New convert faces old fears

Portrait of Jesus at Coptic Orthodox Church, Cairo

Portrait of Jesus at Coptic Orthodox Church, Cairo

CAIRO — Isolation. Rejection. Death.

For 19-year-old Khadim, a recent convert to Christianity, those fears have become real possibilities.

Since his decision to follow Christ late last year, Khadim (not his real name) has had to monitor himself closely, especially around his Sunni Muslim parents. They’ve noticed changes — like when he challenges them to scrutinize the Quran or says, “Peace be with you” instead of the traditional Muslim “Peace be upon you.”

When he heads off to church meetings and they ask where he’s going, he gives them cryptic answers. And while they found a Bible among his books recently, they have stopped short of confronting him directly about their suspicions. He’s not sure what will happen when they do.

“I am afraid to lose them,” the second-year university student says. “They already told me, ‘If we get to know for sure that you are truly Christian, we will disown you and you will not be one of us.’ And that really made me feel sad.”

In many ways, Khadim maintains the typical trappings of a 19-year-old college student – trendy glasses, hip jeans, the oft-checked mobile phone. For now, the only people who know about his new faith for sure are a handful of Christian friends and four Muslim friends, three of whom he has brought to church with him. Besides that, he has told no one – and for good reason.

“Some families, when they found out their people converted to Christianity, they feel shame and they want to kill them,” says one of Khadim’s Christian friends, who knows several Muslim-background believers, or MBBs.

‘Don’t speak, don’t make noise’

Khadim’s fear of being ostracized (or worse) illustrates the dilemma that Christians across Egypt, the cultural and intellectual hub of Islam, have faced for hundreds of years.

Despite making up 10 to 20 percent of the country’s 88 million people, Christians in Egypt haven’t shared the same freedoms as Muslims – for example, freedom to evangelize non-believers or voice opinions openly without fear of retribution. Because of that fear, no reliable statistics exist on the number MBB’s in Egypt or anywhere. That doesn’t mean conversion is rare.

“It is very rare to have one church in any denomination that doesn’t have Muslim converts who attend its meetings,” says one Egyptian author and speaker who preferred to remain unnamed.

Still, in a 2010 poll, 84 percent of Egyptian Muslims supported executing those who leave the Muslim faith.

“We’ve always been the minority, marginalized — should be seen and not heard, don’t speak, don’t make noise, don’t make mistakes, don’t ask for rights,” one Christian leader says.

Nowhere was that inequality on more painful display than in the recent rash of church burnings – 45 in August 2013 alone. That was right after Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammad Morsi was ousted from power in July 2013. Since then, the country has adopted a new constitution that guarantees freedom of belief and expression.

Hoping for a breakthrough

Though leery of how the new constitution will be enforced, Egyptian Christians are hoping it will improve the general situation of Christians – in particular, the situation facing people like Khadim. Converts to Christ traditionally have faced numerous double standards in nearly every aspect of life – family, education, housing, work, even personal identity.

From birth, Egyptian ID cards list people as Christian, Jewish or Muslim; no other religions are officially recognized by the government. If a person wants to change his official religion from Christianity to Islam later in life, it’s no problem – just pay a quick visit to a government office and you’re done. But switching your ID from Muslim to Christian? Virtually impossible.

That private-public conundrum becomes gets all the messier when it involves the children of MBBs.

Religion classes in schools are segregated: Children from Muslim families go to Islam class, children of Christians to Christian class. But since conversion from Islam is not legally recognized, children of MBBs still must attend Islam class. Even private Christian schools must offer Islam classes to Muslim children, though they can offer special arrangements to children of MBBs.

As for adults like Khadim, they often are ostracized from their families and blacklisted by their families’ mosques. If they have children, the Muslim spouse often refuses to let the Christian spouse see them. If they’re out of work and looking for a job, even Christian business owners find excuses to not hire them. Muslim businesspeople? No chance.

For his part, Khadim is praying that his mother and father will accept Christ at the same time that they fully uncover his new faith. But even if they don’t, he’s prepared himself to face the consequences. He points to a recent car wreck from which he emerged uninjured as proof that God is watching out for him.

“We should be expected to suffer as Jesus did,” Khadim says. “I thought I may be in prison, for instance. I had a higher expectation of suffering. I’m feeling I’m fine, better than others.

“He’s really, really protecting me from anything. The Lord is protecting me from death. He’s protecting me and keeping me from being exposed. And I trust him.”

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