Egypt's highest court agreed Monday to hear the appeal of Coptic Christians who converted to Islam but now want to legally revert back to Christianity.
The case of the 12 former Copts seeking to once again become Christians was taken up by the high court despite a lower court ruling against the converts. The lower court in April had argued that recognizing such a case would be considered apostasy under Sharia (Islamic law) law.
"The decision by the Supreme Administrative Court to consider the case of Egyptian converts to Islam wanting to return to their Church is very positive," said Ramsis Al Naggar, the lawyer for the plantiffs, according to the Middle East Times.
"It proves there is still a window of freedom in Egypt," said Naggar, who has filed 400 similar lawsuits.
The minority Coptic population in Egypt is known, although not well publicized, to be oppressed by the country's Muslim majority. They are isolated from mainstream society and are often forced to convert to Islam through rape, marriage, change of legal name and violence, according to Cameel Halim, chairman of the Coptic Assembly of America.
Egypt's Coptic oppression has for too long been "hidden under the table" and "no one knows what is going on," said Halim at a recent gathering of persecuted religious minorities in Washington, D.C.
In May, a mob of Muslims in Egypt attacked Christians after being stirred up by a sermon and distributed leaflets that accused Christians of planning to build a church without permission. Some 27 Christian homes and shops were set on fire and ten Coptic Christians were injured in a village south of Cairo, according to Agence France-Presse.
"It's a recurring problem," commented Sameh Fawzi, an expert on Coptic affairs, according to Los Angeles Times. "Most sectarian conflicts that erupted in the past were due to fights over the construction of churches."
Egypt does not allow churches to be constructed without a presidential decree, while mosques can be constructed almost unrestricted in Egypt.
In 2006, Muslim-Christian sectarian clashes in Alexandria left dozens wounded and killed. Moreover, a man said to be mentally ill entered into Coptic churches and started to attack believers with a knife. The incident killed one man and wounded up to 16 other people.
"This has been going on for hundreds of years and the Christians have been struggling, trying to keep a peaceful and moderate co-habitation with the Muslims – our brothers," said Ehab Shafik of the National American Coptic Assembly last year during a White House protest in response to Egypt's sectarian violence in May.
"We love the Muslims and we have not had any problems, but our rights are taken away and we cannot worship freely," he added.
There are an estimated 10 million Copts in Egypt, or the equivalent of about 10 percent of the population. The Coptic population, which are the Orthodox Christians of Egypt, are the largest group of Christians in the Middle East.
"It is a step in the right direction," Hossam Bahgat, director of the rights group Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, said of the recent high court decision. "We are hopeful and optimistic that the court will uphold the principles of non-discrimination and religious freedom," he added.
The appeal is scheduled to be heard Sept. 1.