An unprecedented legal battle involving a Christian convert has sparked national uproar in Egypt with the convert and people involved in the case facing multiple death threats, raids on their homes, and intense interrogation by the government.
Christian convert Mohammed Ahmed Hegazy is in hiding – sleeping in different places each night – after Muslims mounted death threats against him for suing Egypt for refusing to accept his application to officially change his religion from Islam to Christianity on his identification papers.
His first lawyer – Mamdouh Nakhla, director of the Al Kalema Center for Human Rights – withdrew from the case Tuesday after claiming his decision was base on “national unity” and alleging that Hegazy did not give him the documents that proved Egyptian authorities rejected his application.
“If you add the state of alert in Egyptian society, and to protect the feelings of our Muslim brothers, and to protect our national unity…we decided to abandon this case,” said Nakhla, according to Reuters.
However, some reports have claimed that the lawyer was threatened by Egypt’s security police who said he would be killed if he continued the case.
During a press conference at Nakhla’s office, one of the staff members at Al Kalema Center reportedly shouted, “He is being threatened, he is doing this under pressure,” according to Compass Direct News.
Furthermore, the Christian convert’s new lawyer – Dr. Adel Fawzy Faltas, president of the Middle East Christian Association (MECA) in Egypt – is said to be detained by the Egyptian police after holding a high-profile online chat with Hegazy, according to Compass.
Faltas, 61, was arrested from his Cairo home Wednesday afternoon. His home was reportedly raided Thursday by officials who confiscated two laptops and a desktop computer.
"They cut up the mattresses, tore everything up and took all the books as well," said Nader Fawzy, head of the Canada-based MECA, who has close contact with various leaders of MECA’s Egyptian branch, according to Compass.
Fawzy said that Faltas had been blindfolded with his hands tied behind his back when he was arrested.
The rest of the members of the Christian rights group is said to be in hiding.
A third lawyer, Ramses Raouf el-Nagar, has now taken up Hegazy’s case.
In addition to the death threats and arrests, several Muslim clerics have countered Hegazy’s lawsuit by filing their own petition against his first lawyer on charges of causing sectarian strife.
The case has garnered national attention with some Egyptian newspapers giving it front page coverage, according to Reuters.
When asked why he has chosen to fight for legal Christian status, Hegazy explained that his wife was four months pregnant and he wanted his son to be raised openly as a Christian.
“My wife is pregnant. I want my son to be born within my own religion and for the fact that he is Christian to be written on official papers,” said Hegazy, according to Agence France-Presse.
In Egypt and in many Middle Eastern countries, the parents’ legal religious status determines their children’s official religion on their identification papers.
The couple understands that only if their child is officially Christian will he be able to enroll in Christian religious classes at school, wed in a church, and attend church services openly without harassment.
Hegazy, who was jailed and tortured in 2002 when police discovered his conversion, noted that he had converted four years ago to Christianity but never sought to change his status legally because of all the obstacles.
Other Egyptian Muslims who have converted to Christianity are said to do so quietly and there has not been known of a case of someone seeking official recognition, according to AFP.
Hegazy’s case has put the media spotlight on the inequality of religious conversion in Egypt. Although it is close to impossible for Muslims to legally change their status to Christianity, Christians are free to convert to Islam.
Between 2000-2006, some 7,000 Christians legally became Muslims, according to a statement last year by Egypt’s top Muslim cleric, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Sheikh Muhammad Sayed Tantawi.
In September, the country will confront another convert case when Egypt’s Supreme Court hears the case of 12 former Coptic Christians who want to legally revert back to Christianity.