Conversion Confusion

Conversion Confusion Image

From my latest article in Christianity Today, from the April edition and published online on the 18th:

Nadia Mohamed Ali was raised in a Christian home, but when she married Mustafa Mohamed Abdel-Wahab in 1990, she converted to Islam. After his death, she obtained new identity cards—required under Egyptian law—that declared her and her seven children Christians.

Then came the ruling by a criminal court this January: “Egyptian Court Sentences Family to 15 Years for Converting to Christianity” read the Western headlines. Several U.S. religious freedom watchers declared Ali’s sentence a “real disaster” that “underscores the growing problem of religious intolerance” under Egypt’s new, Muslim Brotherhood-backed government. A shocking headline, indeed.

A cut-and-dry case of religious persecution? Not quite.

“They were imprisoned for fraud, not for conversion,” says Mamdouh Nakhla, founder of the Word Center for Human Rights in Cairo. The Coptic lawyer claims the family paid government workers to forge new identity cards. They registered their religion as Christian under Ali’s maiden name so that she could obtain her inheritance.

There is an underground market for such fraud:

“I was introduced to a certain priest—now deceased—who knew a certain Christian who works in the Civil Registry,” says Sheikh Saber (using his Muslim name, not his forged Christian identity). “He takes the bribe and distributes the money around for assistance in covering it up.” In 2003 Saber obtained new IDS, birth certificates, and a marriage license for his family. The cost of this illegal “service” now runs up to $2,500 per person.

The article proceeds to discuss in some depth the role of inter-religious love affairs and marriage in conversion, to which difficult social conditions also contribute. But there are accusations the conversions are not just a product of sociology:

Meanwhile, some Muslims target Coptic Christians for marriage to convert them. “The Coptic people are downtrodden,” says Isaiah Lamei, a priest who provides pastoral care for troubled Copts. “Muslims take advantage and get them to sign papers of conversion [so Copts can] fix their problems.”

Every year, Lamei ministers to 30-40 families in his diocese that have been approached by Muslims offering such “help.” “These problems can be emotional or financial,” he says. He estimates that in his diocese every year, “two or three convert to Islam.”

It’s hard to verify whether Muslims really marry Copts just to draw them into Islam. But it’s also hard to verify the sincerity of Muslim conversions to Christianity.

“We must be cautious,” says Cornelis Hulsman, editor in chief of the Arab West Report. “I have met converts who are sincere, and I’ve met converts who have other interests.”

Nakhla agrees. “Some converts come to me and say they want to marry a Christian. Or they request money, or work, or an apartment,” he says.

From time immemorial mankind has known of the power of religion in both fraud and piety, manipulation and sincerity. It is frustrating to navigate the divide.

Examples of grace and ‘ungrace’ abound, but in service of both mankind and God, toward whom religion is said to direct, the navigation is necessary.

Please click here to read the full article on Christianity Today.

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