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A Christian on the run in Egypt

Maher El Gohary is something his Muslim compatriots can't fathom: a convert to Christianity. He and his daughter live like fugitives, moving frequently to avoid those who'd like to see him dead.

August 23, 2009|Jeffrey Fleishman

ALEXANDRIA, EGYPT — It is a clear day along the coast, but in a bungalow off the beach, Maher El Gohary sits behind a locked door with an open Bible and a crystal cross, suspicious of every voice and sandal scraping past outside.

He and his daughter, Dina, live like refugees, switching apartments every few months, not wanting to get close to neighbors. Gohary's life has been threatened, his dogs have been killed, and it's been suggested that he's insane or possessed by spirits.

He is a man this Muslim nation cannot fathom: a convert to Christianity.

"Islam is the only thing Egyptians are 150% sure of. If you reject Islam, you shake their belief and you are an apostate, an infidel," he says. "I can see in the eyes of Muslims how much my conversion has really hurt them."

Egypt's Coptic Christians, who represent about 10% of the population, have veered from coexistence to violence with the Muslim majority. Bloody clashes recently erupted between Copts and Muslims over land disputes and restrictions on churches.

But converts, such as Gohary, are even more unsettling. Islamists believe that Muslims who forsake their religion should be punished by death.

Gohary wants to be called Peter and refuses to yield. He has filed a lawsuit asking an Egyptian court to officially recognize him as a Copt by changing the denomination on his national ID card from Muslim to Christian. The court ruled against him in June, finding that Gohary's baptism documents from the Coptic Orthodox Church were "legally invalid." The verdict is on appeal.

The case highlights the religious and political complexities that drive modern Egypt. The nation often seems at battle with itself as it attempts to balance the ideals of a democracy with laws steeped in Islamic principles.

Freedom of religion is guaranteed in the constitution, but fatwas, or religious edicts, from clerics subject converts from Islam to persecution and threats. The government treads uneasily, not wanting to anger religious conservatives who stubbornly guard Islam's grip on society.

Converts such as Gohary "should be killed by authorities," says Abdul Aziz Zakareya, a cleric and former professor at Al Azhar University. "Public conversions can lead to very dangerous consequences. The spreading of a phenomenon like this in a Muslim society can cause many unwanted results and tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims."

A tall man in blue shorts and rimless glasses, Gohary, 56, looks as if he is ready to walk the beach. But he and Dina have just moved to the three-room bungalow. Their suitcases are still packed; the only thing hanging on the walls is a clothesline. Listening for noises outside, Gohary speaks of how years earlier the teachings of Jesus, especially parables on forgiveness and loving your enemy, changed his life.

"In Islam, if you steal your hands are cut off, but in Christianity you can be forgiven," he says. "This compassion is what attracted me."

Back then he was a young cadet at the police academy, inspired by a Christian bunkmate who ignored the taunts of Muslim recruits. Gohary, the son of a police general, began reading the Bible. He left the academy and by his mid-20s had drifted away from Islam and was calling himself a Christian. He went through a series of jobs, he says, but was often fired or quit after being harassed when it was discovered he was no longer a Muslim.

He married in 1994, but his wife refused to convert. The couple divorced and Dina, who lives on and off with both parents, was tugged between faiths.

"I've always felt Christian," says Dina, a lithe 15-year-old who doesn't look away when she speaks. "But my mom has taken me to sheiks to convince me of Islam. She made me wear the hijab and go to the mosque against my will. My father and I are in danger. A man with a beard once grabbed me and told me that 'if you and your dad don't stop, I'll kill you both.' "

In 1997, Gohary remarried and later moved to a farm. His second wife converted to Christianity. Her family and friends were angry, and Gohary says the farm was vandalized, his trees cut down, his dogs killed. He sold the property and he and his wife planned to move to Cyprus. Dina's mother and Gohary share custody of their daughter and authorities did not allow her to leave Egypt. Gohary and his wife spent a year in Cyprus but he returned to be with Dina and ensure she was exposed to Christianity.

Gohary says he received a baptismal certificate from the Coptic Orthodox Church in Cyprus in 2005 after having been baptized by an archbishop in Egypt. The court rejected both certificates, questioning the jurisdiction of the documents and saying there was no "clear evidence" of baptism.

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