Egypt's top religious advisor, Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, said on Thursday that Muslims who abandon their religion can only be punished if their actions subvert the state, clarifying his earlier statements that were carried by the local press.
Any act of apostasy is a "grave sin," Gomaa said, but punishable only by God. Worldly punishment should only be meted out if their actions endangered society, he added.
"Choice means freedom, and freedom includes the freedom to commit grave sins as long as their harm does not extend to others," he said in a statement, echoing remarks he made earlier in a Washington Post-Newsweek forum on Islam.
His original remarks were picked up by the press who interpreted them to mean that the second-highest religious authority in Egypt didn't mind Muslims converting to another faith, necessitating a statement from the mufti Tuesday condemning apostasy.
"Some members of the press and the public understood this statement as a retraction of my position that Islam affords freedom of belief. I have always maintained the legitimacy of this freedom and I continue to do so," he said.
"I discussed the fact that throughout history, the worldly punishment for apostasy in Islam has been applied only to those who, in addition to their apostasy, actively engaged in the subversion of society," he said.
The distinction is important as some clerics in the Muslim world have claimed that death is the automatic punishment for apostasy regardless of whether the individual is a threat to society or not.
The Quran does not directly specify a punishment for apostasy, but several verses say that God will deal with those who renounce their religion once they are judged in the afterlife.
One of the sayings of Prophet Muhammad says a Muslim can be killed for apostasy and breaking with the community. But some scholars say this means the apostate must be a danger to society to deserve punishment, not just a convert.
The issue of conversion is sensitive in Egypt, where the state does not even publish official statistics on the religious breakdown of the country, with Christians estimated to number around 10 percent.
Many in the overwhelmingly Muslim country fear that Christian churches actively seek to convert Muslims, which can upset the political and social balance in the country.
On the other hand, any Christian who wishes to convert to Islam – and vice versa – must apply to the police, then meet with a panel of religious leaders to convince them that the conversion is not forced and to allow them to get answers to questions about their faith.
In one high-profile case, Wafaa Constantine, the wife of a Coptic priest was stopped from converting to Islam after Egyptian authorities handed the matter to Christian officials.
Constantine's case sparked protests among Egypt's Coptic community in December 2004, resulting in the arrests of 30 Christians and injuring more than 100 police and Copts.
While no punishment has been imposed on Muslims who converted to other religions, authorities do not recognize the conversion in official documents, such as identity papers.