Reg. No. 1084047
Editorial supervisor, Dr. Helmy Guirguis
 
Dr. Helmy Guirguis 71, the president of the UK Copts, passed away on the 31 of January, 2015 after a struggle with illness. UK Copts mourns its founder and leader. He is a leader that touched so many by his life and has been fighting for the coptic case till his last breath. The commemoration mass for his 40th day will be held on Sunday 15th of March, 2014 starting 8 AM in Saint Mary and Saint Mark Coptic Orthodox Centre of Birmingham (Lapworth) .For commiserations, please send us an email to info@copts.co.uk

The Vulnerability of Faith: A Case Study of the Disappearances, Forced Marriages, and Forced Conversions of Coptic Women and Girls in Egypt

First Freedom Center

It is a common characteristic of totalitarian regimes to render ineffective any opposition to their authority. Non-state-approved religious groups often fall into this category because of their separate, unique identities and their allegiance to their own, non-state authorities.

Members of these groups may be limited in their ability to move freely within a majority culture by various forms of marginalization and discrimination. Individuals may find themselves excluded from admission to certain universities or professional schools, limited in their access to financial resources, and without significant influence in the decisions of government. Such forms of discrimination leave members of minority groups open to harassment, abuse, and violence perpetrated by the majority culture, with little or no protection from law enforcement or recourse to the courts.


Members of religious minorities are particularly vulnerable during times of political upheaval as rule of law falls victim to civil unrest and violence. This past year, the world has witnessed brutal attacks against Christians throughout the Middle East, without however being able to identify a proportional denunciation of the acts of personal brutality or destruction of property, which Christians have endured. In a November 15, 2012, editorial in the New York Times entitled The World’s Next Genocide, Simon Adams writes, “Growing numbers of foreign Sunni extremist fighters are battling not just to rid Syria of Mr. Assad, but also to cleanse it religiously. As a result, many Syrian Christians now fear that their fate will mirror that of Iraqi Christians, who were largely forced out of Iraq by war and sectarian terrorism. The city of Homs was once home to 80,000 Christians; there are now reportedly fewer than 400.”

Such large-scale acts of religious extremism are directed against groups perceived to represent an ideology which is separate from the one promoted by the governing elite. However, the consequences of these deeply entrenched battles of belief are borne most often by the individual men, women and children living within these communities. Traditionally, women and girls are considered to be particularly vulnerable among marginalized minority groups and are often the first victims of external acts of aggression.

Coptic Women And Girls

“I was walking home from the beauty shop with my mother. It was about 9:00 pm. As we approached my grandfather’s house, I could feel a car approach and slow down as it got nearer to us. The rear door opened and a man reached out to grab me. I resisted and tried to pull myself away. He was pulling me from the inside and my mother was pulling my other arm. She and I were both screaming.”

These are the words of a sixteen-year-old Coptic girl who escaped an attempted abduction on the streets of her home city in Egypt. Having fled the country, she is now living with relatives in the United States, waiting for her asylum petition to be granted. She is not alone. Other young Coptic women are applying for, and obtaining, asylum status throughout the United States. The reason: if they return to Egypt, they face a strong likelihood of being abducted, forcibly married and converted to Islam. They are not sure that they will ever see their families again.

Recent reports from multiple sources indicate that Coptic girls are targets of a growing number of acts of violence; they are particularly vulnerable because of their minority religious status. On October 27, 2011, the European

Parliament issued a statement condemning the violence against the Copts in Egypt and expressing particular concern about “the kidnapping of Coptic Christian girls who have been forced to convert to Islam. In July, 2011 and July, 2012, the U.S. Congress’ Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (the Helsinki Commission) convened two separate hearings on the status of Egyptian Coptic-Christian women, raising the visibility of this issue in the United States.

Apologists for perpetrators vocally maintain that the young Coptic women are complicit in these disappearances and leave home because they have fallen in love with Muslim men and want better lives; the evidence to the contrary is now such as to require attention and action. There is no single, uniform profile of targets for abductions, conversions and marriages. Victims may be as young as 16 – or middle-aged. They come from a wide range of economic backgrounds; they may be single, young mothers, or mature women with children in university who play active roles in their church communities. Young Coptic girls and women are vulnerable as members of a beleaguered religious group and, as such, are the deliberate targets in a war of attrition against the Coptic community in Egypt.

While there has been sporadic reporting of such actions since the mid 1970s, these instances of forced conversions and marriages appear to be increasing, fueled in large part, according to Coptic activists, by the growing number of unpunished aggressions towards the broader Coptic community. Mainstream media are beginning to document the issue. Yasmin El Rashidi, writing in The New York Review of Books on July 14, 2011, cites a parish priest who raised the issue of the disappearances of young Coptic Christian women:

“There are no sizable attacks,” he said, “but each week there are incidents of women having the cross grabbed from their necks as they walk in the streets. In this very neighborhood, people are still being insulted as they leave church; and we still have young girls disappearing, kidnapped, being harassed for what they are wearing or for bearing the cross tattooed on their wrists.”

Definitive numbers are hard to come by, and, nation- wide, sexual crimes and crimes of violence against women in general are egregiously underreported in Egypt. However, Coptic human-rights attorneys in Egypt are reporting an increase in their load. Four attorneys in the capital city of Cairo report a total of 550 cases of abductions, disappearances and forced conversions over the five-year period ending in 2012. The number of actual disappearances is not known, in large part because Copts hesitate to report such crimes, as the abduction of a daughter, sister or wife can be interpreted as dishonor to the family. The Egyptian authorities are in the main unwilling to register or investigate the disappearances, and many Copts perceive that an appeal to the authorities will do little to rescue the young women. Often, a report is filed only if the family is able to pay for an attorney; consequently, many poor families are unable to document a disappearance. Even those families who could afford a lawyer are hesitant to file a report. Some Coptic families maintain that a police report could result in violent retaliation against them. The severity of the problem is uncertain.

The Consequences of Abuse

Coptic women and girls face physical and psychological abuse before and after their forced marriages and conversions. Forms of abuse include enforced isolation, denial of contact with members of their families, and beatings or other instances of domestic violence. Some women return to report instances of rape and sexual abuse.

In the past, some reports have noted that some young women have been allowed to leave deceptive marriages, especially if there were no children. These women returned to their families as Muslims, furnished with a new identity card listing Islam as their religion. It is virtually impossible for these women to regain their Christian identities following conversion because Egyptian law declares it illegal to convert to another religion. This prevents the victim from marrying within the Coptic community, since Copts will not marry outside their faith. Those women who leave their forced marriages and go back to their parents’ homes are often, as a practical matter, unable to return to normal lives. Over the past two years, patterns have shifted for the worse. Now fewer young women ever return at all. Minors and mothers of young children appear increasingly to be targeted and forcibly converted.

A War of Attrition

Disappearances and abductions are organized and planned. Tactics to lure women and girls into relationships follow similar patterns throughout the country. There is also evidence that family members of captors frequently benefit when they are accorded new apartments, furniture, or employment. Disappearances, conversions and marriages result from force, fraud and/ or coercion. These acts of violence fall into three general categories. In the first, young girls are deceived into believing that Muslim men are genuinely interested in them, only to discover that the sole intent was to obtain a conversion to Islam. Families and women/girls are threatened with acts of violence if they go to the police or reveal the identities of their captors. In the second scenario, a Muslim woman will befriend a young Coptic woman or girl and gain her trust in order to entice her into a situation wherein she will be abducted. In some instances, the woman or girl may be drugged. Finally, some women report actual abduction attempts. Inevitably, the women are married off to Muslim men and converted to Islam.

There is some evidence of government complicity in such actions. Prior to 2008, Egyptian law required that

all aspiring converts to Islam attend a counseling session with representatives both of the Islamic community and of their own faith. During this meeting, the implications of conversion to Islam were made clear to the potential convert, notably that, according to Islamic law, it would not be possible to convert back to Christianity. These counseling sessions were suspended in 2008 and the government has not responded to requests that they be reinstated. The elimination of the counseling sessions facilitates an ill-informed conversion process in which a young woman is pressured to make a decision without the benefit of counsel from a member of her own community.

Despite its prevalence, the issue of forced conversions is not generally discussed in the open.The Coptic Christian community in Egypt protests only a few of these forced conversions. Copts understand that the government will do nothing, and that individual protesters risk being punished or even jailed. As a result, this problem has not been widely acknowledged until very recently. In the meantime, young women and girls live lives of constant fear. It is important to note that, under Islamic law, the conversion to Islam of a Christian woman who marries a Muslim man is not necessary: it is presumed.

Lessons learned

Targeted violence against Coptic women and girls is only beginning to rise to the attention of the international community. As attacks against religious groups in the Middle East and beyond continue throughout the world, it will be helpful to note several key lessons which may be of use to other women and girls.

1. Women and girls are particularly vulnerable: Wherever there is civil war and upheaval, religious minority groups will become targets of persecution. In addition to generalized acts of violence, women and girls could become particular targets of attack and abuse. In Egypt, the cessation of religious counseling sessions involving members of a potential convert’s clergy has rendered young women particularly vulnerable to persuasive suitors.

2.The perception that all Coptic women who find themselves in troubled circumstances willfully pursued relationships outside their faith has undermined the severity of the issue. Deception is often used to gain the consent of young women. It is necessary to recognize that the perpetrators of these crimes employ tactics involving deception and fraud in order to gain compliance and the presence of such deceptive practices logically obviates any consent the young woman may have given. Here it is useful to take a page from the literature on recruitment practices related to human trafficking, which documents known groups of “lover boys” and pimps who pretend to offer love and companionship only to exploit their victims once they can control them.
3.The young women and girls who survive an attempted abduction or return from a forced marriage and conversion bear deep psychological and physical scars from the trauma they have experienced. It is important to remember that, in many cases, they have
become victims of elaborate entrapment schemes and cannot return to their own families or religious cultures.

We do not know enough about the unique burdens borne by women and girls belonging to minority religious communities. Offenses against women in traditional cultures are surrounded by silence; nevertheless, the consequences of the silence mean that perpetrators will continue to function with impunity. Already, local attorneys are reporting that fewer women are returning to their families and that that there is some indication that young girls could be trafficked outside of the country. More research is needed to raise the awareness of minority women and girls among the international advocacy community. The international community also needs to recognize that acts of violence against women who are members of religious minority groups are crimes that violate international law and the core principles of compassion and justice common to all of the world’s great faiths.

_________________________

This article was published as part of the 2013 report "Minority Religious Communities At Risk" by the First Freedom Center, http://www.firstfreedom.org/content/2013_Report.pdf

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