What the Guardian wont’ report: Egypt’s Persecuted Converts

A guest post by Yitzchak Besser

Five hundred years ago, Dina could have been a Marrano hiding her Jewish identity from Spanish inquisitors. Two hundred years ago, Dina could have been a Jewess cowering in the Russian forests. Seventy years ago, Dina could have been in Poland holed up in an attic hoping that no one would hear the floorboards creaking underneath her. Today, Dina is a fifteen-year-old Christian on the run in Cairo, pleading with world dignitaries to save her and her father from the religious persecution that threatens their life.

Dina el-Gohary and her father Maher have been living on borrowed time in Egypt for years. The two are formerly Muslim converts to Christianity. For this act of perceived religious betrayal, their lives have become forfeit. Several fatwas have been put out against them calling for their deaths. They have been threatened, harassed and attacked on numerous occasions. Every few weeks, Gohary and his daughter flee to a new apartment.

Gohary took his case to the courts, asking them to recognize his conversion and change the denomination from Muslim to Christian on his national identity card. They flatly refused his request and threw out his case. When he presented the papers from his church documenting his conversion, the court rejected them, claiming that they were not legally valid.

Although Egypt ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which explicitly mentions the absolute freedom of religion, it is a signatory with a caveat. In 2008, the Cairo Administrative Court noted the reservation stating that the covenant was binding only so long as it does not conflict with Sharia law.

In essence, Egypt grants the freedom of religious belief, but not the freedom of religious practice. As a result of this intolerance, non-Muslim believers face rising levels of religious persecution. Christians, who are largely from the Coptic Church and represent one tenth of Egypt’s population, bear the brunt of this often violent prejudice. In January 2010, three gunmen attacked a church in Upper Egypt, killing seven people and wounding several other bystanders.

Believers in the Baha’i Faith, a religion which Israel supports and which centers itself around the Israeli city of Acre, are also routinely harassed. Egypt does not recognize their religion and so they too face increasingly frequent acts of discrimination.

Yet, it is not these people who truly upset the delicate balance between mosque and state in Egypt. That unfortunate title belongs to formerly Muslim converts, who are viewed by the community as apostates. In the eyes of the Egyptian legal system, a conversion to Islam can be arranged in a week while a conversion away from Islam presents an open and invasive threat to the public.

Converts, like the Goharys, face the most extreme dangers in Egypt. According to Abdul Aziz Zakareya, a cleric and former professor at Al Azhar University, converts “should be killed by authorities. Public conversions can lead to very dangerous consequences. The spreading of a phenomenon like this in a Muslim society can cause many unwanted results and tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims.”

The US State Department knows full well of Christian converts’ plight in Egypt. The 2009 International Religious Freedom Report specifies the Goharys’ case by name. In addition to their case, the report details converts’ allegations of rape and physical abuse as well as the case of a Coptic priest sentenced to five years of hard labor for presiding over a wedding between a Copt and a convert from Islam. The report also points out the severe economic condition of Egypt’s Coptic Christians, which predominantly “rely on pigs and garbage scavenging for their primary income.”

“The Government continued to detain, harass, and deny civil documents, including national identity cards, birth certificates, and marriage licenses, to citizens who convert from Islam to Christianity,” states the report. Members of non-recognized religions, such as the Baha’i Faith, are also ineligible to receive official documents from the government. The report also explains how the government’s failures to prosecute hate crimes or acts of religious persecution have created “a climate of impunity that encourage[s] further assaults.”

Without this official recognition, Gohary cannot be buried as a Christian nor can he prevent the forced marriage of his daughter by her Muslim mother.  Moreover, his passport has been confiscated and he has been banned from leaving the country.

Since their 2009 legal battle, the Goharys have gone into hiding. After numerous threats and calls for Maher’s assassination, they fear for their life. They have met with officials from the US State Department including US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, asking for refugee status and a chance to leave the dangers they face in Egypt. All have promised to help the Goharys. Dina has even sent a letter to President Obama, pleading for help. Nevertheless, they still find themselves in search of a sanctuary with nothing positive on the horizon.

Perhaps it is time for Israel to get involved. When Jews were persecuted throughout history, we had nowhere to turn. We told ourselves that if we were in their shoes, we would do better to help those in need. Now it is time to put that philosophy into practice. Since the State of Israel’s inception, it has consistently sent aid to impoverished areas and desperate people, most recently in the case of the earthquake in Haiti. Israel does not do these actions for the positive PR; it does them because it believes them to be right.

Throughout its history, Israel has helped Jews flee from dangerous areas, to the point where we have now become experts in extraction. Perhaps we should put those skills to use for Maher and Dina’s sake. After all, we too once were harshly persecuted in Egypt for our religious beliefs.

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