5. Muslims and Copts exchange recriminations over conversion

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This article deals with the rules of conversion from Christianity to Islam, and vice-versa, in Egypt.
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Coptic Christians have been accusing the officials in the Hall of Conversion to Islam at the Azhar Mosque of easing conversion from Christianity to Islam. They say it is “in defiance of the law that requires the observance of certain steps to make sure that persons seeking conversion to Islam have done it fully at their own will and that there were no pressures or incentives involved”.
A source in the Azhar’s Conversion Hall, who spoke only on customary condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue, told al-Dustūr the standard procedures differ based on nationality.
“Non-Egyptians seeking conversion to Islam are asked for the reasons for their decision in the beginning, and then their creed recitation is accepted after verifying their personal data from their own passports,” the source said.
However, he added, there are other procedures for Egyptian Christians.
“Christians seeking conversion to Islam have to go to the Azhar’s fatwa committee, recite the Muslim creed, obtain a certificate proving his/her conversion, then head to police station to report his conversion. After this, they visit the Security Department, where they are asked whether they made their decision under duress. Conversion seekers then have to go tot the notary to document their switch to Islam,” the source explained.
Mamdūh Nakhlah, chief of the Al-Kalema Center for Human Rights, said the state is complicating procedures when a Muslim wants to convert to Christianity, adding that the Azhar is facilitating steps for persons seeking conversion to Islam.
“Muslims converting to Christianity are being tracked down by security agencies and in some cases are subject to assault,” Nakhlah said.
On the other hand, advising sessions by Coptic clergymen, in coordination with the security agencies, are perhaps the last card sought by both Muslim and Christian institutions in Egypt to prove that there were no pressures involved in the conversion of a Christian person to Islam.
Although some Muslims express reservations over these sessions, many consider it “a fair procedure that would guarantee transparency” now that they have to take place in the presence of a representative from the interior ministry and the family or relatives of the person seeking conversion to Islam.
The interior ministry prohibited advising sessions in November of 2006 in the aftermath of Wafā’ Constantine’s conversion to Islam, as well as the conversion of the wife of Majdī Yūsuf ‘Awād, and the pastor of the Abū al-Matāmīr Church in Beheira governorate, on the grounds that such sessions do not serve the freedom to worship.
Najīb Jibrā’īl, the head of the Egyptian Union for Human Rights Organization, said Egypt lacks respect for religious freedom and the Azhar or the Islamic religious authority should not be blamed for that.
Father Salīb Mattà Sāwīris, deputy chairman of the Supreme Council in the Coptic Christian Church, said religious institutions which grant religious conversion still have the chance to detect the true reasons behind decisions to change to this or that religion.
“About 95% of faith change cases are not the result of genuine beliefs and are mostly due to poor economic conditions,” Father Sāwīris said.
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