Conversion to Islam goes political in Egypt

The conversion of Egyptian Copts to other religions usually is done quietly, and in most cases it means conversion to another Western Christian church, notably Roman Catholic or Anglican / Episcopal. In such cases the Coptic Pope of Alexandria shows his unhappiness, but the issue rarely turns political.

Among the Copts, conversion to Islam has always gone on, but it is usually through marriage and at a much lower rate than the movement to other Christian churches. In the Cairo suburb of Shoubrah were I was born, there are as many as one million Coptic Christians, or about 30 per cent — almost triple the national population average of 10 per cent. I never witnessed or heard a single case of conversation to Islam in the last 50 years.

Muslims here in Egypt take the Quranic instruction, “you will have your faith and we will have ours” very much to heart and therefore do not proselytize Islam to their Coptic neighbours. They consider the Copts as “real Christians” and respect the Coptic Church as the oldest in Christendom.

But while I was visiting Egypt just last week, a Coptic woman walked into a media frenzy when the news broke that she had converted to Islam.

The matter quickly turned political when violence erupted between Muslims and Copts and 13 Coptic students were arrested for attacking local police.

Political aides to Egypt’s president Hosni Mubarak, the country’s top prosecutor, the Grand Sheikh of Al Azhar, and the Coptic Pope Shenouda III were all involved.

And there were even rumours that George W. Bush was drawn into the matter -” but in my view that is far-fetched.

But why all the fuss over a sole woman convert?

It was all because Wafaa Costantine from the small country village of Beheira, 150 kilometers north of Cairo, was a Coptic priest’s wife.

As she tried to formally register her conversion to Islam at the local police station — which is a standard procedure — rumours spread among Egypt’s seven million Copts that she had been kidnapped by the police and forced to convert.

Meanwhile, another kind of rumour spread among Egyptian Muslims; it was being said that Mrs. Costantine, a 47-year-old civil servant and mother of three, had fallen in love with a Muslim colleague at work and that the two were planning to marry after her conversion and divorce.

Both rumours have been categorically denied by all the principals involved.

Following his own investigation, last week Egyptian Prosecutor-General Maher Abdel-Wahed announced to the nation that Mrs. Costantine had initially gone to police saying she wanted to change her religion of her own free will.

But the resulting political pressure on her became so intense that, two weeks after her initial conversion to Islam, she declared she was “born Christian and would live and die Christian.”

This declaration came after the police had “handed over” Mrs. Costantine to the Wadi Al-Natroun desert Coptic monastery, where she could discuss faith issues with spiritual directors of the church.

Local Coptic church leaders then said that the woman had been under psychological pressure as a result of a recent marital crisis and that she sought conversion to Islam as her only way out, since Coptic Christianity does not allow couples to divorce except in cases of adultery or conversion.

Egyptian Muslims, however, complained that their government does not respect religious rights and charged that the situation would have been very different if a Muslim woman — especially an Imam’s wife — tried to convert to Christianity. Critics have charged that in such a case the Egyptian government would not dare to “convince” the woman to convert back to Islam.

A prominent Coptic academic told the Cairo press that the Egyptian government has actually given his church a right that it does not have, and also violated civil law by allowing an Egyptian citizen to be detained involuntarily inside a monastery.
A leading Muslim lawyer agreed saying that "the state’s handing Costantine over to the church, and her captivity inside the monastery, are both illegal, and violate freedom of creed as enshrined in human rights laws."

Amid all this furor, one fact remains.

The controversy created by the attempted conversion to Islam of one woman, whether or not a priest’s wife, shows how fragile relations between Egyptian Muslims and Copts have become.

Many Egyptian observers — both Coptic and Muslim — urged faith leaders to educate the public, and above all government officials, about respecting the religious rights and freedoms of all faiths.

And everyone is left wondering about the ultimate fate of a priest’s wife named Wafaa. In Arabic, that means "the loyal one."