Egypt: A Muslim and Coptic Christian tug of war versus civil liberties

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Religious events in Egypt have lately taken a new direction. It is an open secret that the minority Copt Christians in the northern African country feel persecuted. Recently, a Copt bishop’s wife, Kamilia Shehata, it appears, decided to convert to Islam. Shortly afterwards, she changed her mind and left Islam for Christianity. A decision that stirred the ire of the Muslim majority with some calling for her death. But, Kamilia’s story is far from being the first of its kind. In 2004, another woman, Wafaa Costantine, who converted to Islam is said to have been forced to reconvert to Christianity. These cases might be overlooked as banal everyday occurrences in a country that has the Islamic Sharia law taking precedence in parts of its constitution. But whilst death threats may seem justifiable by religious precepts, the question is whether the Egyptian constitution protects all citizens.

The conversion cases involving Kamilia Shehata and Wafaa Constantine follow the heels of another affair involving a man, El Gohary, who converted from Islam some 30 years ago. While the conversions have triggered protests in both the Copt and Muslim communities with some Muslims calling for the deaths of the so-called apostates, the legal protection of Egyptians irrespective of their religion, race or sex remains questionable. Indeed, all three cases, albeit separate, bring a hidden fear of the other to the fore. But above all, they reflect the inability of a lopsided legal system to alley the fears of citizens, and insure that whatever decision they make concerning their personal faiths does not see them falling prey to deadly faith-based anger.

With sentiments running amok, the bishop’s wife publicly announced that she had never changed her religion and that what was said about her becoming Muslim was pure invention by the media. And to protect her from Muslims who took to the streets to express their anger because she converted to Christianity, even if she is originally a Christian, the Copt community whisked Kamilia Shehata to a church where she is being kept under close surveillance. El-Gohary, on the other hand, is ensuring his own safety as he moves from one place to another to cover his tracks. Last year, El-Gohary’s case hit Egyptian headlines when he decided to change his religious affiliation on his documents three decades after converting to Christianity. Unsurprisingly, he has been met with fatwas that clearly indicate contempt of Islam, as some continue to call for his head for a constitutional sin. And after refusing to agree to change his religious affiliation on his legal documents, the court that was charged with the case thus confirms a lopsided judiciary. But at closer look, the Egyptian constitution that is expected to protect all citizens irrespective of religion, race or sex “guarantees freedom of religion unless it contradicts set practices in sharia, or Islamic law” indicates Compass Direct news.

A long fight

But despite these incidents, it does not go without saying that Coptic Christians and Muslims in Egypt have been known for their historic cohabitation. Historians, however, argue that the cohabitation of the two communities has not always been peaceful. Indeed, since the invasion of Egypt by Arab Muslims, the Coptic church, considered as one of the oldest churches in the world, has seen a slow decline of its numbers. And although Copts have since the mid 20th century seen a strong revival of faith in their community, the fear of being submerged by the Muslim population whose numbers — besides being protected by law, given that a Muslim cannot change his or her religion,– have grown in part due to the legality of polygamy among Muslim males. By the early 90’s, only between 13 and 15% of the total Egyptian population of 59 million belonged to the Coptic Christian faith. Today, Copt’s need permits to put up churches as against Muslims who do not, in a country where the world’s first Christian monasteries are believed to have sprung and where the historical importance of Coptic Christians who have religiously preserved the ancient and extinction-prone Egyptian or Coptic language cannot be over-emphasised.

Kamilia Shehata’s affair brings another problem to the fore. Although she is supposed to be free to convert to Islam, reconverting to Christianity, even an iota of second later, would be interpreted by a part of the Muslim community as a case of apostasy. Some Muslims argue that sentencing her to death is right under the law, which guarantees freedom of religion “unless it contradicts Islamic laws”. Her case, they say, contradicts with Islamic laws. As the case gave way to heated arguments, religious people from the church made declarations that were considered by Muslims as an attack against Islam. Anger rose to fever pitch levels in both the Muslim and Christian communities, and writers and religious Muslims asked the government to intervene. But discussions became more agitated and inflammatory. In the heat of the action, the use of Koranic verses by some Copts was considered derogatory by Muslims who organised demonstrations, during which some Muslim writers accused the church of having weapons and of preparing for an insurrection. Meanwhile, some Copts say that their members have recently been killed by Muslims.

Following the ensuing protests after conflicting rumours suggested that Kamilia was being held against her will in a Church on the one hand, and on the other hand that she was being protected, some Egyptians claimed that “Muslims who called for Kamilia’s right to convert to Islam are the same demanding her death for apostasy”. Others argue that “Copts intent on keeping Kamilia Shehata within the confines of the church and blocking her decision to convert to Islam are the same who tirelessly advocate for every Egyptian to be given the right to choose his or her religion”. But what becomes the fate of Kamilia Shehata whose hurried conversion and reconversion might have been a pure fabrication by the media? Whether or not the bishop’s wife converted and reconverted, is it not up to her to decide what her inner faith should be? And is killing people off as prescribed by sharia a viable legal solution? As the question of why the government has allowed such an explosive situation to reach this fever pitch level burns on people’s minds, successfully dealing with this case would mean tackling the sensitive issue of freedom: freedom of worship, freedom of religion, civil liberties. It should not come as a surprise if the non-separation of religion from state sees religious groups claiming legitimacy to assume the powers of state.

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