Preparatory Hearing Held at Supreme Constitutional Court on Religious Conversion Case
Legal experts of Egypt's Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) yesterday held a first preparatory hearing on the new lawsuit (case number 92/30) concerning the constitutionality of a legal provision that allows citizens to change their religious affiliation in public records.
The SCC's Commissioners Authority, a department of legal experts who are legally required to submit advisory opinions on all new cases referred to the court, decided at the end of the preparatory hearing to grant parties to the case a period of thirty days to submit written arguments. The Commissioners Authority will submit their response to the case to SCC judges who are expected to start hearings on the matter later this year.
The case was referred to the SCC on 4 March 2008 by the Court of Administrative Justice, headed by Judge Mohammed al-Husseini. Judge al-Husseini decided to suspend consideration of all appeals filed before his court by Christian citizens who had converted to Islam and were seeking recognition of their re-conversion to Christianity. He petitioned the SCC to rule on the constitutionality of Article 47 of the Civil Status Law (Law 143/1994), regulating the procedures for changing or correcting one’s religion, nationality or profession on official identification documents. The SCC will consider whether this legal provision, which allows one to freely change one's religion, is compatible with Article 2 of the Constitution, which states that Islam is the official religion of the State and that the principles of Shari’a are the main source of legislation.
A report by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), issued jointly with Human Rights Watch in November 2007, documents and analyzes the Egyptian government's longstanding policy of refusing to recognize the "re-conversion" to Christianity by Egyptians Christians who had previously converted to Islam. The report, "Prohibited Identities: State Interference with Religious Freedom," highlights the way in which the Interior Ministry’s Civil Status Department misidentifies these citizens in official records, listing them as "Muslim." Such designation subjects these citizens to Muslim family law and predetermines the religious affiliation of their children and the mandatory religious education they will receive in public schools.
Over the last few years, this arbitrary policy has been challenged in court by a number of Egyptians. These lawsuits eventually secured a final decision by the Supreme Administrative Court (SAC) in February 2008 allowing 12 Christian converts to Islam to “re-convert” back to Christianity and to obtain new identity cards recognizing them as Christians. National identity cards are necessary for education, employment and the most basic financial and administrative transactions. The SAC's decision was meant to put an end to the suffering of all Egyptians who have, for decades, endured this abusive policy. However, the lower Court of Administrative Justice later decided to challenge the constitutionality of the legal provision that provided the basis for the SAC ruling and to refer the matter to the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC). This is now case number 92/30, currently under review. The SCC is exclusively mandated with interpreting the Constitution and its finding are final and binding on all state authorities and courts.