(AFP) – Aug 24, 2008
CAIRO (AFP) — Maher al-Gohari converted to Christianity 30 years ago, but the Muslim-born Egyptian only recently took the decision to make his conversion public.
The 56-year-old former policeman has put applied to the Higher Administrative Court to have his religion changed from "Muslim" to "Christian" on his official ID card.
In Egypt, citizens are required to carry their personal ID cards at all times. Without an ID card, one has no access to basic services.
It's ony the second time this year that such a request has been made in a country where converting to Christianity, while not illegal, is practically impossible.
In January, a court rejected a request by a Christian convert from Islam, Mohammed Higazi, to have his new religion written on his identity card.
The following month however, a court decision authorised 12 converts to Islam who then reverted to Christianity to have their original faith marked on their ID cards.
In Higazi's case, the judge based his decision on Sharia, Islamic law, to prove that one cannot convert to an "older religion".
"Monotheistic religions were sent by God in chronological order... As a result, it is unusual to go from the latest religion to the one that preceded it," the judge said at the time.
The Higher Administrative Court is due to hear on September 2 the case of Maher al-Gohari, whose chosen Christian name is Peter Ethnassios, and who has been in hiding after receiving death threats from his family.
"I was forced to leave my family home where I have lived with my mother and daughter," he told AFP.
"My family has threatened me with death after the press published reports about the legal request I made," he continued.
The rage felt by members of his family, many of whom belong to the police forces, comes from the fact they feel "dishonoured" by his choice and consider him an apostate, a crime in Islam, he said.
"I never insulted Islam. I simply wanted my rights and wanted the state to treat me according to the belief I have chosen," said Gohari, after years of keeping his conversion to himself.
Gohari, graduated from the police academy himself 34 years ago, said he was attracted by Christianity but had trouble being accepted by several churches who refused to baptise him for fear he was an undercover spy for the Egyptian security services.
He was eventually embraced by the Greek Orthodox Church, having since turned to the Coptic Church which boasts the largest Christian community in the Middle East, and whose members account for six to 10 percent of Egypt's 80 million people.
After two failed marriages, Gohari found love the third time round with a Muslim woman who converted to Christianity.
His daughter from a previous marriage as well as his new wife's own two girls, all consider themselves Christian.
His 14-year-old daughter Dina is officially considered a Muslim and has to study the Koran at school.
Gohari first announced his conversion on a television programme.
"My younger brother knew about it but since then he's been waiting for outside my building ... with a gun," he said. "He wants to kill me."
After January's court decision rejecting Higazi's official conversion, Gohari's case will once again test the issue of freedom of religion in Egypt, and even in Muslim countries.
A year ago, Ali Gomaa, Egypt's grand mufti (the government appointed interpreter of Islamic law) decreed that Muslims were free to change their religion despite an opposite trend in the Islamic world, where apostasy is sometimes punished by death.
The fatwa, or religious decree, was never officially implemented.
The presence of a religion field on ID papers has been highly criticised by the New York-based Human Rights Watch as being at the root of discrimination against converts to Christianity and members of religious minorities.
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