A new pioneer report, released Tuesday, sheds light on the often deliberately ignored problem of Christian women in Egypt being abducted, forced into Muslim marriages and coerced into converting to Islam.
Released by Christian Solidarity International and the Coptic Foundation for Human Rights, "The Disappearance, Forced Conversions and Forced Marriages of Coptic Christian Women in Egypt" report documents dozens of real cases of Christian women who were lured and then violently forced into marriage, often after being raped.
Report research was done in Egypt by American anti-trafficking specialist Michele Clark and Egyptian women's rights activist Nadia Ghaly. Based on research findings, the report contends that the violence against Egypt's Christian women corresponds to the internationally recognized definitions of human trafficking.
"The findings of Ms. Ghaly and Ms. Clark are deeply disturbing, and should challenge human rights activists and institutions, especially those whose mandate includes women's rights and trafficking in persons, to undertake, as a matter of urgency, further research into this form of
gender and religious based violence against Coptic women and girls in Egypt," said CSI CEO Dr. John Eibner, in the preface of the report.
Among the documented cases is one about a Coptic girl identified as "H," who said she was befriended by a Muslim girl whose brother later raped her. Because the Coptic girl was ashamed to tell her family, she remained with the Muslim family during which time the man's mother convinced her to convert to Islam and marry her son. The girl said she was locked in an apartment every day and only allowed to leave if accompanied by her in-laws. She was also denied access to the telephone and forced to cover herself when she left the house.
In another case, "R," who was 17, received a call from a polite young man who said his name was Amir and that he was an admirer of hers. He said he wanted to meet her in a church. She was drugged, kidnapped and when she woke up "Amir" told her he was Wali. She was then forced to marry a man named Mahmoud whom she never met. When she refused to have sex with Mahmoud, his family held her down while he raped her. She began to bleed profusely and is now unable to have children as a result of the rape.
The investigators interviewed a priest who said that in his parish alone, there were over 50 cases of forced conversions of Coptic women and girls to Islam and forced marriages to Muslim men in the past year alone.
The report accuses Egyptian authorities for being tacitly complicit by their systematic lack of investigation and prosecution of allegations of rape, abduction and abuse. Most filed cases are ignored by authorities, or officials respond by harassing the Coptic family to drop the case.
"The phenomenon of abductions, forced conversions and marriages of Coptic women by Muslim men remains relatively undocumented, under-reported and generally ignored by the international human rights community," the report states.
The lack of attention is due to a combination of social, religious and political factors that include: the reluctance of victims who escape abusive situations to file charges out of fear or retributions against themselves or their families; the absence of convictions of kidnappers and rapists when charges are filed; a sense of shame and dishonor of victim and her family which frequently accompanies crimes of rape and sexual abuse; and the erroneous presumption of complicity of Coptic women who are seen as entering into voluntary relationships with Muslim men.
But in September, Egypt's prestigious Al-Ahram Weekly broke the longstanding taboo and silence by acknowledging the allegations of widespread conversions and forced marriages of Coptic girls to Muslim men. It commented that the action has caused adverse relations between the country's Christian and Muslim communities.
The Christian community in Egypt, known as Coptics, makes up eight to 12 percent of the country's population. Yet despite their sizeable number in Egypt, they are marginalized in society and suffer from violent forms of abuse. They also lack fair representation in the government, leading to further abuse of the minority group. According to Egypt's constitution, Islam is the "religion of the state" and its "principle source of legislation."
CSI's Eibner has called on President Barack Obama and the U.S. government "to encourage Egyptian President Mubarak to take credible measures to combat the trafficking of Christian women and girls." CSI noted that Obama, in his address to the Muslim world last June, had called attention to the rights of religious minorities and the rights of women living in Muslim majority countries.