Conversion tensions strike again
Fayoum remains tense, even though a three-day protest by
the Coptic youth community over the conversion of two university
students to Islam has ended. Jailan
It appears as though things are back to normal in Fayoum after three
days of demonstrations by the Coptic youth community at the Mar Girgis
Church, in denunciation of what the protesters described as the forced
conversion of two young Coptic women to Islam. However, as Al-Ahram
Weekly toured the town, it became abundantly clear that the tension
lay just below the surface. Despite the fact that the sit-in has ended,
the hearts and minds of Fayoum residents remain troubled by the events
that have taken place; so much so that the current state of peace may
just be the calm before yet another storm.
Tensions came to a head on Saturday, when hundreds of angry Coptic
youth began demonstrating at the Mar Girgis Church. Holding crosses in
their hands, they chanted anti- regime slogans and demanded that the
young women who had allegedly been forcibly converted to Islam be
returned to their community.
The demonstration only ended when the Interior Ministry released a
statement indicating that the two young women -- identified as Fayoum
University medical students Maryan Ayyad and Teres Ibrahim -- had been
taken to a nearby hotel for their own security. The statement also said
that Ayyad and Ibrahim had been handed over to their parents. It did not
indicate the young women's current religious status.
At the church late Monday, however, the tension was still palpable.
When a reporter from the Weekly approached the scene, several
young girls immediately asked, "Are you a Copt or a Muslim?" 14-year-old
Iman then immediately said, "we know why you are here -- to find out
about the two girls who took a taxi home from university with their male
colleagues, who drugged and kidnapped them to force them into Islam. Now
that we have protested, the news is everywhere, and the girls have been
returned to their parents."
Other, older individuals at the church chose not to speak, saying
they "don't have the authority to do so". They said they had to ask
their bishop first, but all indications were that they did not intend to
At another, nearby church, there were no officials who were willing
to speak. The Weekly was told to contact a bishop named Abram at
a nearby monastery. At the monastery, it was much the same scene. After
several priests told the Weekly to wait by the entrance while
they asked whether the bishop would agree to speak, none of them came
back. Soon thereafter, security officials asked the Weekly to
leave the monastery immediately.
At Ayyad's residence, a modest, peaceful- looking building with
children playing football in the adjacent street, the neighbours pointed
to a third floor window where the lights were on. No one answered the
door, however, and a few minutes later, the lights were turned off.
On the streets, not a single Copt would agree to comment on the
Most Muslims in Fayoum, meanwhile, were critical of the protests,
saying they reflected "weakness". A young man named Mohamed said he
"personally did not mind if a Muslim girl were to convert, [because] we
don't need someone whose loyalty to our faith is in doubt".
According to a security official speaking to the Weekly on
customary condition of anonymity, "the Copts blew the situation out of
proportion. Their accusations that the girls were kidnapped by Muslims
to force them to convert are baseless, and they know the true story more
than anyone else."
According to the security source, both girls voluntarily converted
after studying Islam. The fact that they were students at a university
where the majority are devout Muslims also played a role, he said.
Afraid of their parents' reactions, the girls then hid at one of their
friends' houses; when news of their disappearance was made public, they
ran to the police for protection, "but unfortunately, we again succumbed
to church pressure and handed them over to their parents, instead of
protecting them -- the same scenario that took place with the priest's
The reference was to a recent incident involving 47-year-old Wafaa
Constantine, a priest's wife who was reported missing by her brother in
late November. Five days later, officials informed her family that she
had converted to Islam, and was residing with a Muslim family. Being the
wife of a priest, Constantine's conversion provoked the anger of many
Copts, who immediately refuted the official story. Instead, they claimed
that Constantine had been brainwashed into converting by a Muslim
colleague she had supposedly fallen in love with. Questioned by the
police, Constantine's colleague described the allegations as baseless.
In any case, a Coptic woman does not need to convert in order to marry a
After several days of occasionally violent demonstrations by Coptic
youth at the cathedral in Abbasiya, the police handed Constantine over
to the church.
Both incidents have triggered criticism from analysts who argued that
the government was succumbing to Coptic pressure, and thus infringing on
a person's right to remain with a faith they have voluntarily chosen.
Regardless of whether the victims are Copts or Muslims, political
analysts said, the consequences of handling such situations on a purely
security level might end up being grave. What appeared to be a minor
conflict, they said, might eventually turn into sectarian strife.