Al-Ahram Weekly Online   3 - 9 March 2005
Issue No. 732
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

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 Halawi reports

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 do so.

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 incident.

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 wife."

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 Muslim man.

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.

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