BBC Arabic reporter Omar Razek describes the obstacles he faced investigating the hidden world of converts – from those in North Africa who feel compelled to keep their new-found Christian faith a secret, to the ‘shock’ US preachers who broadcast to Muslim nations in the hope of winning more Christian converts
It is one of the biggest taboos in the Arab world for a Muslim to renounce his religion and convert to Christianity.
For a journalist, trying to penetrate the circles of converts, live their lives and get access to their stories is like walking through a minefield, especially when his name suggests he is a Muslim.
I lived this dilemma for three months while investigating the issue of conversion from Islam to Christianity for BBC Arabic.
Near impossible task
It was a near impossible mission to convince my interviewees – most of whom were Muslims until a short while ago – that being a Muslim or having a Muslim name does not necessarily make you dogmatic. Everywhere I went, from Egypt to Morocco to the USA, I was met with suspicion.
Maher El-Gohary, an Egyptian convert, lives with his 14-year-old daughter Dina in hiding and they change their home every couple of months. Maher’s case came to light two years ago when he went to court and asked the state to allow him to change the religion in his legal documents from Muslim to Christian.
To file a case against the state, Maher needed a baptism certificate from the Egyptian Orthodox Church. Until recently the church never publicly sided with Muslims who converted to Christianity. Its clergymen used to deal with the few cases of Muslims who embraced Christianity in secret. However, a new generation of clergymen have recently had the courage to support the converts and baptise them according to the rule of the Coptic Church. One of them is Father Matias Naser.
Labelled the ‘rebel priest’, Father Matias divides his activities between two churches in Ezbet El-Nakhl, one of the poorest districts in Cairo. He set a precedent when he issued a baptism certificate to El-Gohary and two other converts. For Father Matias, nothing in Egyptian law prevents preaching or conversion.
The religious tide in the Arab world has covered everything during the last 30 years. When you walk the streets of Cairo, it is impossible to find something that can distinguish a Muslim from a Copt – a native Egyptian Christian.
Sheikh Khalid El-Gindi, a moderate Muslim scholar, runs the Islamic satellite channel Azhari. He admits there are many Muslims who convert to Christianity; but maintains they take only the rotten apples. El-Gindi doesn’t object to public preaching by Muslims and Christians, but doesn’t want it to turn into a war because of the fiery speech used on some Christian channels.
Being a Christian in Morocco is something unusual. The day I arrived in Casablanca, in February 2010, the authorities ordered 13 foreign missionaries to leave the country, accusing them of tempting minors and poor people to renounce Islam and convert to Christianity.
Secrecry and anonymity
Local Christians I was due to interview refrained. The ones who were brave enough to meet me asked for absolute secrecy and anonymity. When I asked ‘Mahdi’, the local church leader, why it is awkward to be a Christian there, he replied: Because Christianity is the religion of the others. The ‘others’ are those who are fair skinned, have green eyes and blond hair.
Morocco is an example of this sticky relationship between Muslims south of the Mediterranean and Christians north of it, where religion had the taste of politics and colonisation for centuries. Western Christians came with the colonial power and left with it.
Moroccan authorities feel worried about the missionary activities that could lead to a new Christian minority in the country. Sheik Abdel-Bari Al-Zamzami, a politician and prominent Islamic scholar in Casablanca, agrees that Moroccans should have the right to practice the religion they choose, but foreigners should not come here to seduce our youth and convert them to Christianity. They are creating a minority to use them politically in the name of human rights.
When I travelled to California, to meet other converts who had fled their countries, I discovered a new brand of preaching. Orange County in southern California is the preaching centre for the Arab world. There are five Arab Christian satellite channels, some of which are financed by donations from Christian Arabs in America and Canada, and others by evangelical groups. Some seek to convert Arab Muslims with aggressive and abusive speech, and others care for spreading Christianity.
The main channel is Al-Hayat, which is run mainly by converts who have denounced Islam and are now trying to ‘save’ Arab Muslims. Nothing is known about Al-Hayat, no address or headquarters, but its transmission covers most of the globe. They refused to contribute to our programme, but we later found out that they are connected to one of the major evangelical groups in USA.
Another channel, Al-Hakika, allowed us access. Run by an Egyptian convert, Ahmad Abaza, it broadcasts programmes criticising Islam, Prophet Mohammed and Muslims.
I uncovered a fierce competition taking place between Christian channels in order to attract viewers and monetary donations. Abaza was collecting thousands of dollars to get his channel to the Middle East, whilst Al-Hayat’s operations cost millions.
I have never seen religion as such a cause of polarisation in the Arab region as it is now. Since we published the news and aired the promo about our documentary we were bombarded by hundreds of emails and telephone calls. Muslims objected because we talked about how people leave Islam and choose Christianity. Christians objected because we mentioned that there are channels and evangelical groups that target Muslims in the region.
The fact of the matter is that these groups, whether we like it or not, do not represent the Christian community in the Middle East, especially in a country like Egypt. Christians in the region, who are under social and political pressures, may tolerate the fiery speech of these channels as a way of point scoring. In the meantime, Muslims use the same speech to prove that external forces are pushing to convert them. Ultimately, reporting religion in the Middle East will upset many and please very few.
Secret Lives: Middle Eastern Taboos was broadcast on BBC World News and BBC World Servic during August. click to listen to the programme
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