COPTS CRUSADE TO BRING BACK CONVERTED GIRLS
 
By Richard Engel
Middle East Times
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Converting from Christianity to Islam is easy, but converting back can 
be problematic in Egypt. 
 
    Helmi Riziq, a driver from a small town near Aswan, told the Middle 
East Times he has not been allowed to see his daughter Ulfat since she 
was lured by a Muslim boy at school and convinced to convert to Islam. 
Riziq said the boy, who he claims is a member of the Egypt's largest 
militant Islamic group, Al Gamma Islamiya, illegally married his 
15-year-old daughter Ulfat by having the police forge her birth certificate. 
 
    "I went to see her and the [new husband] said, 'Sit on the ground 
you kaffir'," said Riziq. "Then he demanded EŁ50,000 if I want her 
back."
 
    The families of Mervat Kamal Youaqim, Samya Zarif Sema'am and Hanan 
Youssef Riziq claim their little girls, all under 16, were manipulated 
into converting by Muslim boys bearing gifts and promises of a better 
life. The families contend that the conversions should be illegal since 
the girls were underage at the time. 
 
    According to Al Azhar, the highest authority in Sunni Islam, no 
girl under the age of 16 can convert to Islam. Converting before the age 
of 16 is also prohibited by the Egyptian Child Protection Law, which 
declares that anyone under the age of 18 is a minor and therefore not able 
to make legally binding decisions. 
 
    While only Riziq claims that the "kidnapping" is the work of Al 
Gamma Islamiya, the Center for Human Rights and Legal Aid (CHARLA) is 
currently defending 13 Coptic families who have not been allowed to see 
their daughters since they converted to Islam. The center explains that 
while the conversion of girls under 16 violated a number of Egyptian 
laws, the government's unwillingness to clarify laws governing civil 
relations between Copts, Egypt's largest Christian minority, and Muslims has 
led administrators at police stations or legal officers who handle 
inheritance to refer to civil codes of sharia laws in the eighth century 
Hanafi school for guidance.
 
    "The places where they are performing the conversions are 
responsible for contracts, not conversions," says Tarek Khater, a lawyer at 
CHARLA. 
 
    "They base the conversions on Abu Hanifa, which says a girl can 
convert when she is seven years old. But if the father claims legal 
guardianship over his daughter they refuse because in sharia no Christian can 
have legal guardianship over a Muslim," says fellow CHARLA lawyer Samir 
Al Baguri. 
 
    Baguri explained that most underage conversions involve a fledgling 
relationship between a Muslim and Christian girl, a speedy conversion 
and then a swift paper marriage. 
 
    A person can convert simply by repeating the shahada, "There is no 
god but God, and Mohammed is the prophet of God," in the presence of 
two witnesses at a police station or any administrative center empowered 
to notarize contracts or establish power of attorney. 
 
    Riziq Nawar Riziq, a Coptic farmer from Beni Suef in Middle Egypt, 
wrote a letter to Minister of Interior Hassan Al Alfi asking for help 
to cancel the marriage between a Muslim and his 15-year-old daughter 
Isis. 
 
    "My story began when my eldest son Samir befriended a young man 
called Mohammed Helmi who lives in Diabia Al Wasta and works in a poultry 
farm in my village. This man used to spend long hours with my son in 
the house where he saw my precious daughter Isis," writes Nawar. 
 
    "I trusted this young man and thought he would respect my house and 
his faithful friendship with my son. But he deceived my daughter Isis 
and took advantage of her thoughtless whims, her wild feelings, her 
young age and her teenage feelings. He spoke words of love to my daughter 
and she liked him," Nawar continues. 
 
    "While I was away Samir took her to our neighbors' house and when I 
returned my sons and I searched all through the town until we were told 
she had been taken to the police station and that she wanted to marry 
Samir and change her religion," wrote Nawar. 
 
    "The Al Wasta police who are supposed to protect my daughter from 
this criminal act assisted in the conspiracy. Although Isis was at the 
police station we were prevented from going in. It was very sad because 
the police guarded her during her wedding," wrote Nawar, who added that 
he has not been allowed to see Isis since she was married. 
 
    "My tears are coming from my heart for my missing daughter and for 
my miserable life since she was taken away from me," he wrote. 
 
    Baguri confirmed that the new Muslim families do prevent the 
families from seeing their former families. Egyptian civil law further 
prohibits a girl under 21 from marrying without the consent of her father. 
 
    Morris Sadik, head of the Center for Egyptian Human Rights and the 
Consolidation of National Unity, claims to have files of 200 underage 
conversions and marriages, which he terms "kidnapping" and "rape". 
However, he was unable to provide the Middle East Times with records of more 
than 17 incidents. 
 
    Marilynn Tadross, deputy director of the Legal Research and 
Resource Center for Human Rights (LRRC), feels that while the conversions may 
be illegal, they are a way children can elope with a sweetheart or 
break out of difficult family situations. 
 
    "When I am a teenager and I fall in love with the neighbor's son we 
don't date in Egypt, we just get married and I know that because I am 
underage the police will bring me back to my parents, what I do is 
simply convert and then the parents can't get me back," said Tadross. 
 
    Tadross explained that the crusade to fight underage conversions 
can be damaging to the girl as they often convert to avoid family 
problems. She told the story of a13-year-old girl from Cairo who converted to 
Islam to escape beatings from her father and brother. 
 
    "Her brothers caught her kissing the neighbor's boy under the 
stairs and they beat [and] electrocuted her," explained Tadross. 
 
    "Thank God the girl managed to escape and she went to this boy and 
decided to convert. We do not have a system in Egypt in which a child 
can accuse the parents," she said. 
 
    Tadross explained that after Sadek's center complained that the 
girl had been "kidnapped" the police eventually returned her to her 
parents. 
 
    This article would have appeared in the 23 June 1997 issue of The 
Middle East Times.
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