'Jihad of the Womb': Watchdog details systemic abduction of Christian girls in Egypt

Coptic Christians attend a church service during Holy Easter week in central Cairo, Egypt, April 17, 2014.
Coptic Christians attend a church service during Holy Easter week in central Cairo, Egypt, April 17, 2014. | (Photo: Reuters/Asmaa Waguih)

A watchdog group has shed more light on the widespread abduction, trafficking and exploitation of Coptic Christian women and girls in Egypt, highlighting the cases of 13 women and girls who were kidnapped or abducted in the last three years. 

Coptic Solidarity, a Virginia-based nonprofit founded in 2010 that is dedicated to achieving equal citizenship rights for the Copts in Egypt and whose leader has testified before U.S. Congress, released the report "Jihad of the Womb: Trafficking of Coptic Women & Girls in Egypt” last Thursday. 

The new document is a continuation of the organization’s work to address a troubling trend of kidnappings and disappearances that it says violate international trafficking and child abuse laws. The organization is critical of “the Egyptian government’s lack of action.”

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“The capture and disappearance of Coptic women and minor girls is a bane of the Coptic community in Egypt, yet little has been done to address this scourge by the Egyptian or foreign governments, NGOs, or international bodies,” the report argues. 

“[T]he Egyptian government and international entities must address these heinous crimes that have been conducted with near impunity.”

The report, compiled from information gathered through the Coptic community, family members, religious leaders and Egyptian media reports, is to be submitted to United Nations entities as well as the U.S. Office for Trafficking in Persons. 

One priest from the Minya Governate told Coptic Solidarity that at least 15 girls go missing in his area every year and added that his daughter was almost kidnapped. 

“Women who disappear and are never recovered must live an unimaginable nightmare,” the report explains. “The large majority of these women are never reunited with their families or friends because police response in Egypt is dismissive and corrupt.”

According to the report, countless families have reported that “police have either been complicit in the kidnapping or at the very least bribed into silence.”

Coptic Solidarity reasons that the lack of action when it comes to the trafficking of Coptic women is a major problem when it comes to documenting cases. Police often claim that the women and girls have gone with their captors willingly, an argument that is often made in countries where religious minorities are regularly kidnapped and forced into marriage. 

“While few cases are genuine marriages, Coptic Solidarity estimates about 500 cases within the last decade, where elements of coercion were used that amount to trafficking. The kidnappings come in the backdrop of a Coptic minority population that is already marginalized as Coptic Solidarity has reported to UN bodies.”

The report further argues that organized Salafist Muslim groups in Egypt are engaging in a phenomenon Coptic Solidarity calls “Jihad of the Womb” — the idea that Muslims are being urged by religious leaders to convert non-Muslim women and make Muslim children. 

“These networks are often supported by like-minded members (including high-ranking officials) of the police, national security and local administrations,” the report states. “Their roles include refusal to lodge official complaints by the victims’ families, falsifying police investigations, organizing the formal sessions of conversion to Islam at Al-Azhar, or harassing families into silence and acceptance of the de facto trafficking of their loved ones.”

According to the report, the Egyptian government has maintained that the majority of abduction cases are about “young women falling in love with someone from a different denomination.”

“The problem with this defense is that the Egyptian government does not acknowledge or protect the ongoing rights of Coptic females,” the report contends. “Regardless if a woman is kidnapped from her home or in public, or if she agrees to elope and then discovers she has been tricked and wishes to leave, the elements of trafficking in persons and crimes against children are all still applicable.”

The 13 women that the report highlights represent only “a fraction” of the abducted women and girls in Egypt. 

“In each of these cases, no investigative report has been completed, and none of the known perpetrators have been brought to trial — meaning there is complete impunity for those who traffic Coptic women and girls,” the report reads. “In all of these cases, the police refuse to use words such as “kidnapped” or “disappeared” when writing the initial police report. They will only use the word absent, even when there is evidence of trafficking.”

Among the victims included in the report is 39-year-old Ranya Abd al-Masih, a teacher and mother of three, who was kidnapped in April in the Menoufia government. Three days later, Masih was seen in a video wearing a niqab, saying that she left her home on her own, converted to Islam and told her husband to stop looking for her. 

However, family members have noted that Masih did not take any of her personal belongings with her and that she is noticeably crying in the video as she recited what she was told to say. Her family and church leaders called for her to be released. She was later returned to the family in July after suffering sexual, psychological and spiritual abuse. 

“Of note, Rayna’s family was directed by the police to stop talking publicly about her case,” the report explains. 

Also in April, 15-year-old Yustina Magdy Attia was kidnapped in the Baad El Arab village of Beni Suef and was returned about three weeks later. 

Last November, 17-year-old Coptic Christian girl Lisa Romani Mansi was abducted in the Papillary Olive Field district near Cairo. She reportedly disappeared as she was on her way to a tutoring lesson. She has not been heard from since and her cell phone had been turned off. 

The child’s father told Coptic Solidarity that he has received an “inadequate response” from the police as he seeks to find his daughter.

Last October, 20-year-old Marina Sami Sahi, who had recently gotten married and was five months pregnant, was kidnapped in the Gesr Al Suez area of Cairo. There have not been any updates on her case, according to Coptic Solidarity. 

In July 2019, 18-year-old Nerges Adel Ibrahim was kidnapped by the cousin of one of her friends.

Sarah Atef, a 23-year-old Coptic attending university in Beni Suef, was kidnapped in June 2019. A few days after her kidnapping, she reportedly made a phone call to her family to tell them that she fell in love with a Muslim man and converted to Islam.

“Sarah’s friends have said that this it is extremely unlikely because Sarah loved her faith and was a very devout Christian,” the report stresses.

In May 2018, 18-year-old Vivian Adel Youssef was kidnapped just two weeks after she married her husband. Although her husband filed a police report, no updates have been made available on her status or whereabouts, the report states. 

Twenty-year-old Meray Girgis Sobhi was kidnapped on April 10, 2018, and was reported missing by her family. The girl’s father told Coptic Solidarity in a phone call that there has been “no effort to investigate the matter and search for her.”

“The phone call was apparently recorded by Egyptian national security because the father was contacted by them telling him to stop talking publicly about Meray’s kidnapping,” the report notes. “According to her father, Meray was then returned, but he was forced to write a letter denouncing Coptic Solidarity and saying that he would not give interviews to international media.”

Hoda Atef Ghali Girgis, 16, was kidnapped on April 8, 2018, while on her way home from an Easter party. No update on her situation has been provided. A witnessed alleged that three masked men pushed Rasha into a car and fled off, according to the report. Much like the others, there has not been any update on her situation. 

Coptic Solidarity also highlighted the cases of 26-year-old married Coptic woman Christine Lamie, 18-year-old Hanan Adly Girgis and a 16-year-old Coptic girl named Marilyn, who was kidnapped in June 2017 and recovered after 92 days. 

“Her mother, Hanaa Aziz Shukralla Farag, shared about seeing a video online of Marilyn veiled, holding a Quran, and claiming to have converted to Islam, despite her obvious looks of discomfort and pressure to make the recitation,” the report reads. 

Egypt ranks as the 16th worst country in the world when it comes to Christian persecution on the Open Doors 2020 World Watch List. 

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