ISTANBUL, Turkey (BP)–An Egyptian court adjourned the Sept. 3 hearing of 13-year-old Coptic twins legally forced to take Islamic education after their estranged father became a Muslim.
The attorney for the two young Christian boys forced the adjournment by skipping the hearing, as the outcome of another case involving converts to Islam seeking “re-conversion” could affect the twins’ case.
The twins’ case highlights inequalities non-Muslims face in Egypt, where one’s religion, printed on all official documents, regulates family laws. Custody of children is automatically given to whichever parent is Muslim, according to many interpretations of sharia (Islamic law) enshrined in the nation’s constitution.
Twins Mario and Andrew Medhat Ramsis unwillingly “became” Muslim after their father converted to Islam and used his legal right to change the religion on their birth certificates.
In February, the boys’ mother discovered that they had been placed in Islamic education classes at school to reflect their father’s choice, though the Muslim man was no longer living with his Christian family since his conversion and remarriage in 2002.
The twins gained notoriety when they refused to take their Islamic religion exam in May, required in order to enter the next grade.
“I am Christian,” each boy wrote on a makeup test in July. They turned in the exam with all of the answers left blank.
Egyptian Education Minister Yusri al-Gamal announced Aug. 25 that he would automatically pass the boys to the next grade, but the twins’ Christian mother said an underlying problem remains.
“I was made to understand that Egyptian law grants a mother custody of her children until they are 15, but I lately discovered that this applies only to Muslim mothers,” Kamilia Lutfi said in an Aug. 27 press conference, according to Coptic-owned weekly Watani.
Andrew and Mario Ramsis’ future hinges on whether the court applies civil law, which allows them to remain with their mother, or certain interpretations of Islamic law, which stipulate that children belong to whichever parent is Muslim, their lawyer Naguib Gabriel said.
Gabriel skipped the hearing on Sept. 3 when the court was expected to rule on the twins’ future, causing the court to adjourn indefinitely. Gabriel said he hopes to delay the final hearing until after Nov. 17, when the fate of 12 converts to Islam seeking “re-conversion” back to Christianity is to be decided.
Gabriel said the Nov. 17 ruling on “re-conversion” would give him a clue about the government’s position toward the Ramsis twins’ case.
“The whole point is whether the court will rule according to Egypt’s civil law -– in which case the converts will be free to revert to their Christianity -– or according to sharia, meaning that ridda [the penalty for apostasy] would be applied,” the lawyer said.
According to many mainstream interpretations of Islamic law in Egypt, the punishment for apostasy is death.
Gabriel has come under increasing pressure from conservative Muslims for his role in defending the twins.
Lawyer Mohammed al-Shishtawi filed a complaint with Egypt’s prosecutor general against Gabriel during the week of Aug. 27, accusing the Christian lawyer of spreading false rumors that harm Egypt’s national unity, inciting sectarian strife and tarnishing Egypt’s image abroad, according to the daily newspaper al-Akhbar.
In a related case, an administrative court postponed a verdict on Sept. 4 for another set of twins -– 14-year-olds Imad and Nancy Halim of the country’s tiny Baha’i community.
After Baha’is lost the right to print their religion on official documents in December 2006, the brother and sister’s father, Raouf Hindi Halim, sued to have the religion field on their identification papers left blank.
As long as the twins refuse to place Islam, Christianity or Judaism on their new electronic documents, they cannot receive basic services such as education and some healthcare, said Hossam Baghat of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.
“Basically, they can’t enroll in public schools, and that is the most important problem,” Baghat told Compass Direct following Tuesday’s hearing.
The lawyer said that the children would soon be faced with other difficulties if they do not obtain birth certificates and other electronic documents by the time they turn 16. “Once they turn 16, it’s a criminal offense not to have one,” Baghat said.
Baghat clarified that Egypt’s Baha’is were neither seeking to completely remove the religion status from documents of all citizens nor to gain official recognition as a minority community.
“They are simply asking to obtain these mandatory basic documents without being forced to choose a religion that they do not believe in,” Baghat said.
Egypt’s Supreme Administrative Court ruled against the group listing its religion on official documents in December 2006, on the premise that Baha’ism is not one of three “heavenly religions” (Islam, Christianity and Judaism) recognized by Islam.
Baha’ism was founded on the teachings of Baha’u’llah, a Persian his followers believed to be God’s prophet to humanity in the 1800s.
Muslims consider Baha’ism heretical for its acceptance of a prophet after Muhammad, whom Muslim’s believe to be God’s final messenger to humanity.
Peter Lamprecht is a writer for Compass Direct News, based in Santa Ana, Calif., which provides reports on Christians worldwide who are persecuted for their faith. Used by permission.