Nadia Ghaly’s cousin disappeared 40 years ago. She was introduced to a Muslim man as a young woman, subsequently vanished and resurfaced later three months pregnant wearing a hijab. She was the victim of a forced marriage.
She is not alone. Coptic Christian women are routinely victimized and forcibly converted by Muslims in Egypt, Miss Ghaly says.
In its annual Religious Freedom Report, released July 30, the U.S. State Department acknowledged the problem, but at the same time appeared to downplay it. The report described forcible conversions as “disputed,” asserting that while there were “occasional claims” of Muslim men forcing Coptic women (and sometimes girls younger than legal age) to convert to Islam, these accounts “often included inflammatory allegations and categorical denials of kidnapping and rape.”
Miss Ghaly has no faith in the current U.S. administration. “I feel that politically the United States will look after its own interests,” Miss Ghaly said. “I feel that they favor the Muslim Brotherhood and [Egyptian President Mohammed] Morsi more than the human rights of the Copts.”
Miss Ghaly has devoted the past 15 years to researching the problem of forced conversion in Egypt. In 2004, she teamed up with John Eibner, president of Christian Solidarity International, a human rights organization that has focused on the maltreatment of Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East.
Mr. Eibner introduced Miss Ghaly to anti-trafficking activist Michelle Clark. Ms. Clark, an adjunct professor with the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University, is former head of the Anti-Trafficking Assistance Unit at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
The women wrote two reports for Christian Solidarity International on the forced conversion issue, the latest released last month. The State Department report mentioned their July study, but said “local human rights groups were unable to verify such cases.”
The report’s co-authors took issue with this. “They do not believe reports and findings such as this one, but they believe Muslims who say that these stories are full of lies,” Miss Ghaly said.
“We stand by the report,” Ms. Clark said. “We did this work through good and professional methodology. We know who we talked to.”
Their research reveals a climate where women and their families are often afraid to talk for fear of Muslim retribution. “We met in hushed rooms and church courtyards because people feel safe there,” Ms. Clark said. “The Coptic community is afraid of any reprisal, afraid of what might happen.”
According to Ms. Clark and Miss Ghaly, the modus operandi of Muslim men who target Coptic women is to go after the poor and vulnerable, promising excitement, love or money for a sick family member. Tricked into a relationship, these women are forcibly married and converted.
In their first report, issued in 2009, Ms. Clark and Miss Ghaly interviewed Coptic pastors in Egypt who were offering shelter to approximately 50 women who had escaped from forced marriages. Their research focused on women who had successfully returned to their families after enduring forced conversions and who were struggling to regain their Christian identity.
That first report was “not taken seriously by the U.S. government,” Ms. Clark said. As a result, Mr. Eibner asked that they follow up with new research. The July 2012 report revealed the situation for Coptic women has deteriorated. There has been a marked increase in the number of disappearances.
Ms. Clark and Miss Ghaly spoke to four Egyptian attorneys, who between them were handling 550 cases of women seeking to return to Christianity after forced conversions. One attorney said he had firsthand knowledge of over 1,600 cases of Christians petitioning to have their Islamic conversions overturned. Sixty percent of these petitioners were women.
The researchers investigated cases involving rape, fraud, coercion and domestic servitude. Disturbingly, they also discovered that since their first research in 2009, there are fewer cases of Coptic women resurfacing after abduction and, they say, attorneys report fewer girls being returned to their families. Ms. Clark and Miss Ghaly interviewed at least 10 families who searched for their daughters to no avail.
Despite their findings, the State Department continues to hedge. It said that in some instances, young Coptic woman convert and marry Muslim men willingly. The parents will claim a daughter has been kidnapped “out of desire that she return to her family and her Christian faith.” However, the State Department also acknowledged cases reported by Coptic religious authorities in which local police stations refused to write up reports on missing Christian girls, or when families were threatened with violence if they took action.
The State Department appears to have taken Ms. Clark and Miss Ghaly’s second report more seriously. It says it is looking into their allegations.
Egypt’s Copts are no strangers to discrimination and violence. Church burnings were common during the regime of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. A car bomb last Christmas Eve killed 21 Christians. Since Mr. Mubarak was overthrown, U.S. immigration courts have seen an escalation in Coptic requests for asylum, specifically from Christian women who either escape abduction or fear abduction by Muslim men.
This is happening although the country’s new president, a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood, has pledged to be a “president for all Egyptians,” including Christians. “We will face together the strife and conspiracies that target our national unity,” he said.
Miss Ghaly does not believe President Morsi. Indeed, she believes he will “make things worse for the Copts.” When she visited Egypt recently, she said she saw heightened religious discrimination. She was spat on, insulted and humiliated for wearing a cross, she says.
“The Copts who are residing in the country hide their crosses inside now,” she said. “I can only tell you that the coming of Morsi encouraged the man in the street to treat me worse as a Christian.”
Ms. Clark said Mr. Morsi’s election has led to “brazenness” in attacks on Copts. She said there is “a war of attrition against Egyptian Copts, using the women as scapegoats.”
The Obama administration’s ambassador at large for international religious freedom, Suzan Johnson Cook, said she is “very concerned about the Coptic Christian community.” She expects Mr. Morsi will be true to his pledge of greater religious freedom and representation for Copts in Egyptian society. “We are looking for him to follow through on what his promise was,” Ms. Cook said.
Some members of Congress have grown impatient with the administration’s response. Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., led a hearing on July 18 of the U.S. Helsinki Commission on human rights, which examined the claims of forced conversions and kidnappings in Egypt.
“Egypt’s failure to take even the most basic action to ensure justice for and protect its Coptic citizens from crimes, including the abduction and forced conversion of Coptic women, should mean a cut in aid dollars,” Mr. Smith said.
At the hearing, he asked the U.S. government to remove or limit Egypt’s aid until the Middle Eastern nation addressed the issue. Congress even attached conditions to the $1.3 billion in aid to Egypt last year. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton waived those conditions in March.
Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., said the Obama administration has been a “disaster” for Egypt’s Christian community. He petitioned the State Department in 2010 on behalf of Christians in Egypt. He is still waiting for a reply.
“It’s like no one’s home,” he said. “The Coptic Christians have never felt the American Embassy was their friend. … I think it’s so dysfunctional that the only way to make improvement is to change the administration.”
(Article by Gracy Howard)