December 09 2004 at 02:32AM



Christians deplore 'forced' conversions

Cairo - At least 20 Egyptian policemen have been injured on Wednesday after a group of 1 000 Christians staging a sit-in at the compound of the main Coptic cathedral in Cairo threw rocks at them, a journalist said.

Roads leading to the cathedral, the seat of Pope Shenuda III, head of the Coptic Church, were sealed off, as the police tried to restore calm and restrain a protest over the disappearance of a priest's wife in the delta governorate of Beheira.

The protesters claimed 48-year-old public sector agricultural engineer Wafaa Constantine was abducted by her Muslim boss, Mohammed al-Margun, and forced to convert to Islam.

Nearly 400 Egyptian Christians demonstrated on Sunday at the cathedral and accused police of complicity.

The demonstrators, mostly young people, called on police to return the woman to her husband and family and chanted slogans calling on President Hosni Mubarak to intervene. "O Mubarak, the hearts of Copts are burning with fire," they said. Father Philamon, the Orthodox Coptic priest in Abul Matamir, near the northern city of Alexandria, said Constantine, the wife of another priest in the town, had disappeared on November 27.  He charged that two similar cases had taken place in the town in the past six months.  Philamon accused Abul Matamir police of "pretending that Christians were converting to Islam of their own free will, which is false."

The demonstrators said they would maintain a sit-in until "police return the wife of the priest". - Sapa-AFP