WASHINGTON – A mother and her seven children in Egypt have been sentenced to 15 years in prison for trying to convert to Christianity.
And, on the Jan. 25 weekend marking the second anniversary of the country’s revolution, more than 50 people were killed in a new wave of unrest.
The 15-year sentence was given to Nadia Mohamed Ali and her seven children for trying to change the religion on their ID documents from Islam to Christianity, Fox News reported. The sentence was handed down in the Egyptian city of Beni Suef in early January.
Ali, who was raised a Christian, converted to Islam 23 years ago when she married a Muslim man, Mohamed Abdel-Wahhab Mustafa. After Mustafa died, Ali tried to convert her family to Christianity to receive an inheritance, according to Fox News.
Identification documents in Egypt list a person’s religion, and reports indicate the government makes it difficult for Muslims to change their IDs to Christianity.
“[Egyptians who] change from Islam to Christianity, or come back to Christianity, face difficulties,” Ishak Ibrahim, a religion expert with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, told FoxNews.com.
Case in point is Mohamed Hegazy, a Muslim who became a Christian in 1998 after a period of seeking God. World Watch Monitor, a news service focusing on the persecuted church, reported that after enduring torture and arrests by Egypt’s security services, Hegazy filed a lawsuit in 2007 to change his ID from Muslim to Christian so his children would not receive Muslim religious education. But in January 2008, a court ruled that Muslims are forbidden from changing their documents from Islam to another religion, and the latest reports indicate Hegazy is in hiding under threat of death.
Such dangers lead those wanting to change their documents to do so illegally, according to Britain’s Sky News, which reported that after Ali’s family converted back to Christianity in 2004, they tried to get their documents changed. Police arrested one of her children in 2006, and he confessed the IDs had been forged.
Charges were not pursued under the regime of President Hosni Mubarak, Fox News reported, but when the case came to light under the administration of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, the sentences were meted out. The clerks who helped the family change their IDs received five years in prison as well.
“We are following reports of a number of Egyptians sentenced to imprisonment for forging identity documents to alter their religious identity from Muslim to Christian,” U.S. State Department spokesperson Ariel Vaagen wrote, according to Fox News. “We are deeply concerned with Egyptian laws that infringe on an individual’s universal right to choose his or her religion and call upon the Egyptian government to promote and protect universal freedoms, including freedom of religion, for all its citizens.”
Sharia (Islamic law) is an integral part of Egypt’s new constitution, which Samuel Tadros, a research fellow at Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, told Fox News is a “disaster” for freedom of religion.
“The cases will increase in the future,” Tadros told Fox. “It will be much harder for people to return to Christianity.”
On Sunday, Morsi declared a 30-day state of emergency in three provinces to stem a wave of violence in which more than 50 people were killed over the weekend, the Associated Press (AP) reported.
In the city of Port Said, 44 people were killed during two days of clashes over the convictions and death sentences of 21 people involved in a deadly soccer riot on Feb. 1, 2012, according to the AP. Another 11 people died on Friday during rallies against Morsi and his Islamist allies.
Tens of thousands of protesters had filled Cairo’s Tahrir Square to mark the second anniversary of the Jan. 25 uprising that toppled former President Hosni Mubarak, according to the AP.
“Our revolution is continuing. We reject the domination of any party over this state. We say no to the Brotherhood state,” Hamdeen Sabahy, a leftist leader, told Reuters.
Egypt’s fractured society is pitting the country’s Islamists against more secular Egyptians, who fear Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood are moving to monopolize power. Reuters reported that the parties that organized the Friday protests listed demands, including an overhaul of the constitution. Critics of the document contend it gives the president too much power, has insufficient human rights protections, and fails to curb the dominant power of the military over Egypt.
“We are not here to celebrate but to force those in power to submit to the will of the people. Egypt now must never be like Egypt during Mubarak’s rule,” activist Mohamed Fahmy told Reuters.
The Muslim Brotherhood, which decided not to mobilize its supporters during the protests, claims it is being depicted unfairly by its rivals, according to Reuters. It argues that quickly enacting the constitution was necessary to establish stability and that opponents are not respecting the will of the people, who elected Islamists to power.
Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center, told Reuters the latest round of unrest was unlikely to change anything.
“It’s definitely tense on the ground, but so far there hasn’t been anything out of the ordinary or anything that really threatens to fundamentally alter the political situation,” Hamid said.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Compiled by John Evans, a writer based in Houston.)