CAIRO: The brief disappearance of a priest’s wife that sparked rumors of abduction and forced conversion to Islam has highlighted deep-rooted tensions between Christians and Muslims in Egypt, where a private dispute can quickly become a matter of national security.
When Kamilia Shehata Zakher, the 25-year-old wife of a Coptic priest, went missing for five days, Coptic Christian activists promptly staged a series of angry protests in her home province of Minya and in Cairo accusing Muslims of her abduction and forced conversion to Islam.
But on Friday, Kamilia was located at a friend’s house by security services who escorted her home and it has since emerged that she had left home of her own will, following domestic quarrels.
The case has underlined the simmering anger of Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority that complains of systematic discrimination and marginalization in a mainly Muslim and increasingly conservative society.
It has also brought to light the heavy involvement of the security apparatus in its bid to keep a lid on sectarian tensions.
"If both the Church leaders and security officials agree that Kamilia Shehata (Zakher) was not kidnapped and left her house willingly, on what legal basis did the security hold her and return her home?" asked Ishaq Ibrahim of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR).
The Coptic Church has publicly thanked security services for bringing Kamilia back home.
Coptic Christians make up about six to 10 percent of Egypt’s 80 million population. Among their grievances are political marginalization and restrictions on church-building.
Observers say Egypt’s deteriorating political and economic situation has pushed both Muslims and Christians further towards extremism, sparking knee-jerk angry reactions within both communities.
"Egypt has become a fanatical country, where hatred exists on both sides… Egypt is tainted by extremism, fanaticism and ignorance… due to oppression and corruption," wrote Ibrahim Eissa, editor-in-chief of the independent daily Al-Dostour in Sunday’s edition.
He argued that Kamilia’s case, which is not the first of its kind, will also not be the last.
According to EIPR, from January 2008 to January 2010, there have been at least 53 cases of sectarian violence or tensions that have taken place in 17 of Egypt’s 29 governorates.
"There is an obsession among Muslim extremists who believe that converting a Christian to Islam is a victory for Islam and guarantees them a place in heaven," Eissa says.
"There is also a great deal of sensitivity among Christians who consider a conversion by a Copt to Islam to be an insult to their religion and a threat to Christianity," Eissa said.
Kamilia’s case has also raised the issue of the strict Church laws governing marriage and divorce — forcing several Copts who have trouble obtaining divorce to convert in order to leave the marital home and start a new life.
"The question goes back to what the Church refuses to confront: personal status laws," wrote Abdullah Kamal, a columnist in the daily Rose Al-Yussef.
Earlier this month, Egypt’s highest judicial body overturned a ruling ordering the Coptic church to issue a second marriage permit to divorced Copts requesting one.
That ruling sparked demonstrations, with Christians accusing the state of interfering in religious affairs.
Copts forbid divorce except in proven cases of adultery, or if a spouse converts to another religion or branch of Christianity.