Egypt mufti reaffirms Muslim freedom of faith choice

Cairo, Egypt - Egypt's top religious advisor, Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, reaffirmed his belief Thursday that Muslims could choose their own religion after the local press carried apparently conflicting statements.

Gomaa maintained that while it would be a "grave sin" for Muslims to commit apostasy and convert to another religion, worldly punishment should only be meted out if their actions endangered society.

In many Muslim societies, there is a long-held view - not necessarily supported by scripture - that the punishment for apostasy is death.

"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 that 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 did not mind Muslims converting to another faith, necessitating a statement from the mufti Tuesday condemning apostasy that appeared to contradict his Washington Post remarks.

"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 many 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 controversy around the mufti's opinion highlights a thorny issue in Egypt where religious militants have tried to kill people believed to be apostates - such as famed writer Naguib Mahfouz - or attempted to divorce them from their wives.

Attempts by Muslims in Egypt to convert to other religions have been hindered by the state's refusal to recognize the change in official documents and in some cases have led to arrests and imprisonment.

"Even though it is not a criminal offense in Egypt, they get detained under emergency laws or are put on trial for contempt of religion if they wish to convert," Hossam Bahgat of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights said.

Bahgat is involved with a case of 12 former Christians who converted to Islam and are now trying to revert. Their case goes before the supreme administrative court in September.