Tale of 2 converts shows Egypt's sectarian divide

By Hamza Hendawi

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, May 30 2013 9:21 p.m. MDT

ASSIUT, Egypt — In one case, an Egyptian Christian man stabs his wife after she converts to Islam with the support of hard-line Islamists. Then after surrendering to police, he dies in mysterious circumstances, falling from a court building window.

At about the same time, a Muslim woman in another small village converts to Christianity and elopes with a Christian man. A crowd of Muslims attacks the local church in outrage. None of the attackers are prosecuted, but police arrest the Christian man's family.

The case is elevated to a national issue as angry Islamist lawmakers in parliament dedicate a whole committee session to demanding the conversion be stopped and decrying an alleged foreign plot to convert Muslims.

The two recent instances that took place in southern Egypt illustrate the deep sensitivities surrounding conversions in Egypt's conservative society.

But they also demonstrate the discrepancies in how the cases are treated. Christians say politically powerful Islamist hard-liners have stepped up efforts to encourage Christians to embrace Islam. Meanwhile, the rare cases of Muslims turning to Christianity often bring violence against the community. In either case, authorities tend to turn a blind eye.

That has heightened Christians' sense of siege amid the increasing influence of Islamists since the 2011 ouster of autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

Under Mubarak, there were two or three cases a month nationwide of Christians converting to Islam, says Ibram Louiz, an activist who tracks conversions and disappearances of Christian women.

"But now I hear at times up to 15 cases coming from just one province," he said.

He estimated some 500 conversions since Mubarak's fall, 25 percent of them involving underage Christian girls, some as young as 15, who end up being married off to older Muslim men.

Public conversions to Christianity are far rarer. Technically, it is not illegal for a Muslim to become Christian — though under Islamic law it can be punishable by death. But in the handful of cases the past decade, converts were imprisoned for insulting religion, threatening national security or other charges.

President Mohammed Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood, frequently declares that Muslims and Christians are equal before the law, and the Brotherhood is not known to be involved in conversions. But hard-line Islamists known as Salafis, allied to the Brotherhood, prominently defend converts to Islam, and they have a powerful presence in parliament. The Christian minority, about 10 percent of the population, has far less political power.

Romani Farhan Amir, an impoverished Christian day laborer, had little choice but to accept when his wife marched into a police station in the southern city of Assiut, accompanied by members of the hard-line Gamaa Islamiya group, and registered her conversion to Islam in February, his family says. Amir just told police that he did not want her anywhere near their four children, they say.

On May 11, when she showed up at the school of one of their sons, he believed she was trying to snatch the boy — something she denies. He stabbed her in the principal's office, leaving her wounded.

Amir surrendered to police, and while he was at a court complex waiting to be questioned, he fell from a fourth-story window. Police say he committed suicide and deny any foul play.

The provincial security chief acknowledges that, while tragic, Amir's death averted Christian-Muslim violence. If the wife had died "there would have been grave consequences," Abul-Qassim Deif said. "So in the end, that he died and she lived quickly ended the whole affair."

His family is convinced he was killed in retaliation for attacking a Muslim, though they balk at accusing anyone specifically.

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