A report filed last Sunday with the Egyptian Prosecutor-General, Hisham Barakat, by the Union against Abductions and Forced Disappearances (UAFD) claimed that Salafi leaders of al-Nour political party were implicated in the disappearance of the Coptic 14-year-old Sarah Ishaq Abdel-Malek. The teenager from the small town of al-Dabaa
, on Egypt’s North Coast west of Alexandria, had been reported missing last September. The claim cited the names of Khaled al-Masri and Khaled Saïd of the Salafi front as the persons responsible for her abduction.
According to Abra’am Louis, the union founder, several figures from the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and al-Nour are implicated in cases of disappearance of female Coptic teenagers.
Converted and married?
Sarah was reported missing on 30 October by her father. The story that circulated locally was that Sarah went to school early in the morning, and after attending a full day at school called at a nearby stationary shop. A few minutes later she left the shop cloaked in a niqab (a full face veil) and accompanied by Mahmoud Selim Abdel-Gawwad, a 27-year-old Muslim man. They got in a car that was waiting outside the shop and drove off. Her family has since heard nothing of her.
For his part, the coordinator-general of the Salafi Front, Khaled Saïd, said that the girl would be returned to her family should it be proved she was underage. Her family submitted her birth certificate to the police, and this cites her birth date as 1 August 1998. Yet earlier declarations by Saïd had said she had converted and married a Muslim, and would not be returned.
A lawyer for UAFD, Sameh Saad, said that according to the law, no teenager was entitled to take the life-changing decisions of conversion or marriage.
Several UAFD members met the assistant to the prosecutor-general, Adel Said, who stressed his concern about the kidnapping of Coptic girls, and said that their cases will be reinvestigated.
The union members also submitted a complain at Shubra police station, where they met the head of the detectives, and demanded that the disappearance of the 17-year-old Coptic girl Mariam Milad Farid, a secondary school student who went missing since 7 July should be investigated.
“The kidnapped girl,” according to Mr Louis, “called her mother last week to cry her help.”
The UAFD demanded the return of the practice of holding ‘sessions for guidance and advice’ between those who wished to convert and a member of the clergy belonging to the religion they wished to abandon, to make be sure the conversion is being undertaken without any pressure. This, however, applies to cases where adults convert, not underage persons. The practice was discontinued in 2004.
“She can’t be held responsible”
The Church in Marsa Matrouh is standing by the family in demanding that the underage girl should be returned home. The Archbishop of Beheira, Anba Pachomeus, whose parish Dabaa lies, said on satellite TV that a 14-year-old cannot be responsible for what she says, in the sense that she cannot be trusted to take life-changing decisions such as marriage or conversion.
Father Bejeimi Anba Pola, Anba Pachomeus’s deputy to Matrouh, said Dabaa was a small town whose residents were mainly tribal, and where everybody knew everybody else. He claimed that security officials knew where Sarah was being hidden, and had actually informed the Church leaders to that effect, but had done nothing so far to bring her home. According to Fr Pola, they feared confrontation with the hardline Salafis. Today, however, with the regime change in Egypt which pushed out the Islamists, cases of forced conversion may stand a better chance.
On the Friday following the girl’s disappearance, the Church and the girl’s family had presented the then President Mursi, who was on a visit to Matrouh, with a memorandum citing the details of the incident and demanding that the girl should be brought home. The memo said: “Do you, Mr President, find it acceptable that a girl that age—who is neither mature character-wise nor intellect-wise—should be taken from her family and forced into marriage?”
The Egyptian Coalition for Children’s Rights (ECCR) had also filed a complaint with the prosecutor-general against what it described as a crime against a child whose physical, mental, and psychological growth is not fully developed. The complaint said that, according to the Child Law in Egypt, several crimes had been committed against Sarah. Sarah, the complaint declared, had been abducted, deprived of completing basic education, sexually molested, forced into early marriage, and forced into religious conversion. The ECCR accordingly demanded that all who took part in this crime or publicly condoned it, starting with Matrouh governor Ahmed Helmi al-Hayatmi and the security chief, should be taken to task, especially given that the crimes against the child did not stop at that, but had the potential to lead to sectarian strife.
The Muslim Monitor (Marsad) against Christianisation, however, had rejected demands to return Sarah, claiming she was “exercising her personal freedom and her right to freedom of belief—both of which are secured by Islam and the law of the country.” In an official statement, Marsad said that handing the girl over to her family or placing her in a home would be illegal and would lead to sectarian conflict.
The statement demanded that the National Council of Women (NCW) should “stop interfering with personal freedoms, under trivial pretexts.” It went on to criticise the NCW harshly for its stances on women rights, branding these stances as threatening to national unity and fostering sectarian conflict.
It must be noted that Islamists have been calling for early marriage for women—as early as 10 years old—under the pretext that the Prophet Mohamed married Aisha when she was only nine.
23 July 2013