Friday, November 14, 2003

Egypt: Christians imprisoned - Islamists released.

Date: Friday 14 November 2003
Subj: Egypt: Christians imprisoned - Islamists released.
To: World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty News & Analysis
From: WEA RLC Principal Researcher and Writer, Elizabeth Kendal

The Egyptian government recently released around 1,000 members of the Islamist fundamentalist group Gammaa el-Islamiya, and then moved to detain and torture Christians (apostates; i.e. former Muslims) for changing their Muslim names to Christian names.

A 26 September 2003 Stratfor Global Intelligence Report entitled, "Egypt: Internal Focus and Political Stability", provides a basis for analysis. Stratfor says, "Egypt's ruling party is touting economic and political reform, signalling Cairo's renewed focus on domestic issues.

"Egypt plays a pivotal role in the region. The country has seen slow but steady economic growth in the past decade, with purchasing power parity rising steadily from 1992 to 2002. This has eased internal pressures on the government, despite widespread anti-American and anti-Israeli sentiment and opposition to Cairo's relationship with Washington. Instability in Egypt would resonate throughout an already troubled region, encouraging instability in states such as Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. In a bid to prevent such instability, Cairo is focusing almost all of its attention inward."

According to this Stratfor report, the government's main problems at present are "anti-American and anti-Israeli sentiment and opposition to Cairo's relationship with Washington". This might go some way to explaining the recent prisoner movements in Egypt.


On 20 October, Egyptian police commenced a crackdown on apostates. According to the U.S. Copts Association (26 Oct), "The assault started with the arrest of a husband and wife who secretly converted from Islam to Christianity. Yousef Samuel Makari Suliman, whose former Muslim name was Muhammad Ahmad Imam al-Kurdi and his wife Mariam Girgis Makar formerly Saher El-Sayid Abd al-Kani and their two daughters, Sarah and Marina (formerly Sarah and Shaymaa), had all secretly converted to Christianity and had been living as Christians in hiding."

Compass Direct reports that Yousef and Mariam told the prosecutor "that they did not know it was illegal for them to change their religious identity. Since it was commonly known that Christians in Egypt could convert to Islam and change their identity papers, they assumed that Muslims had the same rights." (Link 1 - has picture.)

The U.S. Copts report (26 Oct) continues, "Following the arrest of Yousef and Mariam, the police arrested individuals who helped them secure new ID cards with new Christian names. Under severe torture; the police were able to extract the names of some 100 other converts who secured new ID cards with Christian names. Immediately, thereafter, 20 more converts were arrested in Alexandria alone.

"Officially the 22 arrested converts are being charged 'with falsifying ID papers,' because they obtained new ID cards with their Christian names."

The most recent report from the Barnabas Fund (12 Nov) states that 17 of those arrested have been released on bail, whilst five (including Mariam) remain in prison. The Barnabas Fund report on the torture inflicted upon the prisoners is harrowing reading. Torture is said to have contributed to the death in custody of one of the Muslims arrested for allegedly 'falsifying' the Christian's ID cards. Mariam is reportedly being held in the same quarters as prostitutes and being told that while they will be released, she, as an apostate, will never be released. She is under great pressure to return to Islam (Link 2).

According to Barnabas Fund the detention of the five remaining in prison comes up for review on 20 November.

The Institute on Religion and Public Policy has expressed outrage that the Egyptian government could abuse religious liberty after signing the "Declaration of the Interparliamentary Conference on Human Rights and Religious Freedom" in Brussels in September. The Declaration has a very strong statement concerning religious freedom.

Only days later, representatives from Cairo participated in the Congress of World and Traditional Religions in Astana, Kazakhstan and signed a concluding declaration which affirmed, among other things, "the right of each human person to freely be convinced, choose, express, and practice his/her religion."

Institute President Joseph K. Grieboski declared, "These actions of the Egyptian government have demonstrated that they have little interest in adhering to documents or principles to which they have signed, in essence making liars of their own people." (Link 3)


On 6 October 2003, Egyptian president Husni Mubarak released nearly 3,000 prisoners under an amnesty to mark the anniversary of the 1973 Yom Kippur war with Israel.

About 1,000 of those set free were members of the Islamist fundamentalist group Gammaa el-Islamiya. Three of the group's leaders, Karam Zohdi, Fou'ad El-Dawalibi and Assem Abdel-Maged, convicted for their involvement in the 6 October 1981 assassination of former President Anwar Sadat, were among those released. Anwar Sadat was assassinated for signing a peace treaty with Israel in 1979. Thus the timing is very significant. These men were amnestied on the anniversary of the assassination for which they were imprisoned - an assassination committed in protest of a peace treaty with Israel.

Gammaa el-Islamiya is known for the terror campaign it has waged against the Egyptian government. Gammaa el-Islamiya's aim had been to establish a fundamentalist Islamic state. They were infamous for killing of tourists (i.e. the Luxor massacre), but they also killed and terrorised Christians, whose very existence conflicted with their ideals of an Islamic state. The Gammaa el-Islamiya militants have allegedly been released because their leaders have declared that they have renounced violence.

However, as Michael Meunier, the Executive Director of the Center for Freedom in the Middle East in Washington, D.C., points out, the leaders of the Gammaa el-Islamiya may have issued statements of repentance, but they have not shown any remorse concerning the killings and terror inflicted upon Copts (Egypt's Christians), Jews, and Westerners during their campaign of violence.

Meunier says, "The discriminatory Islamist ideology that propelled the group's members to violence against the Copts appears to remain ingrained within its new, revised philosophy. We hear no remorse for the brutality demonstrated against the infidels (Christians and Jews) - they are once again sidelined as acceptable victims of violence." (Link 4)

An article in the Cairo weekly Al-Ahram reports that the Gammaa el-Islamiya leaders explain their change of heart as the result of "ijtihad", or independently reasoned interpretation of the Holy Qur'an and Sunna (teachings of Prophet Mohamed)". They are saying that interpretation must be "suited to exigencies, and changing realities".

Al-Ahram reports, "In their books Al-Gama'a's leaders stressed the inevitability of 'sincere Muslims', including Al-Gama'a, reviewing their stance on resistance due to the situation in Iraq, external pressures on Arab governments and the global order of power, all of which threaten 'national autonomy itself'."

Al-Ahram notes that some commentators have suggested that Gammaa el-Islamiya's call for an end to Islamist violence is purely tactical, and some expatriate Al-Gama'a members have suggested that the incarcerated leaders were enticed by a government offer for early release.

In response to such accusations Karam Zohdi says, "While an agreement with Jews can be temporary, until war against them is resumed, in a peace agreement between Muslims there can be no exit." (Link 5)

We can take this to mean that Gammaa el-Islamiya will honour its agreement with the Egyptian government, but an agreement regarding non-violence against Jews or Christians need not be honoured if war is declared against them.

That statement by Gammaa el-Islamiya puts weight behind this statement by Michael Meunier: "The release of more than 1,000 members of the Gamma el-Islamiya and al-Jihad organization, including several top leaders may very well serve the surge of international terrorism. In this context, therefore, it should serve as no surprise that Egypt has granted the Gamma el-Islamiya a new lifeline."

The security situation for Christians and Jews in (and possibly beyond) Egypt looks set to deteriorate.

- Elizabeth Kendal


1) EGYPT: Egypt cracks down against converts to Christianity.

2) Barnabas Fund NEWS

3) Institute Outraged by Egyptian Crackdown on Converts
Washington, DC, 30 October 2003

4) Egypt's Dangerous Game. By Michael Meunier, 11 November 2003

5) A New Page?
By Jailan Halawi, for Al-Ahram