Kidnap ‘two girls a day’: The shocking agenda of Islamic extremists

March 3, 2021 by Lindy Lowry in Africa

In late 2020, teenage Maria (we can’t reveal her real name, age or specific home country to protect her) left to go to work. As her parents said goodbye, they didn’t know they wouldn’t see Maria for several days.

 

Neighbors showed up at her family’s home saying they had seen three armed men drag away their daughter.

 

“[The men] pointed their guns at her,” they told the family. Maria had been kidnapped.

Three days later, Maria’s parents saw their daughter again—in court. In front of her family, the teen looked at the judge and shared five words that would change all of their lives: “I have converted to Islam.”

Maria proceeded to speak in favor of her captor and even pleaded for his release. After hearing all the arguments, the court dismissed the police petition her family had filed. Tragically, Maria left with the same three men who kidnapped her.

One of the men had chosen Maria—who comes from a Christian family—to be his second wife.

I picture the faces of Maria’s parents when they heard their daughter say those words. What heartbreak.

But this is the dark reality. The heartbreak that happened to Maria and her family isn’t rare, especially in places where Muslim radicals can operate with no consequences, where Christians are discriminated against and attacked. In these places, in 2021, believers are facing a silent epidemic: Christian girls and women taken from the streets and their homes, then forced to convert and marry a Muslim man.

It is an epidemic with an overarching agenda: to destroy God’s Church.

Two girls each day

EACH DAY, At least two women/girls are abducted for their faith with the intention of forced conversion and marriage or trafficking.

Across many of the countries on Open Doors’ World Watch List, both “forced marriage” and “sexual violence” tie as the top global trend in how Christian women are targeted for their faith, according to Open Doors’ recently released WWL 2021 Gender-Specific Religious Persecution Report. Another recent study by the US-based nonprofit Coptic Solidarity estimates about 500 such cases in Egypt within the last decade.

And in Pakistan, the trend is also growing at record-high rates, Hana, one of our ministry partners in the Gulf region, tells me. “Nowadays, there are at least two cases of disappearing Christian women and girls each day,” she says. And that’s just in her region.

Kidnappers are no respecters of age. In November 2020, our field shared about the abduction of a 13-year-old Pakistani girl named Arzoo whose story is eerily similar to Maria’s. A 44-year-old Muslim extremist kidnapped the young girl from her home in Karachi while her parents were at work. A few days later, before a court, the man presented a marriage certificate.

Targeted for faith—and gender

Kidnapping and forced marriage are just the beginning. A new report from Open Doors shows the reality of how Christian men and women are targeted differently.

Get the report

During the hearing, Arzoo declared her belief in Islam and told the judges she was 18. A judge declared she had converted to Islam of her own free will and returned Arzoo to her kidnapper. Our partners tell us that afterward, Arzoo tried to run to her mother, but her new “husband’s” tight grip on her arm stopped her.

Like Maria, she left with her abductors.

A leader in Arzoo’s community articulated the horrific reality: “Her reactions, responses and behaviors are those of a brainwashed child,” he said. Thankfully, the court subsequently ordered the arrest of Arzoo’s kidnapper. We can only imagine what she suffered in captivity.

Strengthen Islam and weaken Christianity

While it may seem as if these are isolated cases of abduction for the purpose of forcibly converting a Christian to Islam (and in some cases, they might be), sources we have talked to tell us that something much larger and intricate is driving this persecution.

Actual organized networks of kidnappers are at work. In a rare interview, a former member of a network actively targeting Coptic Christian girls and women in Egypt told us these networks have tens of thousands of members financed by wealthy Muslim radicals, mostly from Saudi Arabia. The Egyptian man and former Muslim (we’ll call him Amun) confirmed the aim of the kidnapping networks: “to strengthen Islam and weaken Christianity.”

“These men marry purely to convert more women to Islam,” he said, adding that many victims are handed over to extremists in an effort to cripple Christian populations and bolster Islam.

Amun was part of a Salafist group, an extremist movement within Sunni Islam that calls for the restoration of authentic Islam. He offered specific details of how a kidnapping starts and progresses toward the end goal: “A group of kidnappers meets in a mosque to discuss potential victims. They keep a close eye on Christians’ houses and monitor everything that’s going on. On that basis, they weave a spider’s web around [the girls].

“The Salafist group I knew rented apartments in different areas of Egypt to hide kidnapped Coptic girls,” said Amun, who left Islam and the kidnapping ring several years ago. “They would put them under pressure and threaten them to convert to Islam. If all goes according to plan, the girls are also forced into marriage with a strict Muslim.”

[Editor’s note: The following paragraphs contain disturbing descriptions of sexual violence and assault; please read with discernment.]

Amun described the “pressure” —shocking details that reveal the disturbing reality faced by these Christian women. “She will be hit and humiliated,” he said. “And if she tries to escape or convert back to her original religion, she will be killed.”

Shame is also a weapon. Kidnappers do things as vile as filming the rape of a girl or woman and threatening to make the video public as a means of forcing her into marriage. In an interview with the Washington Times, Mary Abdelmassih, a Coptic activist in Egypt, explained: “They tell her they’ll send the pictures to her family. She’d rather die than have that happen and live in shame.”

And while law enforcement may be our first course of action in the event of crime, in both Egypt and Pakistan local police are often not effective recourse for those who follow Jesus. The tentacles of corruption and persecution reach deep, with police officials in some areas working in collusion with kidnappers. Police who cooperate receive a part of the financial reward the networks pay kidnappers. The value of the reward increases whenever the victim is the daughter of a church leader or comes from a well-known Christian family.

In some cases, police provide drugs they seize to kidnappers who use them to weaken their victims. “I even know of cases in which police officers helped to beat up the girls to make them recite the Islamic creed,” Amun says.

The kidnapping of one girl has far-reaching impact—extremists use it as a tool to cripple a family, churches and whole communities.

Silent and silenced

Even if police aren’t specifically involved, Christian families tell us that officials seldom do anything when they report a suspected kidnapping or file a report. For the most part, police are biased against Christians.

The parents of 16-year-old Hoda Atef Ghali Girgis know this firsthand. Hoda got into a taxi to come home from an Easter party at her church in Imbaba, Egypt. But she never returned home. Her parents filed a report with the police, but officials have taken no real action to recover the young girl. She is still missing.

Maria’s family encountered the same situation: “We rushed to the police station to ask for help,” her father says. “Because we were Christians, the policemen were reluctant to even take a first incident report.”

“The police don’t report it as a kidnap but say the girl ‘went missing,’” Amun explained. “Sometimes they don’t even open up an investigation. This way, they cover up the crimes of those they see as their Muslim brothers.”

However, in both Egypt and the Gulf region, Open Doors ministry partner Hana notes that the majority of families don’t even file reports. The known reputation of local police is one reason, but there is a deeper cause.

“They have been silenced,” Hana says.

Families often receive such harsh threats—sometimes from kidnappers, sometimes by corrupt police—as a warning of what will happen to the rest of their family if they pursue the situation.

Marginalized and devalued

In many ways, what’s happening to Christian women in these countries mirrors the worldwide $150 billion a year sex trafficking industry I’ve written about for the last 15-plus years. In both arenas, kidnappers and traffickers are organized, undergirded by large networks. Tactics like drugs, abduction, shame and romance are employed. And kidnappers often target the most vulnerable—the poor, the uneducated, the depressed. Most important, the surrounding culture is complicit, marginalizing and devaluing women in various ways that open the door for exploitation.

Helene Fisher, global gender persecution specialist for Open Doors International, underscores the part culture plays: “In contexts of severe religious repression, the inequalities and violence which adolescent girls regularly grow up with are also used to endanger the freedom and future of Christian girls because of their faith.” Fisher notes that being a Christian in a Muslim-majority society makes a girl or woman doubly vulnerable to attacks and abduction.

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the situation, making Christian girls and women in these countries even more vulnerable to this unimaginable form of persecution.

“There were fewer people on the street, which meant less protection,” Hana said.

This article is excerpted from appeared in Presence magazine. Visit here to read it in its entirety.

Your prayers are our lifeline’

In the midst of such darkness, the light of Christ is critical. Hana asks everyone who reads her words to pray fervently for Christian girls and women.

“During our time on earth, we will hear of many Marias, Arzoos and Hodas. There is so much injustice in this world, But we cling to the promise of Psalm 136—that Christ’s love endures forever and, like Psalm 3 tells us, He is our shield, our glory and the lifter of our heads.”

Your prayers give Christians like Maria, Arzoo and Hoda, as well as their families, the courage to stand and lift their eyes upward.

  • Pray for abducted girls and women who, right now, need to know they’re not alone.
  • Pray for justice and recovery as our teams fight for our sisters.
  • Pray with traumatized and grieving family members.
    • Pray with Christian churches and communities that suffer so much when a girl is taken.
  • Pray for Open Doors teams as we train and disciple believers to pray and grow in their faith.
  • Pray for protection for our sisters as they walk to and from their factory jobs every morning and evening.
    • Pray that God will convict and turn the hearts of kidnappers and police officers.
  • Pray for wisdom and favor for Open Doors’ advocacy group that’s working behind the scenes.

 

Their only hope

Praise God! Maria managed to escape her captors. We don’t know details, just that someone helped her. Later, Maria confirmed she had never actually converted to Islam of her own free will but was forced to out of fear. She had been kidnapped and abused by some of her coworkers. Currently, Maria and her family are in hiding.

“Most kidnapped girls never truly convert to Islam,” Hana said. “They say the words and outwardly perform all the Muslim duties, but Jesus still lives in their heart.”

But like the estimated 40 million-plus girls and women abducted and coerced or forced into sex trafficking each year, the heartbreaking truth is that recovery of Christian girls and women abducted because of their faith is slow and often unsuccessful.

“There’s usually only minimal recovery,” Hana said. “The families don’t get out of survival mode. We have to spend a lot of time with them, once they are ready and open.” Hana reminds us most of these families are Christians but have very little Bible knowledge. They haven’t been discipled or pastored.

“We need to re-preach the gospel into their lives,” she said. “That’s their only hope.” Hana has seen transformation. “When we get in full touch with the families and are able to send pastoral workers, we can pray with them, share from the Word and counsel.”

In a seemingly hopeless situation, hope is still alive. Thanks to your gifts and prayers, Open Doors is able to offer this kind of support.

“Now, after our fellowship and teaching, [these grieving families] know the God who they pray to,” Hana said. “Their spiritual eyes are opened. They can confront the brokenness of this world with the wholeness of God.”

Step into the lives of persecuted believers

Through your gift today, you’ll help believers around the world as they experience persecution for following Jesus. From coming alongside families of believers kidnapped for their faith and helping traumatized families in Egypt and Pakistan to discipling refugees from North Korea and working with indigenous churches on secret projects in countries we can’t disclose, your gift strengthens the Church to stand for Jesus in the midst of insecure conditions.

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