Kidnapping, forced conversion and collective punishment haunt Egypt’s Copts
It has been two months since Members of an ethnic religious group from North Africa but primarily Egypt, where they are the largest Christian denomination in the country. Christians in an Upper Egypt village endured a traumatic sequence of events ending in heavy police abuse. The victims have yet to receive any justice from the state security authorities who broke the law and committed multiple human rights violations.
On September 16, in Deir Gabal al-Teir village, Egyptian security forces burst into several Coptic homes in the middle of the night. They proceeded to steal and destroy the families’ belongings before dragging dozens of residents out of their beds, binding their hands behind their backs and beating them with their batons. The police then dragged the stunned believers to the police station by a single rope.
This violent assault was a collective punishment on the villagers in response to a demonstration initiated by a group of Copts the previous day. They had protested outside the station to pressure the police to investigate the disappearance of a 39-year-old Coptic woman, Iman Morqos Saroufim, two weeks earlier
Her family initially filed a police report on September 3, claiming that she was kidnapped by Muslim Sami Ahmed Abd al-Rahman. Authorities responded by saying that they were unable to help, declaring that they believed Saroufim ran away willingly, and had also converted to Islam since leaving her family.
After two weeks of her friends and family’s unsuccessful negotiations with security and executive leaders of the province, hundreds of members of her Coptic community organized a demonstration outside the police station. The protest turned violent, leaving a police vehicle and a civil defence vehicle with broken windshields.
The police used tear gas to disperse the protestors and then carried out the violent raid on their village late that night. On September 26, Saroufim unexpectedly returned to her family and told the media that she had “escaped.”
Speaking with Mideast Christian News (MCN), she said that a Muslim man abducted her. “He tried to force me to go with him to Al-Azhar to convert to Islam, but I refused. He took another veiled woman to Al-Azhar, pretending she was me, to change my religion. He managed to change my religion using my photo.”
Despite the brutality of the collective punishment, no police were charged for the attack. In a meeting between Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim and a Coptic delegation from the Minya governorate on September 23, Ibrahim promised to compensate the owners of the homes for any damages.
Editor Youssef Sidhom of Watani International said he was not satisfied with this type of response, “A non-biased investigation is needed into the brutal police response to the wrathful protest of the Coptic villagers against police failure—rather, inaction—to find the missing woman and bring her home.”
“The way the police handled the events cannot be merely brushed over. It implies that we accept the police going back to their previous savagery and horror practices,” Sidhom said.
Moktar Younan, a Copt from Deir Gabal al-Teir, told MCN On October 5, “The residents of the village are waiting for a decision from the government on compensating them for the damage occurred to them due to the attack committed after the disappearance of Saroufim.”
The Egyptian police had previously used this form of collective punishment with impunity against entire communities as common practice.
“If some demonstrators attacked police personnel and hurled stones at them, then it is a transgression that needs to be addressed in accordance to the law. But in no way does it justify the use of collective punishment on the village, use of excessive violence, and engaging in degrading practices,” said Ishak Ibrahim, an officer for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR).
On October 2, EIPR urged the public prosecutor to launch an investigation into allegations against the police, and into allegations made by Saroufim against the Interior Ministry.
“The unfortunate events that took place in Deir Gabal al-Teir revealed the roots of the main problem, which is the absence of a clear policy and specific laws to guarantee the freedom of faith, regardless of what it is, and the freedom of citizens to change their religion whenever they want,” said EIPR in its press release.
“It is the state’s responsibility to resolve sectarian disputes following the principle of the rule of law, without engaging in collective punishment, customary law, or other methods that do not indicate respect for the citizenship rights of religious minorities,” EIPR said.
In terms of the long-standing issue of kidnapped Christian women, Ebram Louis believes that demonstrations are the only method to force police to take any action to return these women. Louis, the founder of the Association for the Victims of Abductions and Enforced Disappearances told MCN on October 17 that the position of Egyptian police is biased against Christians whose daughters have been kidnapped by Muslims.
“Police are notorious for not acting,” he said, even if the girl has been missing for 24 hours and the family has been threatened for ransom, “because they are afraid of the militant groups.”
“They did not even follow up [with] phone calls, identify the callers or arrest perpetrators. The police have not helped the families of the kidnapped girls at all. Moreover, some police officers told the families not to search for their kidnapped daughters, as they converted to the right religion,” Louis said.
Without any protection, it is especially easy for kidnappers to target members of rich Egyptian families and extort them for ransom. “Copts are still suffering from the incidents of kidnapping for ransom,” EIPR’s Ibrahim emphasized to MCN in an October 18 report.
Father, we bring before You these Christians in Egypt and ask that You would cover them with Your protection and bring about justice. We pray that their daughters would be protected against kidnapping and forced conversion to Islam. We pray for church leaders; that You would grant wisdom in how to stand up effectively on behalf of their daughters in God-honoring ways, trusting in Your power to save. We pray for Iman Morqos Saroufim; that You would continue to protect her and work through the legal issues regarding the forced conversion. May this situation, and others like it, bring to light the injustices and result in Your glory being extended across the nation. In the name of Jesus, our shield and sure defense, Amen.