Christians Arrested in Egyptian Crackdown on Converts

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:14 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - At least 22 Egyptian Christians have been arrested over the last week, many of them converts from Islam to Christianity, in a crackdown on apostates and those who support them, a British watchdog group has said.

While it is not technically illegal for Muslims to convert to Christianity in Egypt, converts are often sought out and arrested on other charges in an attempt to force them to return to Islam, said Paul Cook, advocacy manager of the Barnabas Fund, which helps Christians in countries where they are a minority, and particularly, where they are persecuted.

According to the British-based charity, a new wave of arrests began on October 21 with the arrests of two converts: Yusuf Samuel Makari Suliman and his wife, Mariam Girgis Makar, two former Muslims.

"The Christians have been taken from Alexandria to police stations in Cairo and are being beaten, interrogated and tortured," the Barnabas Fund said in a statement.

The group has also received information that Mariam and other women may have been raped in an attempt to persuade them to renounce their Christian faith and return to Islam, said Cook in a telephone interview.

As of last Thursday, 22 Christians had been arrested, but the number has grown since then, Cook said.

"It's hard to get an accurate number," said Cook, who added that the Barnabas Fund information had been confirmed by five independent sources in Egypt.

"Other converts are hiding in people's homes, afraid [that they'll be arrested next]," said Cook.

A team of Christian and Muslim lawyers is defending those who have been arrested, Cook said. They are being charged with falsifying their identity papers.

According to Egyptian law, it is illegal for Muslim converts to Christianity (or any Muslim) to change their names from a Muslim name or marry non-Muslims.

That makes it impossible, for instance, for a woman who has converted to Christianity to marry a Christian man. Her children are therefore considered Muslims, and when she dies, she will be buried in a Muslim cemetery, thereby effectively curtailing any Christian activity and keeping her and her offspring in the Muslim fold.

"There are also a myriad of other matters making it virtually impossible for Christians to follow their faith safely and authentically whilst they retain a Muslim name and ID," said the Barnabas Fund.

In order to get around the law, some Christians apply for new government documents such as a passport using an assumed Christian name, which is not recognized by the state, but if they are caught, they are charged with falsifying documents as a way of punishing them for their apostasy.

However, it is not illegal for Christians to convert to Islam in Egypt, and changes from a Christian name to a Muslim name are performed legally in such cases within 24 hours.

According to Islamic shari'a law, anyone who leaves Islam should be executed, his marriage should be annulled and his children and property confiscated. Saudi Arabia, Iran and Sudan require the death penalty for leaving Islam.

"Whilst Egypt has no law against apostasy from Islam, in practice, converts are actively punished by the police in this 90-percent Muslim country and often face imprisonment, beatings and torture on various pretexts in order to try to force them to return to Islam," the Barnabas Fund said.

Egyptian Supreme Court Justice Said Al-Ashmawi explained that while conversion away from Islam is not specifically illegal, it is understood not to be acceptable.

"It is understood that converting from another faith to Islam is approved, while converting from Islam to another religion is prevented," Al-Ashmawi was quoted as saying in a 1996 report by Middle East Concern.

"It is not mentioned that it is not allowed, but it is understood; there are technical problems that make it impossible. I hold that Egyptian law is actually Islamic law," Al-Ashmawi said.

Double life

According to Dr. 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," Guirguis said in a telephone interview.

Usually, only the priests know about their true identity, but the people who surround them in the congregation do not even know, Guirguis said. The converts would also be unable to befriend other congregants unless they too are converts living a secret life, he noted.

If they are discovered and arrested, they are tortured and forced to reveal the identities of other converts, who converted them and which people have helped them, Guirguis added.

According to Guirguis, the process of making Egypt with its 10 to 12 million Christians, most of whom are Copts, into a more Islamic nation has been going on for decades.

"[Late Egyptian] President Anwar Sadat...started the process of Islamization of the country, with the end result that he himself was assassinated [by Islamic fundamentalists in 1981]," Guirguis said.

Today, through a continuation of teaching that ideology, young Muslims have grown up in that "non-tolerant culture" believing they are the only ones in the country, Guirguis charged.

Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states have also influenced Egypt by injecting hundreds of millions of dollars into the country to strengthen the Islamic culture, Guirguis added.

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