CAIRO, Egypt (WOMENSENEWS)--In the past few years, young women from the minority Coptic community here--about 8 million in the predominantly Muslim population of 70 million--have left home under mysterious circumstances.
Police and media have reported scores of missing women over the past few years and many quickly return to their families without much explanation.
Some Coptic families have alleged that the women were kidnapped by Muslim men and forced to undergo conversion to Islam.
But some women's rights advocates here argue that these are not kidnappings. More often, they see these cases as cries for help by young women in the socially conservative Coptic community, which traces its church to the first century when, by traditional belief, the apostle Mark founded it in Egypt as the first Christian church in history.
In particular, rights activists say the missing young women draw attention to customs among traditional Copts, particularly the lack of access to divorce and the practice of arranged marriages.
"A key reason for the so-called 'kidnappings' is that Coptic women have no right to divorce," said Nahed Abul Komsan, head of the Cairo-based Egyptian Center for Women's Rights, which is the leading women's rights group in the country.
"This means that if their parents tell them they are going to marry their cousin, they have to submit to this and have no choice . . . So they turn to Islam, not because of a spiritual belief in the religion but because it gives them more of an opportunity to choose their life's path," she said.
Once returned to their families the women's absences often remain unexplained and the ongoing controversy has served as flashpoints for long-simmering tensions between the Coptic and Muslim communities.
Most notoriously, an elderly Coptic man was stabbed to death during a church service in Alexandria in April 2006 after the church distributed a DVD movie that dealt with the issue of conversion. Muslim demonstrators considered the movie defamatory and perceived it as anti-Islamic.
As further demonstrations followed the killing, however, the issue also spurred outreach efforts between leaders of the two communities as well as a public discussion of inequities for religious minorities including the Baha'is, who have been struggling for official recognition as a religious entity in government documents over the past few years.
In January 2006 Theresa Ghatmass Kamal, 19, was reported missing by her family and drew international attention to the issue of missing Coptic women.
Many Christian churches in the United States, for instance, sent e-newsletters to their constituencies and used her case to express concern about the kidnappings that Coptic families had been reporting.
But according to the Coptic Church in Egypt, Kamal's family discovered her last spring after she had willingly converted to Islam.
Coptic Women Seeking Help
Abul Komsan said her organization has received numerous reports from Coptic women who seek their help in deciding what to do with their lives, especially in a situation when legal divorce is not an option.
She said another major factor spurring young Coptic women to flee their families is the move in the 1990s by Coptic Christian churches to forbid conversion to another Christian sect in which they might have found more freedom.
"It is not necessarily a societal problem; it is more religious issues that face women in our society," said Abul Komsan. "Women face leaders that force them to do things that they do not have any desire to do. They do certain things, such as running away from their family and converting to Islam, because it is the only way to get out of their designated role their family has for them."
Laura, a Coptic woman in her mid-20s living in Alexandria who asked that her surname not be used, agreed. She said that while a few of the kidnappings may be authentic, most of the media reports are based on fabrications made by the families to disguise their daughters' dissatisfactions.
"We, as Coptic women, have to deal with what our priests tell us and force upon us on a daily basis and often many women just can't take it any longer so they just leave their families and run off with a Muslim man," she says.
'Saving Face' Over Disappearances
"Look at almost every other Christian church on the planet," says Laura. "They have had some sort of reformation and changed many of the 'natural' roles of women throughout the past thousand years, so why is the Coptic Church still living in the past? If they don't begin to change then I believe that many more women will leave and their families will continue to say they are kidnapped just to save face."
Coptic Christianity dominated Egypt until the Islamic conquest of Egypt in the late seventh century and remained an integral part of society until the 12th century when the country began to change into a predominantly Muslim country. Today, the head of the Coptic Church remains in Alexandria, where the Coptic pope maintains a residence.
Because of the alleged kidnappings, more women are coming to her organization for counseling, Abul Komsan says, and many ask for advice about whether to leave or stay.
Muslim leaders have condemned the alleged kidnappings as contrary to Islamic thinking. Al-Azhar grand sheikh Sayyed Al-Tantawi told Al-Ahram, an Egyptian daily, that "these actions are contrary to Islam and we hope to receive more information concerning alleged kidnappings and would like to have an open dialogue with our Christian brothers and sisters in the country."
George Ishaq, a Coptic scholar and head of Kefaya ("Enough"), the nonviolent opposition movement, says the country's minority religious groups need assistance if Egypt is to move forward in creating a more just society based on universal rights, not simply those of the Muslim majority.
"I just received word that the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights is helping to publicize Coptic and Baha'i issues, which will start to get people involved in what is happening in our country," Ishaq says.
"We must use these incidents to create a culture of tolerance," said Coptic Bishop Amba Moussa, "or we will never be able to achieve what the West has."
Joseph Mayton is a Middle East correspondent for All Headline News and a freelance journalist based in Cairo, Egypt, and Beirut, Lebanon.
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