By Heba Fahmy
CAIRO: Egypt’s Supreme Administrative Court ruled on Sunday in favor of Christian reconverts, allowing them to be identified as Christians on their national ID cards and birth certificates.
The court stated that the interior ministry must implement the order automatically in similar cases without reverting to the judiciary for individual verdicts, criticizing the ministry for refusing to implement similar verdicts passed previously.
Lawyer Peter El-Naggar said that Copts have been fighting for this verdict in court since 2004, adding that several similar verdicts, issued in 2008, have not been implemented.
The Supreme Administrative Court issued a similar verdict on Feb.12, however, the State Council’s fatwa committee (which is a lesser authority) later issued a contradictory verdict saying that each case must be reviewed individually by the court.
“That is why the Supreme Administrative Court issued another verdict [on Sunday] to overturn the committee’s ruling,” El-Naggar explained.
“The problem with Egypt’s judicial system is that each judge interprets the laws based on biases and personal beliefs,” he said.
El-Naggar was optimistic that this court order would be executed this time, saying that respect for Egypt’s judicial system and its integrity improved following the January 25 Revolution.
However Bishop Filopateer Gamil of the Giza Archbishopric disagreed, saying that he was skeptical that the verdict would be implemented by authorities.
“We’ve always commended our judicial system even before the revolution,” Gamil told Daily News Egypt. “However the problem is with the authorities who refuse to implement the court orders issued in our favor.”
In June, six Christians who had converted to Islam and then back to Christianity filed a complaint to the Prosecutor General against the interior minister and his assistant, the head of the Civil Status Organization, for not implementing a previous court order issued in 2008, allowing them to be identified as Christians on their national ID cards.
El-Naggar said the complaint is currently being investigated.
“Failing to implement a court order without any justifiable reason is a crime,” he said. “If the interior minister and his assistant are proven guilty, they can receive jail time.”
Gamil said there’s a double standard in dealing with conversions in Egypt. “When Christians decide to convert to Islam, they receive support from everyone including the authorities and their ID cards are changed to include their new religion in no time,” he said.
“When it’s the other way round, Christians face obstacles and difficulties that obstruct their freedom of belief and the lifestyle they choose to have,” he added.
Hossam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), echoed Gamil’s concerns, saying that the interior ministry needed to end its “discriminatory policies” against Copts.
El-Naggar filed another complaint to the Prosecutor General last week, demanding the rights of Coptic teenagers, whose fathers converted to Islam, to choose the religion documented on their national ID cards when they turn 16 without a court order.
Children of fathers who convert from Christianity to Islam are automatically registered as Muslims on ID cards upon turning 16.
“Why should Copts be forced to spend two to four years in court to receive a verdict stipulating their basic right to freedom of belief,” he asked. “Not having a national ID card obstructs education opportunities and compromises Copts’ safety,” he added.
El-Naggar said a fatwa from Al-Azhar supports his claim, stating that a person must recite the shehada (basic statement of Islamic faith declaring that there is no God but Allah, and Mohamed is his prophet) in order to be considered a Muslim.
“People who claim that Egypt’s Copts exercise their full freedom of religion and expression are delusional,” Gamil said, adding that Coptic converts have to go through many hardships to receive their simplest right of recognition.
Copts represent 10 percent of Egypt’s population and often complain of discrimination.