Al-Ahram Weekly Online                                            9 - 15 December 2004

Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875                                                            Issue No. 720



'No one is convinced'

Christian claims of forced conversions in Assiut and Al-Beheira catalyse angry protests in Cairo. Reem Nafie sifts through the evidence in Assiut

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Copts protest in front of the Coptic Cathedral of Abbasiya

Around 3,000 Copts demonstrated in Cairo, Al-Minya, Al-Beheira and Assiut on Sunday and Monday, claiming Christians were being kidnapped and forced to convert to Islam.

The Coptic claims had their roots in an incident involving Wafaa Constantine, the wife of Father Joseph of the Abul-Matamir Church in Al-Beheira, north of Cairo. The priest claimed that his wife's Muslim boss had abducted her, and forced her to convert to Islam.

The protestors who gathered in front of the Coptic Cathedral in the Cairo district of Abbasiya on Sunday urged Pope Shenouda III to clarify matters. "Father, what is the news?" shouted several young men, as they walked around with signs that read "There is no force in religion" and "Stop the gangs of women kidnappers."

One of the protestors told Al-Ahram Weekly that security officials had told Father Joseph that his wife had become a Muslim by choice. "But no one is convinced," he said, "and we know that her boss seduced her, blackmailed her, and forced her to convert."

Ish'eyaa Mikhail, a priest who was at the demonstration, said that many people were sympathising with Father Joseph because "he is ill with diabetes, and both his legs have been amputated." Many of the protesters, Mikhail said, "are from [Joseph's] church at Abul-Matamir, and they all know him and love him".

A security official who spoke to the Weekly on condition of anonymity, said that when the police searched for Constantine after Father Joseph claimed she had been kidnapped, they found her at the house of a Muslim family in Cairo. The security official said Constantine told the police that she wanted to become a Muslim. When her boss was questioned, he said he had no idea of her whereabouts, or whether or not she had converted.

Presidential adviser Osama El-Baz, who happened to be attending veteran journalist Said Sonbol's funeral, which was taking place at the cathedral at the same time as the demonstration, promised the Pope that he would resolve the issue within a few hours. El-Baz told the Pope he would arrange a meeting between the Pope and Constantine so she could clarify the situation.

Although the protestors continued to wait for several hours, no one came. Security forces surrounding the cathedral during the demonstration prevented some of the angriest protestors from climbing over the complex's gates and out into the street.

The incident -- involving just one woman -- may have taken on such proportions because it had coincided with other alleged claims that the head of the ruling National Democratic Party's Assiut branch, Mohamed Abdel-Mohsen, had used bribes and pressure tactics to force Copts in the southern province to convert to Islam.

Bishop Abanob, the highest Coptic authority in Assiut, was the first to make these claims, telling several opposition and independent newspapers that many families had complained to him about their children being pressured into becoming Muslims. "Dozens have come to me and complained that Mohamed Abdel-Mohsen has offered them houses, money and jobs in order to convert to Islam," Abanob said.

To back up his claims, Abanob asked all the Christians who had supposedly been forced to convert to sign a statement saying, "Abdel-Mohsen paid me a certain amount of money to become a Muslim."

According to the bishop, Abdel-Mohsen pressured poor, jobless and elderly Christians, and especially women, who, he said, "are easy to convince". He suggested that Abdel-Mohsen had paid poor Muslims to seduce young Christian girls into marrying them and converting.

Although Abanob said he had a tape in his possession that actually showed Abdel- Mohsen bribing a Christian, no one has seen the tape, and Abanob has not handed it over to officials.

Christians on the streets of Assiut were reluctant to answer the Weekly's questions about the issue, saying they "did not really understand what was going on". However, all the priests present at Assiut's Mary Girgis Church seemed to agree with Abanob's statements, saying "everything the bishop said is true and Muslim officials are conspiring against us [Copts]."

Abdel-Mohsen said that Abanob's claims were "completely fabricated". He said he had asked the bishop to bring the people he supposedly bribed to the church so that they could be questioned in his presence, but Abanob had refused without providing a reason.

Hussein Abdel-Hafez, Assiut governorate's head of public relations, also told the Weekly that the claims were "fabricated", and that the real reason behind the commotion was that Abanob wanted to build more churches in Assiut.

According to Abdel-Hafez, a situation at the Monastery of the Holy Virgin Mary in the mountainous area of Dronka, 10km west of the city, was one of the main reasons why "the Copts are inventing such claims". The Copts at the monastery, Abdel-Hafez said, "had planted trees on land just to the right of the Dronka monastery using recycled sewage water. The governorate had backed this Coptic initiative to beautify the area, and the Agriculture Ministry had given them the necessary plants."

However, Abdel-Hafez said, "we later found out from the newspapers that they wanted to build a fence around the monastery and the additional land that they had planted on."

A fence had already been built nearly five years ago around the monastery itself, but this new fence was to also include an additional area that was not part of the monastery's property. "Because they [the Copts] know it is not their right [to do this], they did not submit a formal request to the governorate," Abdel-Hafez said.

The governorate was also surprised to find out via the media that the local Coptic community still wanted to build two more churches in the area, even though, Abdel- Hafez said, "that issue had been resolved nearly five years ago." The governorate had refused the first request -- to build a church in the Al-Arbe'in area -- because only 10 per cent of that area's population was Christian, Abdel-Hafez said, "so a church was unnecessary".

The other area the Copts wanted to use was on a plot the government had deemed "public property", and might be used for a school.

Since the governorate had not received any complaints from Abanob or the local Coptic community regarding the rejections, and had only recently read about the bishop's displeasure in the papers, they chose not to deal with the matter. "These two [church] issues were resolved, so why are they being reopened now?" Abdel-Hafez asked.

As for the claims against Abdel-Mohsen, the governorate is convinced that such an important political figure would not tarnish his reputation with such actions. "We can not deal with this issue either," Abdel- Hafez said, "since we have not received any formal complaints from anyone, which leads us to believe that there are no facts to this case."

Abanob, meanwhile, has already taken the issue further, sending a formal complaint to the US Copts Association, which subsequently sent a letter to US President George W Bush appealing for his "immediate intervention with President Hosni Mubarak on behalf of Egypt's persecuted Copts".

Coptic-Muslim tensions, meanwhile, escalated in 1998 and 2000 in the Upper Egyptian village of Al-Kosheh when sectarian clashes killed over 20 Copts and injured nearly forty.