Mohamed Hegazy is freed, declares return to Islam

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 he has returned to Islam, reports Morning Star News.

Mohammed Hegazy, also known by his Christian name, Bishoy Armia Hegazy, posted on Saturday (July 30) 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. “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 apologised to family members, who had threatened to kill him after he became a Christian.

The fact that Hegazy declared 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, 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 succumbed to the pressure and, rather than face a lifetime of indefinite imprisonment, chose to make a public act of conversion.

After Hegazy’s initial release in July, 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 Hagazy made his confession of faith because he was a terrified and broken man.

He noted Hegazy seemed stilted in he video, and that the statement he gave seemed scripted.

“I personally think that he recorded this video to get out,” he said.

Hegazy was released on bail on July 23 after spending more than three weeks being transferred from prison to prison across Egypt, under the direct orders of the Ministry of Interior (MOI), according to Ghobrial, Hegazy’s attorney during his imprisonment. It was unclear if he still faces charges.

On June 26 a judge ordered that Hegazy be released from prison, and the next day, after posting a bond of 5,000 Egyptian pounds (US$565), he should have been released. But instead, in what his lawyer said in June was part of an ongoing multi-year effort to break Hegazy’s will and force him to convert back to Islam, the government’s internal security police detained him without charge June 29 at a local jail in Ain Shams. It was the second time the MOI denied Hegazy his freedom in defiance of a standing court order for his release.

Since June 29, security agents from the MOI transferred Hegazy to at least four different prisons or police holding cells no less than six times with no hope of ever being released, and without giving any reason why he was being detained, his attorney said. With each transfer, Hegazy became increasingly suicidal. The last time Ghobrial saw Hegazy, the prisoner was at a breaking point, the attorney said.

“It broke my heart to see him crying at the police station today,” Ghobrial said after a rare visit to see Hegazy. “I couldn’t do anything to help him. He’s lost hope in life and is thinking about suicide.”

After being transported to the jail in the Ain Shams police station, authorities started giving Hegazy the first in what would prove to be a long list of conditions in order for him to be released, according to Ghobrial. The terms seemed designed to keep Hegazy in police custody; they were impossible to complete, or, if successfully completed, would have exposed him to attacks from Muslims still enraged about his leaving Islam.

Among the terms the MOI said Hegazy had to meet before he could be released was providing a valid residential address to security police. In effect, this meant he had to rent an apartment or find some other place to live while detained in jail with no access to any form of communication.

It was a task that would have been difficult to achieve anywhere, but in a country where more than 80 percent of the population thinks the national government should execute apostates from Islam, according to Pew Research Center figures, it was impossible. An alternate condition officials set, and the one that Hegazy finally met, was to return to live with his parents, who were the first people to turn him in to the government for leaving Islam and who have made no secret about their desire to see him dead for converting.

“I feel like [releasing him to his parents] would be the end of Hegazy,” Ghobrial told Morning Star News in July. “Because Port Said is a small city, and it isn’t only his parents who live there but his whole extended family. Port Said is where he converted to Christianity. He will be easy to recognize and easy to kill. I don’t understand the police’s insistence that he live with his parents. It’s basically like saying, ‘Here he is – kill him,’ and then handing him over on a silver platter.”

Hegazy, 34, left Islam when he was 16. He began to suffer persecution almost immediately, and in 2002 he was jailed and tortured by the Egyptian internal police, then known as the State Security Investigations services (SSI).

On Aug. 2, 2007, Hegazy filed a lawsuit to force the Ministry of Interior 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’ 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 through out the country. Hegazy tried to make a living as a freelance journalist during this time. He could also occasionally be 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. The spree of violence, documented at length by numerous journalists but largely denied by the government, 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 Dec. 2, 2013 in Minya, 260 kilometers (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, U.S.-based television channel that broadcasts into Egypt via satellite. The government claimed that 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’ 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’ 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, HS 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 Dec. 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 Jan. 21, 2015, however, when the six-month time period expired and Hegazy should have been released, HS refused to release him and also declined to file charges against him.

In all, 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. All through his ordeal, 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,” El-Tayyib said. “An apostate must be pressed upon to repent within a variable period of time or be killed.”