ABC News reported that Egypt’s official religious advisor has ruled that Muslims are free to change their faith as it is a matter between an individual and God, in a move which could have far-reaching implications for the country’s Christians.
“The essential question before us is can a person who is Muslim choose a religion other than Islam? The answer is yes, they can,” Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa said in a posting on a Washington Post-Newsweek forum picked up by the Egyptian press.
“The act of abandoning one’s religion is a sin punishable by God on the Day of Judgement. If the case in question is one of merely rejecting faith, then there is no worldly punishment,” he wrote.
In most Muslim countries, Muslims who convert to another religion are considered apostates and can be subject to capital punishment.
Mr Gomaa warned however that if the conversions undermine the “foundations of society” then it must be dealt with by the judicial system, without elaborating.
Attempts by Muslims in Egypt to convert to other religions have been hindered by the state’s refusal to recognise the change in official documents and in some cases have led to arrests and imprisonment.
As Bob points (see comments) Gomaa has denied in a statement that he had said a Muslim can give up his faith without punishment.
“What I actually said is that Islam prohibits a Muslim from changing his religion and that apostasy is a crime, which must be punished,”
The alleged fatwa coincides with an uproar over the case of 12 Egyptians who converted to Islam from Christianity and now want to re-embrace Christianity.
“There is a campaign by secularists to distort the image of Dr Ali Goma’a,” a senior official in Al Azhar told Gulf News.
“He cannot deny punishment in this life for the apostate,” said Mustafa Al Chaka of the Islamic Research Centre.
Whether this was a U-turn in the face of public pressure or the original report was an example of over-eagerness to find agreeable voices (both seem likely) remains to be seen.