North Africa, West Asia

Persecution lurks for converts from Islam in Egypt

The story of Bishoy Armeya stands in stark contrast to the Egyptian regime’s public discourse on religious unity, and to the "absolute" freedom of religion guaranteed by the constitution.

Johannes Makar
6 August 2015
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Abanoub Ramsis/Demotix. All rights reserved.

He is one of many in Egypt to face persecution. But having been locked up in a cell commonly used to detain captives awaiting capital punishment, the psychological burden weighing on Bishoy is exceptionally high. He has been maltreated; time and again hit in the face. When he asked to receive communion, his request was denied. So too was his wish to keep a Bible. The story of Bishoy Armeya, the first Egyptian to seek official recognition of conversion to a religion other than Islam, is that of a one-man revolt against state oppression.

Though it was evident from the start that Bishoy stood no chance against Egypt’s monstrous judiciary, in 2007, he petitioned the Egyptian government to change his religion from 'Islam' to 'Christianity' in state records. In Egypt, one’s religious affiliation is registered and noted on ID cards, and while changing it to Islam is permitted, changing it from Islam is regarded as blasphemous and forbidden, leaving many converts and atheists in limbo over their religious identity. Children of converts, too, are forced to take on the label of Muslim, preventing them from attending Christian classes or marrying in church. Bishoy’s case was dealt with in 2008, but Muhammed Husseini, a Cairo court judge, rejected his request, stating “[Mr. Armeya] can believe whatever he wants in his heart, but on paper he can’t convert.”

Yet Bishoy’s venture remains historic. Previously named Mohamed Hegazy, he is the first convert from Islam ever to seek official recognition from the Egyptian authorities. Conversion from Islam has long been a controversial issue deeply entangled with the question over religious freedom in Egypt. While the Egyptian constitution holds that freedom of religion is “absolute,” in practice, discrimination is a lurking threat for non-Muslims, atheists, and Shia.

On 10 January, 21-year-old student Karim El Banna was sentenced to three years in prison for saying on Facebook he was an atheist. A few weeks ago, Al Monitor revealed the story of cleric Al Taher Al Hashimy who is among other Shia to face fierce persecution in recent years. Also in May, four Christians, aged between 15 and 16, were charged with insulting Islam after mocking ISIS in an innocent video clip, signaling the government’s wicked obsession with “preserving Islamic values.”

Bishoy Armeya’s story of persecution starts in 1999 when he embraced Christianity. Later, Bishoy and his wife Christine, also a convert, sought official recognition from the government, but their appeal instead generated death threats and the couple was forced to hide in a Minya village where Christine gave birth to a daughter, Myriam. Today, Christine, Myriam and the couple’s second child Youssef reportedly live in Germany, where the family was offered asylum. Bishoy remained in Egypt where he became a human rights activist and started documenting abuses against Christians in Egypt.

In December 2013, however, only few months after a military-led effort ejected former president Mohamed Morsi, Bishoy was arrested by security forces for reporting on the burning of a church in the Minya village of Bany Obaid—a direct result of Morsi’s ouster. Bishoy was charged with “inciting to sectarian violence,” a charge many say is linked to his conversion to Christianity. Commenting on the issue, Ishaq Ibrahim, a researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, earlier said: “instead of arresting the perpetrators of the violence, they [the security forces] arrested Hegazy.” Today, Bishoy remains imprisoned in Cairo’s notorious Tora Prison. 

The story of Bishoy’s persecution stands in stark contrast to the Egyptian regime’s public discourse. Following his ascent to power, the Egyptian president, Abdel Fatah Al Sisi, has praised Egyptian unity on numerous occasions. On a blitz visit to Cairo’s Abbasiyya Cathedral during this year’s Coptic Christmas Mass, Sisi said: “We truly love each other without discrimination, because this is the Egyptian truth." As the case of Bishoy shows, however, the authorities have done little to materialise such romantic wording.

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