Egyptâ€™s official religious adviser has ruled that Muslims are free to change their faith as it is a matter between an individual and God, in a move which could have far-reaching implications for the countryâ€™s Christians.â€œThe essential question before us is can a person who is Muslim choose a religion other than Islam? The answer is yes, they can,â€ Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa said in a posting on a Washington Post-Newsweek forum picked up by the Egyptian press on Tuesday.
â€œThe act of abandoning oneâ€™s religion is a sin punishable by God on the Day of Judgement. If the case in question is one of merely rejecting faith, then there is no worldly punishment,â€ he wrote.Â In many Muslim societies, those who convert to another religion are considered apostates and can be subject to capital punishment.
Gomaa said that if the conversions undermine the â€œfoundations of societyâ€ then it must be dealt with by the judicial system, without elaborating. Attempts by Muslims in Egypt to convert to other religions have been hindered by the stateâ€™s refusal to recognise the change in official documents and in some cases have led to arrests and imprisonment.
â€œEven though it is not a criminal offence in Egypt, they get detained under emergency laws or are put on trial for contempt of religion if they wish to convert,â€ said Hossam Bahgat of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.
â€œThis [ruling] is significant, especially coming from Gomaa,â€ he added. â€œBetween 2004 and now there have been many court cases involving Christian converts to Islam that want to convert back to Christianity who are unable to do so.â€ Bahgat, who is involved with a case of 12 former Christians who converted to Islam and are now trying to revert, said that Gomaaâ€™s previous fatwas on the issue said apostasy threatened public order.
The current opinion opens the possibility of converting without threatening â€œthe foundations of society.â€ A spokesman for Dar Al Iftaa, the body headed by Gomaa which is responsible for issuing religious opinions, maintained that the muftiâ€™s stance has not changed.
â€œThe posting is consistent with the muftiâ€™s past fatwas,â€ he told AFP. â€œApostasy is only punishable when it is considered akin to subversion.â€ The issue of apostasy is a thorny one in the Islamic world, with one extremist interpretation declaring that apostates should be killed.
â€œThe punishment for apostasy is controversial,â€ judge Ahmed Mekky, the deputy head of Egyptâ€™s supreme court, told AFP. â€œThere is nothing in any Koranic text about this.â€ Instead the texts talked about apostates who were put to death for treachery â€” a political rather than religious crime.
The case of the 12 Copts, whose request to revert was denied by a lower court in April, goes in front of the supreme court in September, and Bahgat said they will use Gomaaâ€™s posting to bolster their case.
â€œGomaa is a civil servant, the top religious adviser of the state, and technically speaking the deputy minister of justice,â€ he said. â€œSo his views on the matter carry authority.â€