By Amira Elmasry (*) – for Coptic Solidarity –
Not a week goes by without social media or Coptic sites reporting on the sudden disappearance of a Christian girl, and often the girl is a minor. Typically, rumors begin to reach her family about her conversion to Islam. This opens several questions about it being a crime that is lacking in transparency, about how security agencies deal with it and their desire to resolve the crisis or not.
1- A crime lacking transparency of information
When a woman disappears, families usually receive messages, either from the disappeared girl herself or from other persons, about the girl’s conversion to Islam. Most families confirm that they quickly become suspicious of an abduction rather than genuine intention to convert. This is usually the immediate feeling, given the absence of any prior indication of the disappeared woman’s intention to convert. At times, calls, messages or even videos are circulated about a disappeared woman, which increases families’ suspicion that she has come under threat.
On July 30, the family of 25-year-old Mariam Samir Fayez, from Al-Arish Governorate, announced her absence after heading to an inter-city bus station in Cairo on her way back home at 7:30 A.M. Mariam was working as a university teaching assistant, and preparing her master’s thesis at the University of Al-Menofeya.
Mariam’s father said that his daughter told him in a telephone call that she was on her way home, but then the call was disrupted. He later went to the police station to report her disappearance, and then he received a call from a person telling him that his daughter had converted to Islam. As he hadn’t seen any particular behavior to explain such a conversion, he suspected that his daughter was not well.
Days later, Mariam appeared in a video wearing a hijab, along with a certain Mahmoud Dawood, who identified himself as a comparative religions researcher, and asserted that she was not kidnapped nor forced to convert to Islam, adding “From now on, I would like to live in peace (..) no one should say that I was kidnapped, as in fact I left home (on July 29), convinced and determined.. I went to the Islamic Research Complex where I declared my conversion to be Muslim.”
After the video went viral on social media, along with a scan of her conversion document, many social media users accused certain groups of seeking to Islamize Coptic girls, and of forcing Mariam to appear in that video. A few days later, she appeared in the St Mary Church, in Mostorod, along with her family. A photo showed the cross on her wrist, asserting that she was still Christian and never converted, as claimed in the video.
The term kidnapping, which is frequently mentioned in connection with the incidents of disappearance of Coptic women, does not only refer to kidnapping in its known sense, but includes coercion, exploitation, and blackmail, as well as targeting, seduction, concealment, lurking, etc.; all of which are terms that fall under the broader expression, and are also used internationally.
Mariam returned and was photographed with her family at church which raises many questions, as it refutes what was previously said about her conversion and may confirm her family’s suspicions about her being forced to do so.
Although the security agencies investigated the reports submitted by Mariam’s family, they did not release any information, publicly or to her family, about what really happened. This opens several doors for questions, which can only be closed with clear information about the background of what happened, and the need to hold the culprit and any others involved accountable.
After Mariam’s, a preacher who identified himself as an Al-Azhar scholar, came out questioning her return, and accusing “the Christians of forcing her to leave Islam,” which, he said, contradicts the rights and freedoms advocated by human rights organizations and associations.
The Egyptian Constitution guarantees freedom of belief for all, for which rights groups strive and work. However, when a person is forced into something that contravenes his/her convictions, the matter must be clarified, and those involved must be held accountable for such coercion. If Mariam returned to the Church with a genuine desire, then whoever prepared and posted the video in which she had appeared to declare her conversion to Islam is a falsifier, and the recording took place under pressure. And vice versa, if she converted to Islam with a genuine desire, then the other party is at fault. The State agencies which families contact and report such cases to, are capable of revealing the truth transparently, when following up on communications and locating the girls. But this does not happen. The matter continues to become a real crisis, even with the reappearance or return of disappeared girls.
There have been many similar cases prior to and after Mariam’s disappearance. For example, on June 20, 2022, Coptic doctor Sally Naseem was absent from her home. Her family initiated appeals on social media, sending out distress messages to demand her return. Her sister reported that Sally had told her family she would be traveling from Aswan to Cairo to attend lectures, which were part of her doctoral thesis. Sally had been in daily contact with her family, until the family received a call from her telling them that she had converted to Islam. The family received no further calls from her, but the sister indicated that there were no problems or issues indicating that Sally wished to change her religion, and that the family still does not know the truth about documents published on social media that purport to prove Sally’s conversion.
Since the beginning of January 2023 until the writing of this report, Coptic Solidarity has reported 12 cases of disappeared girls and women, from various regions and governorates, of which 10 have returned and two are still missing. The duration of the disappearances has ranged from days to three months. It’s important to keep in mind that these are only the cases in which families have been able to report or about which were published. There are certainly other cases in which families are unable to publicize or report for fear of social stigma and repercussions.
Pope Tawadros confirmed the ongoing problem during a during a sermon on Wednesday, 13 April 2022, at the papal headquarters in the Monastery of Saint Anba Bishoy in Wadi Natroun. He noted that this issue requires serious action and requested that the security agencies monitor the accuracy of what is published in the media or on social media regarding the disappearances and abductions. Transparency is critical due to the sensitive nature of these cases and masking the truth affects the cohesion and unity of the nation.
If there is a real targeting of Coptic women, the situation must be clarified and those involved brought to justice. One cannot emphasize enough that everyone should have the right to freely choose whichever religion they want (that is, the right is not limited to a “specific religion,” and without coercion). Freedom of religion in society must be held in tandem with transparency of information and clarity of facts. It is particularly important because the disappearance of Coptic women is not a new phenomenon of recent years, but rather has been ongoing for decades and requires continuous intervention in order for Copts to achieve equal citizenship.
2- How do security agencies deal with the cases?
With the disappearance of a Christian girl, her family usually tries to file a report with the local police station. According to several lawyers and other sources, when the National Security agency (which takes over such “sensitive” cases from the police) moves to reach the girl in question, they ask her whether she left of her own volition. If the answer is “yes,” they return to the family and ask them to stay away from the girl; but if she confirms that she was forced, they brings her back (in most cases..) to her family, after thoroughly interrogating her. But the officials ban them from talking about the ordeal. Although abduction and forced conversion are crimes, the authorities think that suppressing information is best..
We are hence faced with two crimes. The first relates to what the girl was subjected to, whether through coercion or blackmail; and the second is to force the family not to speak out. Indeed, families comply with this order, for fear of being subjected to pursuits or security harassment. Censorship and intimidation extend to those who have no relationship with the family, as happened last year with a lawyer who wrote a number of posts about the kidnapping of Christian girls on his own social media page, only to find himself summoned by security agencies. They accused him of “spreading false information about the security authorities’ failure to return Coptic women to their families, which would destabilize internal (national) stability and incite strife.”
Returning to the question again, why do security agencies not want to announce these facts and reveal the instigators and perpetrators? The simple answer is: Because “they do not want to.” This is an answer that is explained by the methodology of dealing with this issue, which they consider to be merely a security “dossier,” and not one related to citizenship rights. The matter turns into something like a battle between two parties, and in the middle stand the security agencies, wanting to let the battle continue, with implicit messages that they are the only ones capable of containing the situation and protecting the weaker side, and – furthermore – that the alternative may be worse. Here also, they can appease and flirt with extremist movements, such as the Salafists.
Security agencies are supposed to be a neutral party, so that families can turn to confidently, but in many cases, they are anything but neutral. This assertion is made according to many accounts that have not been made public but were shared by lawyers, families, and human rights activists. In several cases, when a minor girl disappeared and was found, security did not return her directly to her family, but rather they waited weeks or even months until she reached the legal maturity age. Then, they inform the family that the girl has been found, but that she is now of a legal age which gives her the right to convert, and that they were not able to return her. In other cases, the agencies try to manipulate the girl and direct her to convert to Islam, because many security officers are convinced that those who do not embrace Islam are misguided. In this way, the security agencies have been transformed from a supposedly neutral party into an influential party that engages – albeit indirectly – in what might be called preaching or proselytizing.
The right to change one’s religion, from the point of view of the security agencies, is a one-direction process: from Christianity (or any other faith) to Islam. Although the Egyptian constitution stipulates that freedom of belief is absolute, the security agencies believe that freedom only means to become followers of the Islamic religion. When a person converts from Islam to Christianity, the matter becomes impossible, starting with social ostracism and the simple inability to obtain a national ID card showing the new religion. This also applies to all civil and governmental transactions. But when a person changes their religion from Christianity to Islam, the conversion is very easy, with immediate official and societal welcoming, and religion on the national ID card gets changed in a matter of few hours. In sum, the procedures for converting from Christianity to Islam are easy and simple, but impossible for those who wish to do the opposite.
Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, stipulates that Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. Furthermore, this right “shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.” The article also states that “No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice.” The term coercion here includes other meanings, such as persuading a person against their will, or threatening to use physical or psychological violence. Despite Egypt’s signing of this International Covenant, the reality reflects the opposite of the texts, a reality that is maintained by the guardianship of Egyptian security agencies.
In 2007, the Administrative Court rejected a lawsuit by 45 Christians who converted to Islam and then returned to Christianity, demanding that the Ministry of Interior be obligated to change the religion field on their ID cards and birth certificates. The ruling sparked great Coptic anger, especially since the procedures for converting from Christianity to Islam are far from facing such obstacles. The matter continued until 2008, until the Supreme Administrative Court finally ruled to oblige the Ministry of Interior to change the official papers of Christians returning to their original religion. This is the “loophole” through which recent converts to Islam have found a way out, back to their original religion. On the other hand, in 2009, Maher El-Gohary announced his desire to convert from Islam and obtained a letter from a priest stating that he had converted to Christianity, but the Ministry of Interior refused to change the religion on his ID card, which prompted him to appeal the decision all the way to the High Administrative Court which, in turn, referred the case to the Supreme Constitutional Court. The case ended up being rejected, based on Article II.
What the security agencies practice can be called indirect proselytizing of the Islamic religion, but also they fight those who attempt to spread Christianity, and file charges of contempt of religion against them. There are dozens of people accused of contempt of Islam. Here the matter becomes quite complicated, as these agencies, which are supposed to be the neutral body responsible for revealing the truth and real information, become an influential decisive body in favor of one party. This confirms the agencies unwillingness to resolve the ongoing crisis and their intent to maintain the current situation.
Returning to the larger issue about the extent of the security agencies transparency in their attempts at resolving cases (from their own point of view), through sessions conducted with the disappeared girls where they are asked about their desire to return to their families or not, we are faced with a new question: Do these sessions differ from the “advice and guidance sessions” that used to take place since 1863 (between the girl, her family and possibly a priest, in the presence of an official representative) but were stopped in 2004? Some see a return to such a procedure as a solution. So, the question now is directed to the security agencies: Why not revive the use of those sessions as a way to ensure that the individual in question acts of their free will, without pressure, blackmail or other factors? Why do the agencies insist on handling the matter on their own?
If the authorities do not want to revive the use of these sessions, why not refer the matter to a neutral party that would verify the seriousness of the desire to convert, and that the person is not under pressure restricting their free will?
Other agencies could be charged with the task, such as the National Council for Women, which is concerned with women’s rights. These are women and girls who often need protection and ensuring that they have not been exposed to harm or abuse, or crimes such as early marriage, if the disappeared person is a minor.
The families of disappeared girls have every right to be reassured that their beloved offspring are not under pressure or blackmail. Clarifying information in such situations becomes a necessity, not a luxury, to protect the girls and their families, and also to serve as deterrent for violators.
The solution must also to guarantee freedom of belief for everyone, not just one party.
(*) Ms. Elmasry is a journalist, researcher.