the Mar Mina Church in Imbaba, Giza to bring back a young woman named Abeer, who was believed to have converted to Islam and was detained by Christians in the church. Violent clashes erupted and both parties attacked with guns and Molotov cocktails. The clashes claimed the lives of 10 people, while hundreds were injured.
How Does the Egyptian State View Conversion?
Ishak Ibrahim, a researcher specialized in religious freedoms at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), says there are three facets to the issue of converting in Egypt; legal, social and political.
He explains that the legal aspect is exemplified in the fact that Egyptian law only allows conversion to Islam, while converting from Islam to any other belief is prohibited.
As for the social dimension, since among both Muslims and Christians, there are extremely religious communities in Egypt, the prospect of converting is never treated as a private matter, and often becomes the gateway to sectarian conflicts, particularly when women are involved.
Ibrahim continues, explaining that the political aspect lies in the state's identification as an Islamic state—thus, part of its duties is to maintain Islamic values and traditions, and also to prevent conversion.
He attributes part of the problem of converting in Egypt to the misconception on the part of the state that allowing people to convert religions will impact public peace and threaten the country’s stability.
Moreover, he adds that the Egyptian Church refuses to take any action to help Muslims convert to Christianity. The clergy are likely to secretly offer help by baptizing them and teaching them prayers in private, to avoid being accused of proselytizing, though proselytizing is not criminalized in Egyptian law.
In some cases, converting can lead to imprisonment. The most infamous incident was that of a man named Mohamed Hegazy, who filed a request in court to officially change his religion. The request was denied by the court.
Hegazy married a young woman named Zeinab, who also converted to Christianity. They gave birth to a Christian daughter, but the state refused to approve her religion, and she was registered as a Muslim. Hegazy continued to struggle to have his religion changed in the official records, but eventually he was arrested in 2013 and accused of disseminating false news and inciting sedition.
When he was released from prison in 2016, he published a video on YouTube, proclaiming that he had converted back to Islam. He stressed that he would not appear in the media again, and urged people to leave him alone.
In February 2015, another young man named Sherif Gaber was sentenced to one year in prison after being arrested on charges of "contempt of religion" and advocating for atheism on social networking sites.
Again in October 2014, Ahmed Harkan, who identifies as an atheist human rights activist, and his wife were subjected to an assassination attempt in front of their home in Alexandria. When they went to the police station to report the incident, security forces detained them instead of the perpetrators.
The Egyptian Alber Saber, an atheist, was also arrested on charges of contempt of religion, and allegedly beaten and tortured during interrogation. He was sentenced to three years in prison, but escaped to Europe one day before the ruling
He left his home country, and the society where freedom of religion is no more than an empty slogan.