a) Hisbah – violating the rights of God
In 1996, the Court of Cassation ruled that the writings of the Muslim scholar and intellectual Nasr Hamed Abu Zayd, a professor in the department of literature at Cairo University, represented an act of apostasy. Upon reviewing his scholarly work for his professorship application in Cairo University in 1995, committee member Abdul Sabbour Shahin, head of Islamic Studies at Cairo University, condemned his work as “blasphemous” and said that his ideas were tantamount to infidelity. With this declaration, a court case started against him, led by Shahin. The case was pursued under a charge of hisba, interfering with the order laid down by God or violating one of the pillars of faith.
In January 1994, a lawyer filed a lawsuit demanding that Abu Zayd and his wife divorce. The court rejected the demand, but the Cairo Court of Appeals accepted the argument. As mentioned above, there is no penalty in the law for declaring someone an apostate; however, having been declared an apostate by the Court, Abu Zayd’s marriage was declared void since Sharia forbids the marriage of a Muslim woman to a non-Muslim man. The marriage between Abu Zayd and his wife Ibtihal Younis, professor of French Literature at Cairo University, was nullified in 1995. Mostafa Mohie. 2010. Nasr Hamed Abu Zaid: The End of a controversial scholarly legacy.
Abu Zayd’s alleged apostasy was not related to any declaration that he made and was simply based on the interpretation of his work. As Abu Zayd refuted the charge of apostasy and the couple wished to remain married, the court ruling raised widespread objections from human rights groups (Berger, 2003). After the separation ruling, the couple settled in the Netherlands where he became professor of Humanism and Islamic Studies at Utrecht University. He died in Cairo in July 2010.
Other intellectuals were also taken to courts based on apostasy cases, including Yousuf Shahin and feminist novelist and doctor Nawal El Saadawi and her husband, novelist Sherif Hetata. In 1998, the Egyptian government amended the law to make it almost impossible for anyone to file a hisba lawsuit.
b) Religious Identity on National ID Cards
Government issued ID cards have also raised debate with regard to issues of religious identity and conversion. One example that attracted considerable attention is that of Mohamed Hijazy who in 2008 converted from Islam to Christianity, but was denied the right to change his religion on his national ID by a court ruling.
In the new electronic ID cards, unlike the paper IDs, the option of choosing “other” for Religion was no longer available, and the only choices were Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. The logic for this is that Muslims do not recognize the Baha’i faith. After years of legal battles between 2004 and 2009, Egyptian authorities started issuing IDs to Baha’is with a dash (-) beside “Religion.” This was based on a ruling by the Supreme Administrative Court in March 2009, and the government started implementing the policy in August of that same year. In the midst of this debate, a number of Islamic scholars and intellectuals supported abolishing “Religion” from national ID cards.
c) High profile religious conversions
Egypt’s statutory law makes no reference to apostasy, and general, the term apostasy (ridda) applies only to Muslims. Yet, there are legal implications for changing religion mainly in the field of personal status. (Link to 2.4) For instance, if the apostate is married, the marriage will be declared void (batil). Other ramifications include excluding the apostate from rights to inheritance and rights to child custody. If the apostate returns to Islam, a new marriage and dowry are required. More so than the legal ramifications, the social and cultural ramifications from conversion sometimes put the issue in the public limelight, raising tensions, public outcry, and sometimes violence.
Wafaa Constantien, agriculture Engineer and wife of Father Joseph Moawad, a priest in Al-Beheira governorate, was reported missing on 27 November, 2004. According to news reports, five days later, Al-Beheira governor informed her family that she converted to Islam and was living with a Muslim family in Cairo. Copts demonstrated in Beheira and Alexandria and the protestors accused local politicians and imams of mosques of leading a campaign to convert Christian women. According to new reports, Pope Shenouda III went to seclusion at a monastery in protest of the way Copts are treated in Egypt. There were demonstrations and violent clashes between the two sides of the conflict and former president Mubarak intervened and ordered the return of Wafaa to the Church for “advice meetings.” According to BBC coverage of the story, the Church says that Wafaa is safe and chose a new life of seclusion, but others, particularly Salafists, claim that she was abducted by the Church. According the BBC reporting, other positions are that Wafaa was kidnapped by Muslims, forced to convert to Islam, and then returned to the Church, which gave her guidance and a new life.
Until the present, the whereabouts of Wafaa Costantine are uncertain. There is an internet war between several groups. For example, in an interview, Pope Shenouda III refused to bring Wafaa Costantine to testify about her religious affiliation. He argues that there is no reason for Wafaa to come in public and speak about her religion. In another internet video, a woman who claims to be a Copt who converted to Islam says that Wafaa Costantine is abducted in a monastery. She calls on Muslims to rescue Wafaa Costantine. Yet another video claims that Wafaa Costantine was killed in Wadt Al-Natroun Monastery. Al-Moheet produced a video series of alleged cases of women who were abducted by the Church after converting to Islam. The clip also says that Wafaa converted to Islam after reading an article by a famous Islamic preacher Zaghloul al-Naggar. In 2008, Naggar told Al-Khamees Newspaper that he gave his most recent book to Wafaa and called her the “Martyr of the Era” (Shaheedat Al-‘asr), killed in the Monastery of Wady Al-Natroun.
In response, the Coptic Church denied the news of her death, saying that she lives a complete Monastic life. The Church said that the reason for not revealing her whereabouts is fear from Muslim and Coptic extremists. The Church source said that she chose the Monastic life and never converted to Islam. The source also said that meeting her requires approval by Pope Shenouda. In September 2008, news came that Pope Shenouda decided to reveal Wafaa Costantine on the Aghaby Coptic satellite TV channel to the public to end rumors. As of this writing, Wafaa Constantine has not made such an appearance.
In a second case in July of 2010, Camilia Shehata Zakher, the wife of a Coptic bishop, disappeared from her home for a few days. Coptic activists speculated she had been kidnapped and forced to convert to Islam, or else had run away and converted of her own free will. Activists held large-scale demonstrations demanding to know what had become of her. The Egyptian authorities claimed that Camilia had left home following a quarrel with her husband. Heads of the Church stated that she had never converted to Islam and was safe.
The Camilia affair evoked fury in Islamist, Salafi, and militant circles. For instance, a member of the Jihadi forum Shumukh Al-Islam urged Bedouins in Sinai to kidnap and kill Christian tourists in retaliation for the alleged kidnapping and incarceration of the Coptic women who converted to Islam. On September 1, 2010, Mauritanian cleric Abu Al-Mundhir Al-Shinqiti issued a fatwa permitting the killing of Egyptian Copts. In its claim of responsibility for the October 31, 2010 attack on a church in Baghdad, Al-Qaeda in Iraq stated that the attack was a response to Camilia's abduction, and that the Coptic Church had 48 hours to free Muslim women incarcerated in Egyptian convents. Minister Muhammad Hamdi Zaqzouq suggested that the demonstrations over the Camilia affair had triggered the deadly attack on the Baghdad church and Al-Qaeda's threats against the Egyptian Christians.