Woman with ID card. (Story photo by UN Women's Gallery. Cover photo by Omar Robert Hamilton)
Egypt (MNN) ― The headline reads "Egyptian court sentences Christian family to 15 years for converting from Islam."
At first blush, it looks like the beginning of a downhill slide on the practice of religious freedoms for Christians in Egypt. But the actual story is quite different. Todd Nettleton, a spokesman for the Voice of the Martyrs USA, says first off, the story involves ID cards, not apostasy.
He explains, "One of the challenges for Christians there--particularly for Muslim converts--is that they can't get a new ID card. The government will not issue an ID card that says ‘I'm a Christian now. I used to be a Muslim but now my ID card says Christian.'"
But it's a double standard, Nettleton adds. "If you go the other direction, if you're a Christian and you want to become a Muslim and get a Muslim ID card, that's no problem. They will facilitate that and make that happen very quickly."
The problem is that the ID cards are used for everything: opening a bank account, renting an apartment, getting an education, receiving medical care. The listed religious affiliation determines whether the holder is subject to Islamic civil law. ID cards are also required to pass through police checkpoints, and people without them can't move from one place to another.
Nettleton explains the case behind the headlines. "A Christian woman married a Muslim man, and at that time, she changed her religion and converted to Islam. Her ID card was changed and she became a Muslim. Later, her husband died, and she decided to convert back to Christianity. "
That's where the trouble started, says Nettleton. "[The family] couldn't get a new ID card because the government won't issue them, so they basically forged ID cards that said they were Christian. For that crime, they were sentenced to 15 years in prison. Some of the people at the ID agency, who apparently helped them, were sentenced to 5 years in prison."
Alarmed human rights advocates say the nation's Islamist government is bad news for Christians. However, Nettleton says the issue is more complex. "The forgery was originally discovered in 2006, so it's been sitting for a number of years." That raises the question of why it wasn't prosecuted sooner, if the criminal element was so important, and that is where the religious element comes in to play. "It's interesting to see--in light of all the changes in Egypt, in light of the growth of the Muslim Brotherhood--how all those things play into each other. But the actual sentencing is for forging those ID cards, not for the crime of apostasy." Many religious rights advocate groups call Egypt's new Sharia-based constitution "a real disaster in terms of religion freedom."
That could mean similar cases could be seen in the near future, admits Nettleton. "Some of the things that have been said by the government: they talk about wanting to work with the Christian minority, they want them to be protected. But this ID card issue continues to go forward, and there hasn't been a change. "
Then, there's the ethical question, says Nettleton. "Doctoring your ID card is apparently a fairly common thing among Christians, and again, particularly among Muslim converts because there's no way that the government will issue you a new card." In fact, one Christian sued the government in August 2008 to gain the right to change the religion listed on his state-issued ID card from Islam to Christianity. Since that time, little else has changed, Nettleton observes. "So, if you're going to have an ID card that accurately reflects your religion, you have to do it yourself."
ID cards aside, the bright note is what could be coming for the Church. There's no question that religious freedoms for Christians are changing. Nettleton compared the current scenario in Egypt to one in Iran in 1979. "The mullahs took power, Khomeini returned, they said ‘we're going to set up an Islamic country. We're going to run everything according to the Quran.' 30 years later, the church in Iran is one of the fastest-growing churches in the world."
What can you do? "Pray that [Christians] won't be intimidated by things that the government does or says, things that radical Muslims do or say within their society, that they will just continue to serve Christ and go forward in what He's called them to do."