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The 15-year prison sentence given to a woman and her seven children by an Egyptian court for converting to Christianity is a sign of things to come, according to alarmed human rights advocates who say the nation's Islamist government is bad news for Christians in the North African country.
A criminal court in the central Egyptian city of Beni Suef meted out the shocking sentence last week, according to the Arabic-language Egyptian paper Al-Masry Al-Youm. Nadia Mohamed Ali, who was raised a Christian, converted to Islam when she married Mohamed Abdel-Wahhab Mustafa, a Muslim, 23 years ago. He later died, and his widow planned to convert her family back to Christianity in order to obtain an inheritance from her family. She sought the help of others in the registration office to process new identity cards between 2004 and 2006. When the conversion came to light under the new regime, Nadia, her children and even the clerks who processed the identity cards were all sentenced to prison.
Samuel Tadros, a research fellow at Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom, said conversions like Nadia's have been common in the past, but said Egypt's new Sharia-based constitution "is a real disaster in terms of religion freedom.”
"The cases will increase in the future," Tadros said. "It will be much harder for people to return to Christianity."
President Mohamed Morsi, who was elected last June and succeeded the secular reign of Hosni Mubarak, who is now in prison, pushed the new constitution through last year.
Tadros said the constitution limits the practice of Christianity because “religious freedom has to be understood within the boundaries of Sharia.” He added that the constitution prescribes that the highest Sunni authority should be referred to as an interpreter of the religion clause contained in the constitution.
Opponents of the constitution, including Coptic Christians and secular and liberal groups, protested at the time against passage of the document because of the mix of Islamic-based Sharia law and politics. Roughly 10 percent of Egyptians are Coptic Christians.
A government spokeswoman told FoxNews.com she would determine “who is responsible for this and covers this issue in Beni Suef,“ a city of 200,000 located about 75 miles south of Cairo. She did not offer further comment.
The case is the latest example of the increasingly dire plight of the nation's roughly 7 million Christians, say human rights advocates.
"Now that Sharia law has become an integral part of Egypt's new constitution, Christians in that country are at greater risk than ever," said Jordan Sekulow, executive director of the American Center for Law and Justice. "This is another tragic case that underscores the growing problem of religious intolerance in the Muslim world. To impose a prison sentence for a family because of their Christian faith sadly reveals the true agenda of this new government: Egypt has no respect for international law or religious liberty.”
Morsi has been under fire for failing to take action against rising violence inflicted on Egypt’s Christians. In August, the roughly 100-family Christian community in Dahshour was forced to flee after Muslim neighbors launched attacks against the Christians’ homes and property. Morsi said the expulsion and violence was “ blown out of proportion.” Radical Salafi preachers -- who have formed alliances with Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood -- called for Muslims to shun Christians during Christmas.
Sekulow urged U.S. diplomatic intervention in Egypt to promote religious freedom. Morsi is scheduled to meet with President Obama, possibly in March.
”The U.S. State Department must play more of a role in discouraging this kind of persecution," Sekulow said. "The U.S. should not be an idle bystander. The U.S. provides more than $1 billion to Egypt each year. The State Department should speak out forcefully against this kind of religious persecution in Egypt.”
Benjamin Weinthal is a journalist who reports on Christians in the Middle East and is a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow Benjamin on Twitter: @BenWeinthal.