Copts alarmed by rise in young female converts to Islam
The video footage is blurred and shaky, but there is no mistaking the identity of the two young girls.
Sitting in what appears to be a busy city square and speaking above a cacophony of car horns, Christine and Nancy Fathy explain to the camera why they have run away from their families.
“I left my parents and came to Cairo to understand more about the true religion,” says 16-year-old Christine, who is sat next to her 14-year-old cousin. “I want to tell my parents to leave me alone.”
Both girls, who disappeared in June, have their hair covered by black hijabs – a common enough sight in an Islamic country like Egypt.
But for two people who until recently had lived their entire lives as Christians, the image – not least for their families – was a shocking one.
“Their parents are horrified,” said Nashat Fathy, one of the girls’ uncles who spoke recently to Al-Masry Al Youm. “They are feeling so sad. The men and women in the family have not stopped crying.”
The story of the two girls’ alleged conversion is just one of an increasing number of cases reported in the wake of Egypt’s 24 January uprising.
Fathy, a 43-year-old construction worker, said Christine and Nancy were taken by a gang on their way to church from Nazlet al-Beid, a village near the city of Minya in Upper Egypt.
In the recent video, which was posted on an Islamist website last week, Christine giggles sheepishly as Nancy insists they left home voluntarily. “We were not kidnapped,” she says.
But according to Fathy, his nieces were taken under duress. “I know they were under the affect of drugs when they were talking,” he said.
Lawyers contacted by Al-Masry Al-Youm say that since the toppling of Hosni Mubarak there has been a spike in the number of families seeking help over alleged kidnappings.
Tales of young Christian women being spirited away from their homes and forced to convert to Islam are nothing new in Egypt. But Cairo-based lawyer Said Fayaz said that the number of alleged cases on his books has doubled since the 25 January uprising. “Families come to me and say their girl has left the family house and there is nothing they can do,” he said.
Fellow lawyer Peter Ramses told a similar story. Before the upheaval began early this year his firm was dealing with about three or four cases every week. “Now we have nearly three or four families every day coming to us to say their girl has been taken,” he said.
The case of Christine and Nancy highlights a growing problem in a country where tensions between Egypt’s Muslims and Copts lie close to the surface.
But according to Ishak Ibrahim, an expert on religious issues from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, many of the cases are not always as they seem.
“Families often say daughters have been kidnapped to make the media and police interested,” said Ibrahim, a Coptic Christian. “Some girls just want to convert to Islam. Many of them want to change their religion because they are in love with a man.”
In a society where rigid notions of religious identity play such a complex role, it is not difficult to understand why many parents are reluctant to come to terms with a family convert – particularly if she is a woman.
“In this country we consider it a social shame if a woman changes her religion,” said Ibrahim. “If a family said to another family, ‘Our daughter chose by her own will to change,’ then the other family would not accept it. But if they say, ‘A Muslim boy kidnapped her,’ it is different – it means that people should help.”
Ramses, the Christian lawyer, agreed that many cases he dealt with were not bona fide kidnappings, but were instead instances of a young Christian girl falling in love with a man. “When I say a girl has been taken, I don’t mean she has been kidnapped,” he said. “I mean she has been taken by the mind.”
He said the collapse in security since the 25 January uprising led to a vacuum in which hard line Islamists were now operating, and accused radical Muslim organizations of paying young men to lure Christian girls away from their families.
It is a view backed up by Roumani Mansour, vice president of the Al-Kalema Human Rights Organization. “It’s because of the growth of fundamentalist Islam. Before the revolution they were scared of the security services,” Mansour said.
Nobody who spoke to Al-Masry Al-Youm had any evidence to support their claims of organized groups being behind the new wave of alleged conversions.
Moreover, although Egyptian conversion laws are weighed heavily in favor of Islam – with Muslim-to-Christian conversion not even legally recognized – it is not possible for any girl to become a government recognized Muslim before the age of 18.
Local media reports last month said that Christine and Nancy Fathy had been found in Cairo and were being held by the authorities, but suggested that they had left home voluntarily – a claim Nashat Fathy said was a lie when he was contacted by Al-Masry Al-Youm.
Nonetheless, the perception that Christian girls are being targeted for conversion by Muslim men has the potential to drive a wedge even further between two communities that are already on a knife-edge.
In early May, clashes between Copts and Muslims in the poor Cairo neighborhood of Imbaba left 15 dead. The clashes erupted amid rumors that a Christian woman who wanted to convert was being held captive inside a church. The flare-up came hot on the heels of earlier post-Mubarak clashes, and many Copts are now disputing a draft legislative bill to regulate church-building – an issue that has often triggered violence in the past.
Coptic columnist Karima Kamal said she was “not very hopeful” about the future. “I’m really worried. We need to go back to the spirit of Tahrir Square. I don’t know if we can succeed or not.” Article source