Egypt: “Re-Conversion” Decision Is a Welcome Step

Press Release

10 February 2008

Government Should Protect Converts from Discrimination, Harassment

(Cairo, February 10, 2008) – Yesterday's ruling by Egypt’s Supreme Administrative Court allowing 12 Christian converts to Islam to “re-convert” back to Christianity is a welcomed rejection to the government’s policy of discrimination against religious converts, Human Rights Watch and the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) said today.

Human Rights   Watch and the EIPR urged the government to take immediate steps to correct its systematic policy of forcing converts from Islam to accept a religious identity that was not their own in order to obtain essential identification documents.

“The judges’ decision marks a happy ending to an absurd and unnecessary court fight,” said EIPR director Hossam Bahgat. “It was only the stubborn insistence of Interior Ministry officials to place their prejudice above the law that made it necessary to go to court at all.”

In yesterday's ruling, the Supreme Administrative Court granted the 12 individuals' request to obtain new documents identifying them as Christians, but noted that the new documents should refer to their previous conversion to Islam. Human Rights Watch and the EIPR warned the government that any such public reference could subject converts to social stigma and discrimination.

The ruling overturned an April 2007 lower court decision that upheld the government policy of refusing to reflect in mandatory national identification cards the conversion back to Christianity of citizens who had earlier converted to Islam. The policy is not based on any Egyptian law, but on what government officials understand to be the Shari`a, or Islamic law, prohibition against apostasy. National ID cards are necessary for education, employment and the most basic financial and administrative transactions.

In a joint report issued in November 2007, Human Rights Watch and the EIPR documented 211 similar lawsuits that went before Egypt’s administrative judiciary in Cairo since April 2004. In all of these cases, the plaintiffs were challenging the policy of the Interior Ministry’s Civil Status Department to misidentify them as “Muslim” in official records. This designation subjected them to Muslim family law and predetermined the religious affiliation of their children and the mandatory religious education they will receive in public schools.

The report, “Prohibited Identities: State Interference with Religious Freedom,” also documented how the government automatically “converts” Christian children to Islam if one of their parents, usually the father, converts to Islam, without regard to their wishes and often without their knowledge. Muslim-born converts to Christianity are similarly denied identification documents reflecting their conversion and are often subject to official and social harassment, detention, and sometimes even torture by security officers.

“The state should not be in the business of controlling religious conversion,” said Joe Stork, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “This court decision will have repercussions for all Egyptians who wish to change their faith without facing administrative or criminal punishment.”