Egypt’s Copts protest “disappearance of girls”

A Coptic woman praying during church service. Photo by Joseph Mayton

A Coptic woman praying during church service. Photo by Joseph Mayton

Mohamed Abdel Salam and Joseph Mayton

CAIRO: A number of Egypt Coptic Christian protesters organized a demonstration on Tuesday in front of Parliament to protest what they called “the disappearance and abduction of Coptic girls,” where the families of the missing girls took part in the protest organized by the Association of Victims of Abduction and Enforced Disappearance.

The protesters chanted “Where is the rule of law” and “no for the Islamization of minors”,”MPS, where are the rights of Copts?”

Protesters were expecting MP Mohammed Abu Hamed, a member of the Free Egyptians Party, to form a delegation and make a note and submit it to the parliament’s human rights committee concerning the disappearance of Coptic girls and to call for the rule of law to be applied.

In recent years, Coptic Christian advocacy groups have lambasted the Egyptian authorities for allegedly not forcing the return of Coptic girls to their families after they have allegedly been kidnapped by Muslim men. Police and media have reported scores of missing women over the past few years and many quickly return to their families without much explanation.

Some Coptic families have alleged that the women were kidnapped by Muslim men and forced to undergo conversion to Islam.

But some women’s rights advocates here argue that these are not kidnappings. More often, they see these cases as cries for help by young women in the socially conservative Coptic community, which traces its church to the first century when, by traditional belief, the apostle Mark founded it in Egypt as the first Christian church in history.

In particular, rights activists say the missing young women draw attention to customs among traditional Copts, particularly the lack of access to divorce and the practice of arranged marriages.

“A key reason for the so-called ‘kidnappings’ is that Coptic women have no right to divorce,” Nehad Abul Komsan, head of the Cairo-based Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights and now leading member of the newly re-established National Council of women, told in a previous interview on the subject.

“This means that if their parents tell them they are going to marry their cousin, they have to submit to this and have no choice . . . So they turn to Islam, not because of a spiritual belief in the religion but because it gives them more of an opportunity to choose their life’s path,” she said.

Once returned to their families the women’s absences often remain unexplained and the ongoing controversy has served as flashpoints for long-simmering tensions between the Coptic and Muslim communities.

One of most reported cases is of Irene Hanna Labib, who was allegedly kidnapped from Sohag, some 500 kilometers south of Cairo, in 2009. According to AINA’s reporter, Mary Abbelmassih, the Egyptian police in the area are refusing to go after her abductor. She argues that Labib’s kidnapping is part of the “Islamization business” and part of the way Egypt’s Muslim population are attempting to rid Egypt of Christians.

She quotes Magdy Khalil, a Copt and researcher, who says “abducting and converting Coptic girls to Islam is not only a result of the paranoid and racist incitation against the Copts, it is an organized and pre-planned process by associations and organizations inside Egypt with domestic and Arab funding, as the main role in seducing and luring Coptic girls is carried through cunning, deceit, and enticement, or through force if required.”

But Komsan said her organization has received numerous reports from Coptic women who seek their help in deciding what to do with their lives, especially in a situation when legal divorce is not an option.

She said another major factor spurring young Coptic women to flee their families is the move in the 1990s by Coptic Christian churches to forbid conversion to another Christian sect in which they might have found more freedom.

“It is not necessarily a societal problem; it is more religious issues that face women in our society,” said Abul Komsan.

“Women face leaders that force them to do things that they do not have any desire to do. They do certain things, such as running away from their family and converting to Islam, because it is the only way to get out of their designated role their family has for them.”

Laura, a Coptic woman in her mid-20s living in Alexandria who asked that her surname not be used, agreed. She said that while a few of the kidnappings may be authentic, most of the media reports are based on fabrications made by the families to disguise their daughters’ dissatisfaction.

“We, as Coptic women, have to deal with what our priests tell us and force upon us on a daily basis and often many women just can’t take it any longer so they just leave their families and run off with a Muslim man,” she says.

Because of the alleged kidnappings, more women are coming to her organization for counseling, Abul Komsan says, and many ask for advice about whether to leave or stay.

Muslim leaders have condemned the alleged kidnappings as contrary to Islamic thinking. Al-Azhar’s former grand sheikh Sayyed Al-Tantawi told Al-Ahram a few years ago that “these actions are contrary to Islam and we hope to receive more information concerning alleged kidnappings and would like to have an open dialogue with our Christian brothers and sisters in the country.”

George Ishaq, a Coptic scholar and leading activist and member of the National Coalition for Change, says the country’s minority religious groups need assistance if Egypt is to move forward in creating a more just society based on universal rights, not simply those of the Muslim majority.