Conversion Prosecutions Rare to Muslims

By JASPER MORTIMER
The Associated Press
Monday, March 27, 2006; 7:07 PM

CAIRO, Egypt -- In the Middle East, Jordan is known as a tolerant country, but when a Muslim man converted to Christianity two years ago, a court convicted him of apostasy, took away his right to work and annulled his marriage.

Such prosecutions are rare _ because they're hardly ever needed. The law heavily discourages _ or outright forbids _ conversion by Muslims in most nations in the region. But weighing against it even more heavily are the powerful influences of family and society.

The sensitivity of the issue is highlighted by the case of an Afghan man who faced the death penalty for converting from Islam to Christianity _ creating an outcry in the United States and other nations, which pressured Afghanistan for his release.

After an Afghan court dropped the charges against Abdul Rahman, 41, Muslim clerics threatened to incite people to kill him and hundreds demonstrated against the court decision.

But Afghanistan isn't the only U.S.-allied government where Muslim converts to Christianity are threatened with execution.

Saudi Arabia neither permits conversion from Islam nor allows other religions in the kingdom. There are no churches and missionaries are barred. Regular criticism in U.S. State Department reports on religious freedom have had no effect on Saudi policy.

While Islam accepts Christianity as a fellow monotheistic religion, Islamic Sharia law considers conversion to any religion apostasy and most Muslim scholars agree the punishment is death. Saudi Arabia considers Sharia the law of the land, though there have been no reported cases of executions of converts from Islam in recent memory.

The only other nation in the region which carries the death penalty for apostasy is Sudan. Though no executions have been reported recently, a Sudanese man who allegedly converted was arrested in 2004 and reportedly tortured in custody, according to the State Department.

In Kuwait, a court convicted a Shiite Muslim man who publicly proclaimed his conversion to Christianity, but didn't sentence him since the criminal code did not set a punishment.

Other countries in the region, such as Egypt, do not have laws criminalizing apostasy, but those who do convert can still face prosecution.

In May, an Egyptian man who converted to Christianity was arrested on suspicion of "contempt for religion," a charge that entails a prison sentence of up to five years, said Hossam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. The man, who has not been identified, remains in custody without charge, Bahgat said.

Authorities in Egypt and most other Arab countries will not recognize a conversion from Islam in official documents, such as identity papers, which usually state a person's faith.

Even if a convert is not prosecuted, "the issue is the pressure they are going to face from their families, the religious establishment, their friends and associates," said Fadi al-Qadi, a Middle East spokesman for York-based Human Rights Watch. "It would be overwhelming. They would be really isolated."

There are exceptions. In strongly secular Turkey, a convert can walk into a Demographic Records office, sign a declaration saying they have converted from Islam to Christianity and leave an hour later with a new identity card reflecting the change. While Islam is the religion of 99 percent of Turkey's 71 million people, it has no official religion.

"Turkey is a democratic country and, according to law, you can choose whatever you want," said Soner Tufan, himself a convert from Islam, who runs a Christian radio station, Radio Shema, in the capital, Ankara.

But, he said, "if someone converts, they can suffer some problems from their friends, relatives and neighbors" _ or face difficulties getting a job in the civil service.

In predominantly Jewish Israel, clerics of the three main religions _ Judaism, Islam and Christianity _ frown on members of their flocks converting, but they welcome converts from the other religions. The state has laws against missionary activities among Jews, but it does not punish converts.

In Tunisia and Algeria, the Islamic authorities take a dim view of conversion but the secular governments do not prohibit it and it does occur.

Most often, the issue of conversion reaches the courts in the context of marriage. While Islam accepts a Muslim man marrying a Christian woman _ one of the Prophet Muhammad's wives was Christian _ it does not tolerate a Muslim woman marrying a Christian man.

The November 2004 case of a Jordanian man convicted of apostasy came after his wife _ who remained Muslim _ and her family reported he had converted.

The man, whom the court records did not identify, appealed his conviction to a higher court but lost.

Often Palestinian women seeking a divorce accuse their husbands of converting to prompt a court to nullify the marriage, according to Sheik Taissir Tamimi, the head of the Islamic court in the West Bank and Gaza. Usually, the husband pleads innocent and the case is dismissed, Tamimi said.

In Lebanon, where Christians are estimated at about 35 percent of the population, the state does not forbid a change of religion, but the Muslim authorities do, and they will not perform a wedding between Christian men and Muslim women.

Often Muslim and Christian Lebanese have a civil wedding in Cyprus and then register as married on their return to Lebanon. This became so popular that in the 1990s the Cabinet approved a bill that would have legalized secular marriage in Lebanon.

But the bill was killed by opposition from the religious authorities.

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Associated Press writers Sam F. Ghattas in Beirut, Lebanon; Jamal Halaby and Shafika Mattar in Amman, Jordan; Tarek al-Issawi and Jim Krane in Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Diana Elias in Kuwait City; Sarah el Deeb in Gaza City, Gaza Strip; Hassane Meftahi in Algiers, Algeria, and Bouazza ben Bouazza in Tunis, Tunisia, contributed to this story.

© 2006 The Associated Press