CAIRO, Egypt — Egypt’s highest civil court ruled Saturday that 12 Coptic Christians who had converted to Islam could return to their old faith, ending a yearlong legal battle over the predominantly Muslim state’s tolerance for conversion.
The court overturned an April 2007 ruling by a lower court that forbade the 12 Muslims from returning to Christianity on the grounds that Islamic law would consider that apostasy.
There is no Egyptian law against converting from Islam to Christianity, but in this case tradition had taken precedent. Under a widespread interpretation of Islamic law, converting from Islam is apostasy and punishable by death _ though the state has never ordered or carried out an execution on those grounds.
Judge Mohammed el-Husseini sidestepped the issue by saying the 12 should not be considered apostates since they were born Christian, said a judicial official on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
The judge also ordered the Ministry of Interior to list converts’ former and current religious status on identification cards, which the government body had previously refused to do.
Mamdouh Nakhlah, a lawyer for the 12, described the ruling as “victory for human rights and freedom of religion in Egypt.”
“This will open the door for many others to return to Christianity,” Nakhlah told The Associated Press.
While lower courts have ruled in favor of conversions in the past, Saturday’s ruling was the first in a high court. Government bodies have until now refused to recognize conversions away from Islam.
However, given the judge’s reasoning that the men could convert because were born Christian, the ruling will not necessarily bring change for other Muslims who wish to convert. Most who convert practice their new religion quietly or leave the country.
Egyptian Christians can easily convert to Islam and many do so to obtain a divorce, which is prohibited by the conservative Coptic Church. But many change their minds or say they were converted against their will by a parent and want to become Christians again.
Coptic Christians make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s 76 million population and generally live in peace with the Sunni Muslim majority, though sectarian clashes do occasionally occur.