Egypt's top religious advisor attempted Thursday to clear up controversy that had been building up this past week over his reported statement that Muslims are free to convert to other faiths.
Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, one of the most respected Islamic scholars in the world today, re-affirmed that Muslims have the freedom to convert to another religion, but that it would be a "grave sin."
"Choice means freedom, and freedom includes the freedom to commit grave sins as long as their harm does not extend to others," said Gomaa, according to Agence France-Presse.
The controversy began Tuesday when local media picked up a statement Gomaa had made earlier in a Washington Post-Newsweek forum on Islam.
In the forum, Gomaa had wrote in a posting:
"The essential question before us is 'Can a person who is Muslim choose a religion other than Islam?' The answer is 'Yes, they can.'"
He further noted that "[t]he act of abandoning one's religion is a sin punishable by God on the Day of Judgment," emphasizing that faith is a matter between an individual and God. "If the case in question is one of merely rejecting faith, then there is no worldly punishment."
Following the frenzy over his statement, different media outlets had given conflicting stories on the grand mufti's opinion on conversions by Muslims.
Some local press interpreted his remark to mean he did not mind if Muslims converted to another faith, which led Gomaa to make another statement Tuesday that condemned apostasy and appeared to contradict his Washington Post statement.
"Some members of the press and the public understood this statement as a retraction of my position that Islam affords freedom of belief," Gomaa said of his statement Tuesday, according to AFP.
"I have always maintained the legitimacy of this freedom and I continue to do so," he said.
"I discussed the fact that throughout history, the worldly punishment for apostasy in Islam has been applied only to those who, in addition to their apostasy, actively engaged in the subversion of society," the grand mufti added.
Gomaa basically clarified that Muslims have the freedom to convert to other faiths, but that it is considered a sin to renounce Islam. He also noted that apostates should not be given worldly punishment so long as they do not endanger society.
Gomaa's statement carries significance, especially coming from someone so well-respected in the Islamic world, because it counters the teachings of Muslim extremist clerics who call for the death of apostates whether they threaten society or not.
Moreover, his statement might help the upcoming case of 12 former Coptic Christians who converted to Islam and now want to revert legally back to Christianity. The Copts' case will be heard in Egypt's Supreme Court in September.