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Compass Direct (03/31/06) – Following a three-month search, an Egyptian Christian has discovered his missing sister living with a Muslim family near her home town and professing faith in Islam.

Spurred by a brief telephone message from Theresa Ghattass Kamal saying that she was being held against her will and forced to convert to Islam, Sa’eed Ghattass Kamal last week tracked his sister’s suspected captors to the Bedouin desert area of El-Ga’ar, near his home in Wadi El-Natroun, 50 miles northwest of Cairo .

Mo’atazz Mohammad Sa’eed at first refused to let Kamal see his sister when the Christian arrived at his home on March 23. He later relented after Kamal insisted that he only wanted to make sure his sister was safe.

With only her eyes showing through her veil and flanked by Sa’eed, his two brothers and his father, Theresa Kamal sat with her brother for 90 minutes but only spoke once, Kamal said.

“I have converted to Islam. I have found the right path,” she reportedly told her brother in a trembling voice.

But according to Kamal and his lawyer, Athanasius William, the Christian woman’s conversion still has not been registered 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).

William told Compass that Theresa Kamal, 19, had not fulfilled the legal prerequisite of meeting with a Coptic priest at least once before converting to Islam. “If she really chose to convert to Islam, why did she not participate in the required counseling session?” the lawyer asked.

The attorney said that if Theresa Kamal’s “kidnappers” attempted to register her conversion, he would contest the move on legal grounds. But in the meantime he said that “the collusion of the security authorities” was making it impossible to even verify whether the Christian woman dropped out of school at Cairo ’s Secretarial Academy of her own free will in order to live with the Sa’eed family.

Authorities Refuse to Help

Despite irregularities in Theresa Kamal’s reported conversion, the SSI consistently refused to help Kamal find his sister after she went missing on January 3.

Police finally promised the Kamal family a meeting with their daughter, but only after Copts in Wadi El-Natroun staged a three-day peaceful protest outside local police headquarters in mid-January.

But at a January 17 meeting with the SSI in the provincial capital of Demnhoor, SSI officer Tarek Haykal cursed Kamal and kicked him out of his office, refusing to let the Christian see his sister.

Haykal told two accompanying priests that Theresa Kamal had converted freely and would meet with a priest shortly for her pre-conversion counseling session. According to Kamal and William, that promise has yet to be fulfilled.

The Kamal family renewed their search for Theresa Kamal after she managed to briefly telephone her aunt on January 24. The young woman said she was being held against her will but that she had not yet succumbed to her captors’ demands that she convert to Islam.

Kamal notified authorities that he had traced the origin of his sister’s phone call to an apartment in Cairo ’s Shubra district. Local SSI officials refused to meet the Christian in person but told him over the phone that Theresa Kamal was not at the Shubra residence.

Kamal eventually followed his sister’s trail back to the Sa’eed family in Wadi El-Natroun. The wadi, a desert depression 25 meters below sea level and 50 kilometers long, is heavily populated by Copts and is home to four Coptic monasteries.

According to Kamal, when he first visited the Sa’eed family on the evening of March 23, Sa’eed’s father told him, “Your sister is officially becoming a Muslim and so she is no longer a Christian and no longer your sister as well.”

Sa’eed reportedly added, “You’ve notified the police often, but no one has taken action nor will any one take action about the issue of your sister.”

“She will always be my sister, even if she changed religions,” Kamal responded. “What I really care about is her safety.”

The Sa’eed family softened at this response and allowed him to see his sister, Kamal told Compass. The Christian said that during the next hour and a half his sister only spoke once from under her veil, to say that she had converted to Islam.

Doubting the sincerity of his sister’s conversion and hoping to leave the door open for her return, Kamal told his sister before he left, “I am your brother; I will always be. If you need anything, come to my home where you are most welcome.”

‘Kidnap Conversions’

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 a conversion. Unless the convert is under 18, the legal age for conversion, police often refuse to recover the missing woman by claiming that she does not want to see her family.

In recent years both Muslim and Christian families in rural Upper Egypt have abused and at times killed daughters – in the name of “honor” – if they believed that the young women had been sexually compromised.

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.