WASHINGTON (BP)–Coptic Christian women in Egypt are being forced to marry and convert to Islam and that oppression is part of a larger pattern of persecution against Christians facilitated by the Egyptian government, according to two recent reports.
“Cases of abduction, forced conversion and marriage are usually accompanied by acts of violence which include rape, beatings, deprivation of food and other forms of physical and mental abuse,” said a new assessment by Christian Solidarity International and the Coptic Foundation for Human Rights.
At the same time, the 2009 U.S. State Department report on international religious freedom noted the Egyptian government fails to prosecute crimes against Copts and even has taken a hand in destroying church property and, in one case, a government official reportedly raped a woman who had converted from Islam to Christianity.
About 90 percent of the Egyptian population is Sunni Muslim, and the rest primarily identify themselves as Coptic Christians, according to the Human Rights Watch report “Prohibited Identities: State Interference with Religious Freedom.” Copts typically are underprivileged and experience discrimination.
Egyptian sex traffickers entice Coptic Christian women from low-income families by promising an escape from poverty, then force the women into Muslim “marriages” or outright slavery, according to the CSI/CFHR report.
“Such abuse remains covered in a cloak of silence and tacit acceptance, even though it is against the constitutional affirmations of civil rights,” the report said.
Once a Coptic girl is coerced into marriage and Islamic conversion, her family will not take her back, and if she leaves her “husband,” she is considered a “disgrace” to her family, the report said. In addition, the Coptic Orthodox Church excommunicates female members who wed Muslim men, the State Department said.
Since Islam is the “religion of state” in Egypt, conversion to Islam is easy, while returning to Christianity is unacceptable, the HRW report said. The Civil Status Department, which issues national identity cards, sometimes refuses to give Coptic women a new card identifying her as Christian since it is considered apostasy for a Coptic woman to leave Islam, even to return to her religion of origin.
Egyptian law requires every citizen to have an identity card for purposes such as voting, employment and education.
Most of the cases of Coptic women being coerced into marriage are not reported and “observers, including human rights groups, find it extremely difficult to determine whether compulsion was used, as most cases involve a female Copt who converts to Islam when she marries a Muslim male,” the State Department report said.
In two examples of coerced conversion, CSI/CFHR reported Nov. 10:
— An Egyptian woman was raped and beaten since she would not have sex with the man she was forced to marry. The Coptic cross on her wrist was later removed with acid.
— Another woman was forced to marry a Muslim lawyer and work for him in “slave-like conditions” for five years.
John Eibner, CSI’s chief executive officer, urged President Obama in a letter to combat the trafficking of Christian women and girls in Egypt and to make sure the U.S. makes this issue a priority in its relations with Egypt.
“Trafficking of Christian women in Egypt is not a new phenomenon…. But this problem has now reached boiling point within Egypt’s Coptic community, which views it as symptomatic of a much broader pattern of religious persecution,” Eibner said in his letter.
Cindy Ortiz is an intern with the Washington bureau of Baptist Press.