CAIRO: Sheikh Fawzy El Zefzaf, former head of Al Azhar s Religions Dialogue Committee, denied circulating reports that he signed an accord that would grant missionary groups the freedom to work in Egypt. The news has been interpreted as indirectly allowing Muslims to convert to other religions.
In a brief interview with The Daily Star Egypt, El Zefzaf stressed that the document he signed merely concerned an individual s freedom to choose his or her faith. He added that allowing missionary work in Egypt wasn t included in the accords he signed.
According to reports, a delegation of Ambassadors for Peace, a U.S.-based NGO, visited Al-Azhar last year and acquired a signature on the organization s Religious Rights Resolution.
The resolution is available on the Ambassadors for Peace official Web site, which also shows individual signatories. The Web site doesn t show whether Al-Azhar had signed its resolution or just agreed with its general mission. In fact, the Web site doesn t mention the Islamic organization at all.
The organization states that its resolution, which is available in English, Arabic and Spanish, is motivated by the existence of religious hate crimes.
The resolution covers a number of issues regarding the use of violence in connection to religion, respecting other people s faiths and the availability of individuals access to their holy books.
Articles five through eight of the resolution are primarily behind the current controversy.
We believe that each religion lived out by individuals or an organization has the right to peacefully present its view of theology, people, and the hereafter, reads the resolution. All national and religious entities have the right to proclaim their religious beliefs and to debate them in any open forum without violence; we recognize the individual s right to believe in the religion of their choice; men and women everywhere have the God-given right to convert or not to convert to any religion without harm from any other religion or national politic.
El Zefzaf notes that the news report stating that he had signed an agreement permitting individuals to leave Islam is nothing but sensationalism.
Last Sunday, independent daily Al-Masry Al-Youm reported that Al-Azhar had signed an accord in April 2005 that allows preaching of different religions, as long as violence or coercion is not used.
Consequently, members of parliament (MP) requested the prime minister s response to the news; Al-Azhar reports directly to the prime minister. MP Hamdy Hassan, who filed the request, said he didn t know anything about this accord.
Hassan said he read the news in the newspaper and wanted to know the content of the accord, whether it directly permits missionary work and consequently supports leaving Islam, or whether it was the newspaper’s way to sell more copies.
Leaving Islam is frowned upon. According to a 1979 fatwa, issued by Sheikh Gad El Haq Aly Gad El Haq and listed on the official Web site of Dar El Iftaa, leaving Islam (referred to as redda) is penalized by death. But not all scholars agree.
Sheikh Saber Taalab, former member of the Islamic Research Center, says that the standard procedure for those leaving Islam is to provide them with advice. He says scholars differ on the period for which advice should be offered to converts, stating that it ranges from three months to as long as the person lives.
According to human rights reports, proselytizing is legal in Egypt. The government, however, discourages non-Muslim proselytizers. Penal codes pertaining to contempt of religions or inciting sectarian strife are often applied in these cases.