CAIRO: Coptic women are increasingly fearful of being kidnapped and forced to convert to Islam. It is becoming more apparent that women are being taken forcefully from their families and held against their will by Muslim men in order to be forced into conversion and, while most of the women are released soon after their abduction, some, including Theresa Ghattass Kamal, who disappeared for two months, are held indefinitely.
Kamal was last seen in El-Saff, a village located 30 miles south of Cairo, in January. She was able to briefly contact her aunt to tell her she had not yet succumbed to her unknown captors’ demands that she become a Muslim. Her situation has underscored international and domestic concerns over the kidnapping of Coptic girls throughout Egypt.
Kamal was kidnapped from Wadi El-Natroun, when she went back to the town in order to apply for her identification card. According to her brother, she was supposed to be back in Cairo on Jan. 5. After Kamal failed to show up on the Jan. 6, her brother informed the authorities, which refused to file a missing persons report. Kamal’s trail led back to Cairo and the Cairo area of Shubra.
The family was upset with the government’s response, which, according to a priest in Shubra who asked not to be named, dragged their feet.
“It is a difficult and often dangerous area of Cairo, especially for women, he says. “I only hope the government will wake up to the needs of all its citizens and help this woman out.
Kamal’s kidnapping has revisited the tension between the two major religious groups in Egypt. Coptic clergy and lay members have claimed the police are not doing enough to help Coptic women who have been forced into conversion. The family and clergy alike have repeated that the police refused to meet with members of Kamal’s family and dismissed the allegations that she was missing.
Her disappearance has marked another period in Coptic-Muslim relations in the country, feeding into the animosities between the two groups. Copts are upset at the lax response from police forces throughout the country.
However, not everyone is as convinced by the large number of ‘kidnappings’. Sally Bishai, a Coptic commentator and editor-in-chief of The American Daily, based in the United States, believes that some of the kidnappings are not actual abductions.
The disappearances of these girls cannot and should not be chalked up to kidnappings every time it happens, Bishai says. “While kidnapping does occur at times, it also happens that some girls are seduced into willingly running away from home (religion may or may not play into this), and other girls run away from home because of unhappiness, or to escape the restrictiveness of Egyptian family life.
Bishai believes that often families claim their daughter has been kidnapped, in order to avoid admitting that their daughter has simply run away. “Unfortunately, many people use the spectre of kidnapping as a crutch, rather than admitting to having a rebellious daughter, Bishai believes. “So, while it can and does occur, declaring a girl ‘kidnapped’ can sometimes be a form of ‘saving face’. The government can only do so much to prevent such actions. While Bishai believes the government must help Coptic women in coming to terms as a minority, there is not much they can actually do to stop people from kidnapping others.
There is nothing that the government can actually do to stop kidnappings, she says. “They can t go out through the streets saying, ‘Hey, you! Kidnap a girl and we re going to take you in!’ Even if they did, they could never enforce it.
But that doesn’t mean that the government is not at fault for many of the kidnappings, including Kamal’s. “As it is, I ve heard that the police in some of the villages are in on some kidnappings, Bishai says. “Or, at least, they don t sound the alarm when they notice something awry. You could say they sometimes look the other way.
Kamal’s abduction has stirred the Coptic community into demanding more inclusion into society. In the past few years, Coptic and Muslim communities have been caught up in a power struggle throughout Egypt, most notably this past fall in Alexandria, which resulted in the deaths of protestors and the arrest of hundreds.
The families of victims of abductions are worried that their daughters will not be returned to them in a timely manner. Kamal’s family is demanding that the government intervene in their daughter’s case. Kamal’s father converted to Islam over a decade ago, leading many wonder whether her abduction is truly a kidnapping.
According to Kamal’s family, she is being held in a Shubra apartment in Cairo, although her exact whereabouts are unknown. To date, Al-Azhar has no record of her conversion. All conversions in Egypt must go through Al-Azhar, which are then verified by the State Security Investigation (SSI) units.