By Jeremy Reynalds, Senior Correspondent, ASSIST News Service (firstname.lastname@example.org)
EGYPT (ANS – August 6, 2016) — After more than two and a half years of unlawful detention and abuse at the hands of the Egyptian government, a prominent convert from Islam to Christianity, has issued a public statement declaring that he has returned to Islam.
According to a story by Morning Star News, Mohammed Hegazy, also known by his Christian name, Bishoy Armia Boulous, posted on July 30, 2016, the statement of Islamic faith known as the Shahadah on YouTube (recorded the previous day), and declared the supremacy of its prophet, Muhammad.
Hegazy then said he wouldn’t discuss his return to Islam or speak to the media again.
“I went through an experience with all its good and bad and all that is in it, but it was an experience,” Hegazy said on the video.
He continued, “But praise be to God, who strengthens me in Islam. I am not coming today to talk about specific things, because it was a personal thing between a person and God. But I am coming today because I hurt a lot of people in my family and my friends and caused them a lot of problems.”
Hegazy apologized to family members, who had threatened to kill him after he became a Christian.
Hegazy’s declaring that he wasn’t speaking under duress, but at the same time would no longer speak to media, has aroused concern among human rights activists in Egypt that he may have been coerced or threatened to make the statement.
More likely, Morning Star News said, they fear that after Hegazy’s time in prison, where he was subject to a constant stream of beatings, abuse, humiliation, and held for more than a year and seven months without charge, he simply gave in on the pressure. Rather than face a lifetime of indefinite imprisonment, he chose to make a public act of conversion.
After Hegazy’s initial release in July of this year, attorney Karam Ghobrial asked that Morning Star News not publish the information to protect his safety. Since then, Ghobrial has declined to talk about the case, other than to confirm that he thinks that Hegazy made his confession of faith because he was a terrified and broken man.
He noted Hegazy seemed stilted in the video, and that the statement he gave seemed scripted.
“I personally think that he recorded this video to get out,” he said.
According to Morning Star News, Hegazy, 34, left Islam when he was 16. He almost immediately began to suffer persecution and, in 2002, he was jailed and tortured by the Egyptian internal police, then known as the State Security Investigations services (SSI).
On August 2, 2007, Hegazy filed a lawsuit to force the Ministry of Interior (MOI) to change the religious affiliation listed on his state-mandated national identification card from Muslim to Christian.
Hegazy said in 2007 that he filed the case mainly to protect his soon-to-be-born child from being forced to suffer the same persecution he experienced. In 2008, he lost the case, but never appealed the decision.
In response to the lawsuit, some Islamic leaders in Egypt called for Hegazy’s death, and he suffered through numerous attacks, including having his home set on fire by a group of militant Muslims. Eventually he was forced into hiding.
In 2011, when the “Arab Spring” revolution started in Egypt, Hegazy was able to come out of hiding, convinced that he could enjoy relative anonymity in the chaos that ensued throughout the country.
Hegazy tried to make a living as a freelance journalist during this time. He was also occasionally seen on Christian talks shows broadcast by satellite into Egypt, raising his public profile even higher. For some Christians, especially converts in Egypt, he became a symbol of a sort.
During the summer of 2013, one of the worst waves of anti-Christian attacks in the history of Egypt took place.
Documented at length by numerous journalists but largely denied by the government, the spree of violence, included public kidnappings, assaults, destruction of property and attacks on several church buildings that mobs of militant Muslims burned to the ground. Hegazy went out to document the attacks.
On December 2, 2013 in Minya, 161 miles south of Cairo, Egyptian authorities arrested Hegazy at a café at the Agricultural Association and accused him of working for The Way TV, a Coptic Christian-owned, US-based television channel that broadcasts into Egypt via satellite.
Morning Star News said the government claimed Hegazy was contributing to a “false image” that there was violence against Christians in Egypt.
From the start, human rights activists said the charges against Hegazy were “without merit.” In an official complaint filed with the Egyptian government in March 2013, 18 different human rights groups from Egypt and around the world stated that the charges against Hegazy were “clearly related to his religious conversion.”
“Mr. Hegazy’s detention, treatment, and prosecution blatantly violate Egypt’s recently established constitution, which clearly states that ‘freedom of belief is absolute,’” their complaint read. “His case is also a violation of international agreements to which Egypt has been party for decades.”
Internal documents from the MOI obtained by Morning Star News showed that during the time of his arrest, the ministry was employing at least one informant to follow Hegazy. The documents also showed that the MOI had extensively documented Hegazy’s religious life, including his conversion and even details of his baptism.
The same documents also showed that, unlike Hegazy, three female journalists arrested with him were all questioned and then released.
Sometime during Hegazy’s detention, security agents from the MOI resurrected inactive blasphemy charges filed against him about the time he went into hiding in 2009. Two lawyers supported by a group of Islamists sued Hegazy for allegedly defaming Islam on the grounds that the very act of leaving Islam cast the religion into ill repute.
The lawsuit was never settled and, and according to Ghobrial, passed the Egyptian statute of limitations. A court later struck down the statute of limitations.
On June 18 2014, six months after he was arrested, a judge found Hegazy guilty on three charges stemming from the 2013 arrest, sentenced him to five years in prison and levied a fine of 500 Egyptian pounds (US$70) against him.
Ghobrial immediately filed a request for appeal, and on July 20, 2014, a judge granted the appeal and ordered Hegazy be released on bail.
But in the 24 hours that state prosecutors had to comply with the judge’s order, Homeland Security (HS), the post-revolutionary successor to the SSI, took Hegazy into custody to be interrogated in Cairo for the 2009 lawsuit.
According to Egyptian law, Morning Star News reported, Egypt’s Homeland Security then had to apply for 45 extensions of the detention with a time limit of six months to detain Hegazy in connection with the investigation.
On December 28, 2014, while Hegazy was still in HS custody, an appeals judge upheld the charge of spreading false information meant to “cause harm or damage to the public interest” and sentenced him to a year in prison. He dismissed the two other charges against him.
Because Hegazy had already spent more than a year in prison waiting for his trial to take place, and then his appeal to be heard, he should have been automatically released at the conclusion of the appeal hearing for having spent “time served,” according to his attorney.
But technically, because HS only had him in its custody for five months, officials kept him in detention for another month. On January 21, 2015, however, when the six-month time period expired and Hegazy should have been released, Homeland Security refused to release him and also declined to file charges against him.
Hegazy has spent two years, seven months and 26 days in prison. All but one year of that time, he has been held without charge. During that time, according to his attorney, Hegazy was beaten, had his head shaved by force and suffered through constant harassment to force him to convert back to Islam.
Through his ordeal, Morning Star News reported Ghobrial said, his captors offered him freedom if he would convert back to Islam.
Although the issue of the treatment of converts in Egypt doesn’t receive as much public attention outside of the country, as does the persecution of the Coptic Orthodox minority by the Muslim majority, it is one of the most contentious subjects regarding religious freedom inside the country.
Numerous Christians in Egypt who have left Islam to embrace their new faith have found themselves living in hiding from relatives in fear for their lives.
Although the Egyptian constitution guarantees freedom of expression and belief, security agents from the Ministry of the Interior routinely harass and arrest coverts who are suspected of leaving Islam.
In June, during Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, Al-Azhar Mosque’s Grand Imam Ahmed el-Tayyib, arguably the most respected Islamic scholar in the world, said during a daily TV program that leaving Islam was “treason” and that apostates should be executed.
“The penalty for an open apostate, departing from the community, is well stipulated in Sharia,” Morning Star News reported El-Tayyib said. “An apostate must be pressed upon to repent within a variable period of time or be killed.”
For more information, please visit http://morningstarnews.org.
Photo captions: 1) Screenshot of Mohammed Hegazy who, after becoming a Christian had taken the name Bishoy Armia Boulous, speaking in YouTube video. (Morning Star News). 2) Illustation of Bishoy Armia Boulous’s time in prison. (http://christiannewsjournal.com). 3) Bishoy holding a cross during a protest. 5) Coptic Christians at the site of a burned-out Church in Egypt. 5) Elma and Jeremy Reynalds.
About the writer: Jeremy Reynalds is Senior Correspondent for the ASSIST News Service, a freelance writer and also the founder and CEO of Joy Junction, New Mexico’s largest emergency homeless shelter, www.joyjunction.org. He has a master’s degree in communication from the University of New Mexico, and a Ph.D. in intercultural education from Biola University in Los Angeles. His newest book is “From Destitute to Ph.D.” Additional details about the book are available at www.myhomelessjourney.com. Reynalds lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico with his wife, Elma. For more information contact: Jeremy Reynalds at email@example.com.
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