For the first time ever, Egypt's Coptic Orthodox Church issued a certificate of conversion to a believer with a Muslim background last week. The move is seen as an unheard of in a country where it is practically impossible for Muslims to legally change their religious status.
Maher al-Gohari requested and was granted the Egyptian Coptic church's first conversion certificate. He turned the certificate into an Egyptian court on Saturday, according to Agence France-Presse. Al-Gohari is seeking to officially change his religion on legal documents and his ID card.
In Egypt, a person's ID card states his religion and determines what activity a person and his children can participate in. For instance, if a person is a practicing Christian but legally a Muslim, his children are automatically also legally Muslims under Egyptian law. Therefore, the children cannot attend Christian religious classes in school, wed in a church, or attend church services openly.
To date, no convert from Islam has successfully won a court case to legally change his religious status.
In 2007, an Egyptian Muslim who converted to Christianity name Muhammad Ahmed Hegazy became the first convert to sue Egypt for rejecting his application to officially change his religion.
As a result of his lawsuit, Hegazy and his wife, who was pregnant at the time, had to go into hiding because of death threats they were receiving from Muslim extremists. He also went through several lawyers because of the death threats, forcing them to withdraw from the case.
Hegazy's case made headlines across Egypt and drew international attention to Egypt's unfair legal system and its lack of respect for religious freedom.
But despite Hegazy's determination, the Egyptian court ruled in February 2008 that he cannot legally change his religious status.
The Cairo judge said according to shariah law, or Islamic law, Islam is the final and most complete religion and therefore Muslims already practice full freedom of religion and cannot convert to an older belief (Christianity or Judaism).
Hegazy had risked his and his wife's lives to change their religious status so that his then unborn child could be openly raised in a Christian environment.
In Egypt, religious conversion to Christianity is not illegal, but they have been functionally impossible. Yet any legal conversion to Islam is done with great ease.
For al-Gohari's case, the Egyptian court had requested he provide a conversion certificate from an Egyptian church - only the second time a court has made such a request. Although the church issued a certificate of conversion to al-Gohari, it has declined to comment on the case, likely due to the sensitive nature of conversions in Egypt, according to AFP.
Egypt has the largest Christian community in the Middle East, numbering about 8 million or 10 percent of Egypt's population. Despite their size, the Christian community lives under many social, economic, and educational inequalities. The vast majority of Egypt's population is Sunni Muslim.