Egypt's top religous body has called for tough penalties on people who convert to Islam for personal reasons, only to re-convert to their old religion, Quds Press news agency reported on Saturday.
The religious ruling, issued by the fatwa committee at Al Azhar, affects mostly Coptic Christians, who often convert to Islam in order to get a divorce, to remarry, or to marry a Muslim. They then convert back to Christianity once they have achieved the desired result.
According to the fatwa, the practice of re-converting after converting to Islam is "a grave crime that cannot be met with leniency."
It says offenders should be penalized according to Sharia (Islamic law), but did not specify the penalty.
Some scholars say there is no specific punishment for apostasy in Islam, while others claim it is an offense punishable by death.
The fatwa was issued in response to a request from Counselor Moataz Kamel Morsi, Deputy Chairman of the State Council, the government body that oversees lawsuits filed by re-converting Christians, the Egyptian government weekly for religious affairs Akidati said in its last issue.
Copts usually file suit to have new identification cards issued to officially prove their return to Christianity.
There have been 148 re-conversion cases since June 2006, only 32 of which have been granted. The others are pending.
The head of the Fatwa Committee, Sheikh Abdul-Hamid Al-Atrash, said people are never forced to convert to Islam, but once they do, it has to be out of absolute belief in the religion and total conviction of its principles.
Therefore, he said the decision to convert should not be retractable.
The fatwa says offenders will first be given the chance to "repent," and if they insist on leaving Islam, they should be penalized.
In April 2007, Egypt's Administrative Court ruled that people re-converting to Christianity will not be allowed new identification documents, a decision that infuriated Copts.
"This is an inhuman decision that violates the right of citizenship granted to all Egyptians according to Article 1 of the constitution," said Coptic secularist activist Kamal Zakher.
Just a month earlier, the Supreme Administrative Court made an opposite ruling, obliging the Interior Ministry to issue new ID documents for re-converts.
Statistics, both Coptic and Islamic, indicate that there is a remarkable increase in the numbers of Copts converting to Islam.
(Translated from Arabic by Sonia Farid).