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CAIRO (Reuters) - Ayman Raafa, an Egyptian born a Christian, was nine months old when the father he never knew converted to Islam.
Now 23, Raafa is fighting to get the Christian faith he professes recognised by the state and registered on his identity documents vital to daily life.
Raafa was raised a Christian but the state says children automatically become Muslim on a father's conversion, a policy that places dozens of people in limbo in a society that does not -- in practice -- recognise conversion away from Islam.
Raafa is one of a group of 40 facing the same identity conundrum and now filing a lawsuit to have their Christian faith recognised, touching a raw spot in relations between Muslims and 10 percent of Egypt's 77 million people who are Christian.
"I graduated last year and I cannot get a job because I do not have a national ID," Raafa said at his lawyer's office, near a well-known Coptic Christian church and hospital in Cairo.
Interior Ministry official Hany Abdel-Latif, like other officials, insisted no such discriminatory rules existed.
But Lawyer Peter El-Naggar said in practice children of converts away from Islam would not get approval for a new ID card stating their Christian faith. He said such applications are usually returned with a request to correct "mistakes".
But he said: "If anyone (has become) a Muslim and goes to the civil authority, it will be changed in 24 hours."
Religious conversions whichever faith is chosen, though not officially banned, are unacceptable to many in Egypt of the abandoned faith. The issue can cause sectarian flare ups.
Relations between Muslims and Christians are usually calm but rows, which can turn violent, do erupt over issues which also include disputes over land used to build churches and inter-faith relationships or marriages.
Highlighting tensions between the two communities, an Egyptian court sentenced two Christian men to death last month for killing the Muslim husband of a female relative who converted to Islam against her family's wishes.
While the Egyptian constitution guarantees freedom of religion, in practice officials are reluctant to acknowledge religions other than Islam, Christianity and Judaism.
In April, some Egyptian villagers attacked the homes of members of the tiny minority Baha'i faith, whose faith originated in Iran. Attackers hurled stones and firebombs.
Hossam Bahgat of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights said Egyptian courts have typically ruled against recognising any conversion from Islam, regardless of circumstances. He said the court was likely to reject Naggar's case too.
"Most courts make a legal mistake in treating the defendants as converts while in fact they are not. They have never been real Muslims their entire life," Bahgat said.
Lawyer Naggar, himself a Christian, said he based the case for his 40 clients on an Islamic decree, or fatwa, issued in 1983 from Dar al-Iftaa, a state body that issues such rulings.
He said the decree said no person becomes a Muslim without declaring the shehadah, the statement of Muslim faith. None of his 40 clients had made this declaration, he said.
Reflecting sensitivies, Naggar said: "I am not talking about anyone who disavows (their religion), that's not the issue."
Dar al-Iftaa spokesman Sheikh Ibrahim Nagm said the religious body had not issued any decree on conversions.
The head of a department on conversion at Al-Azhar, Egypt's other main state-backed Islamic body, Sheikh Mahmoud Gamea, said he was not authorised to speak to the media on the issue.
Al-Azhar's Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs website (www.alazhr.com) says anyone can adopt any faith but should not spread his beliefs "among the people in order to confuse them regarding their moral values".
Anyone doing this and who spreads false beliefs will have opposed the state and stirred sedition among people, it says adding: "Any person who acts in such a manner will be accused of treason and condemned to death."