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Missing Egyptian Woman Contacts Family for Help

Kidnapped Christian refutes police claims that she ran away to convert to Islam.

by Peter Lamprecht

ISTANBUL, February 23 (Compass) – Missing for over a month, a young Christian woman has telephoned her relatives and reported being imprisoned in a Cairo apartment while facing pressure to convert to Islam.

Last seen in the village of El-Saff 30 miles south of Cairo on January 3, Theresa Ghattass Kamal briefly contacted her aunt on January 24. She told her aunt that she had not yet succumbed to her unknown captors’ demands that she become a Muslim, her brother Sa’eed Ghattass Kamal told Compass.

Her phone call contradicted earlier police statements that she had converted to Islam voluntarily and did not want to see her family again. Police made the claims last month in the wake of a three-day protest by clergy and lay members of the Coptic Orthodox church.

Further investigation by Sa’eed Kamal revealed that no official records of his sister’s conversion existed at Cairo’s Al-Azhar Islamic center. Egyptian law requires that all conversions be registered at Al-Azhar and then validated with the security police, the State Security Investigation (SSI).

The Kamal family traced the origination point of the 19-year-old woman’s call to an apartment in Cairo’s Shubra district owned by Muslim Mostafa Mahmood Ali.

A local priest who asked not to be named for security reasons characterized Ali’s house as “a dangerous place, full of fundamentalists.”

Sa’eed Kamal and a Shubra diocesan lawyer immediately reported Ali to the Shubra branch of the SSI. When the Christian returned on January 30, police told him over a waiting room telephone that they had interrogated Ali and that he did not have the Christian woman. Police refused to meet with Sa’eed Kamal in person.

Disappearance

Originally from Wadi El-Natroun 50 miles northwest of Cairo, Theresa Kamal, 19, was living in a church-owned apartment for women in Giza and taking courses at the Secretarial Academy in old Cairo. Theresa’s father converted to Islam in 1995, and her mother died in 2003, leaving her and her four adult siblings on their own.

On January 3, she visited Coptic Orthodox priest Bavley William in the village of El-Saff and asked for his help in renewing her national and student identity cards. She had lost the documents while riding on a public bus.

William encouraged the Christian woman to return to Wadi El-Natroun to apply for her ID and gave her some money to help cover the expense. Theresa Kamal then called her brother and told him she would return home no later than the morning of January 5.

When his sister had not returned home by January 6, Sa’eed Kamal traveled to Giza and El-Saff to find her. Police in both cities refused to file a missing person report, telling him to return to Wadi El-Natroun to report his sister’s disappearance.

In a January 10 report of the Christian woman’s disappearance, Wadi El-Natroun police stated that they would first “request a report from the Bureau of Investigation about this event.”

Fearing continued government inaction, 150 Christians, including three Coptic Orthodox priests, began a three-day, peaceful protest on January 11 outside the village police station. Led by priest Yahnoss Kama, parish priest Botross of Wadi El-Natroun, and parish priest Bavley of Khatatba City, the local Orthodox congregation demanded the return of Theresa Kamal.

On the third day, SSI officer Tarek Haykal promised the protestors that Kamal would be returned to her family, and that they could meet her at his office in Demnhoor, the provincial capital of Buhayrah, on January 17. Claiming to speak on orders from Hassan Abdul Rahman, the head of the SSI in Cairo, Haykal also threatened to arrest the three priests if they did not disperse immediately.

But according to Sa’eed Kamal, at the January 17 meeting officer Haykal cursed and insulted him and then kicked him out of the office. Haykal then told the two Demnhoor parish priests accompanying the Christian man that Theresa had converted to Islam on the day of her disappearance and that she refused to return to her family.

Haykal said he would schedule a meeting between Theresa Kamal and a priest, a mandatory prerequisite for legal conversion in Egypt.

Upon checking conversion records at all Al-Azhar Islamic center and at Cairo and Giza security directorates, Sa’eed Kamal discovered that his sister’s supposed conversion had never taken place.

Police Complicity

Reports of kidnappings and the forced conversion of Christian girls are common among Egypt’s Coptic community. Some Christian girls romanced by young Muslim men voluntarily leave their families and convert to Islam in order to escape poverty and unhappy family situations.

But “there have been credible reports that government authorities have failed to sufficiently cooperate with Christian families seeking to regain custody of their daughters,” the U.S. State Department said in its latest annual International Religious Freedom Report on Egypt.

Without police cooperation, families find it difficult to verify the motives for each conversion. Unless the convert is under 18, the legal age for conversion, police can refuse to recover the missing woman by claiming that she does not want to see her family.

Kamal’s situation is unusual in that she was able to contact her family and deny reports of willful conversion. It has been easier than usual to see police complicity in this case, “because Theresa was able to tell her aunt that she is in the place where she was phoning from,” one Cairo-based lawyer commented. “But all that the officers did in response was to inform her brother that she was not there.”

Coptic Christians make up at least 10 percent of the Egyptian population. While it is illegal for Egypt’s Muslims to convert to Christianity, “kidnap conversions” to Islam have long been the subject of debate in the country.

In December 2004, thousands of Coptic Christians in Cairo protested when Wafaa Constantin, the wife of an Orthodox priest in Bahayrah province, supposedly converted to Islam and eloped with a Muslim man. Constantin was returned to church custody by Egyptian security forces.