8. Christian Solidarity International claiming forced conversion of Coptic girls to Islam

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Article summary: 

CSI’s focus on defending the religious freedom of persecuted Christians seems to lead them to very quickly interpret any incident, or rumor of an incident, as persecution. As a response, the author suggests that, rather than sending protest letters to the respective governments, international organizations should promote local peace building initiatives, which involve people from different groups and religions, who can together address violations of the freedom of religion.

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Egyptian newspaper al-Maydān reported on December 29, 2005, about claims that Christian girls are being abducted and forced to convert to Islam [See article 3 of this issue]. Such claims can also frequently be heard from certain international Christian organizations dealing with the issue of religious persecution. In spring 2005 the Swiss and German branches of Christian Solidarity International (CSI), an organization for the promotion of religious freedom, published a short report about Egypt under the title “Christianity soon out of date?” [Verfalldatum für Christen?] in German. [http://www.csi-schweiz.ch/csi_archiv.php?inhId=1117097807&bstFam=2&arc=1...

In this account, Egypt’s recent history is practically reduced to a chain of incidents, whose perpetrators call for “Holy War” against non-Muslims and even liberal Muslims based on the writings of Islamist scholar Sayyid Qutb – acts which range from the murder of President Sadat and liberal intellectual Faraj Fouda to Muhammad ‘Atā’s attack on the twin towers on 9/11 to the aggression of a Coptic “prayer location” in Samālout (December 3, 2004). CSI claims that “terrorists like the initiator of the first bombing (1993) on New York’s World Trade Center, Umar Abd al-Rahman, hold chairs at Cairo’s Al-Azhar University.” [In fact, he was a graduate of the Azhar, but not a professor, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sheikh_Omar_Abdel_Rahman.] CSI says the Azhar is “the highest spiritual authority in the Islamic world” which gives directions about the length of men’s beards and the way Muslim women should be beaten. CSI interprets the fact that Sharī‘a is the main source of legislation as saying that a Christian cannot rule over a Muslim and therefore “there are neither Christian governors nor rectors of universities nor members of the government.” This statement can be easily proven wrong by recent Egyptian history. For example, there was a Christian governor of South Sinai appointed in 1973, Fu’ād ‘Azīz Ghālī, and in January 2006, the Copt Maj. General Majdī Ayoub Iskandar, was installed as governor of Qinā (Upper Egypt) [see AWR week 51-05, art. 45] after having been assistant to the minister of the interior.

CSI gives examples of two Coptic girls which show that, “as the process of elimination of Christians in Egypt has been accelerated again, [the number of cases of] kidnaps and forced islamizations of Coptic girls is increasing.”

According to the statement of CSI, Nivīn Marqus (19) from the Church of St. Dimyāna in Alexandria is said to have disappeared from her home, and when she talked to her parents in a police station, she seemed to be under extreme psychological pressure when she said: “I am convinced of conversion to Islam.”

Heidi Hakīm Salīb (17) is said by CSI to have been “raped under influence of drugs and forced to wear a veil” by Mustafa Muhammad, who also tried to cut out the cross Heidi had tattooed unto her wrist, according to Coptic custom. When she talks to her parents at the police station at the moment when she should confirm her conversion to Islam, she claims to be married to Mustafa, “seemingly under the influence of drugs and suffering from hallucinations.” According to CSI, Mustafa chased the family to the monastery where they had fled with their daughter. After this incident, Heidi has again disappeared, her parents expecting her to be under control of her “Islamist ‘husband’”.

CSI does not state any sources for these forced conversion stories, and we did not get a response to our e-mail with request for more information about the cases and disclosure of their sources. The stories of both girls, Heidi Hakīm Salīb and Nivīn Marqus, can be found for example on http://www.human-rights-and-christian-persecution.org/coptic.html#Neveen.... Nivīn is the subject of a press release of the U.S. Copts Association on http://www.copts.net/detail.asp?id=686, a website entitled “the official site for the persecuted Copts in Egypt.” The story of Heidi is also found on http://www.copts.net/print.asp?id=548, which quoted it from WND http://worldnetdaily.com/news/article.asp?ARTICLE_ID=39212, a website which says to be “the No. 1 independent news site.” WND relies heavily on a statement by the Barnabas Fund, a Christian organization “for the persecuted Church.” The story was equally published in Egypt in al-Katība al-Tībiya (The Theban Legion), a problematic new Christian publication. [For a critical analysis of this publication see the report on polemics to be published in a following issue of Arab-West Report.]

Investigative researcher and Coptic human rights activist Rā’id al-Sharqāwi examined the claims made by CSI. He says that the man who was claimed to have kidnapped Nivīn, was arrested by the police. According to the official police file, Nivīn stated that she converted to Islam out of her free will and that she wanted to get married to this man. She is still married to him now, three years later, and she has never attempted to escape from this marriage. According to Sharqāwī, Nivīn’s father claimed that she was suffering from mental illness at the moment when she took the decision to convert, but Sharqāwī points out that such claims are often made by family members who do not want to believe that their loved ones converted and got married to someone of the other religion.

Further, Sharqāwī is living in the same neighborhood as Heidi, in Shubrā (Cairo; the reference CSI makes to her coming from Alexandria is wrong), and has followed the story for several years. He says Heidi made friends with the sister of Mustafa, who was a marginalized young man with drug problems. Her Christian friends in school warned her about this friendship, but Mustafa’s sister is said to have driven Heidi closer to Mustafa, with whom she finally fell in love. An analysis of Heidi’s story told by her brother, as published in al-Katība, shows though that the claim that physical force was used is not likely to be true. Because why would Heidi have left the house of her family, taking with her savings account book, jewelry and money, if she were not planning to escape with Mustafa? [See a detailed analysis by Nājī Bihmān, art. 9 in this issue.] Sharqāwī says that Heidi “refused to go back home with the family from Alexandria when they wanted to take her for protection in the House of the Virgin Mary in Khālid Ibn al-Walīd, Alexandria [this is what the CSI report refers to as the monastery, which is in fact a house where young Orthodox women in situations of crisis can find refuge], she escaped back to Cairo where she went with Mustafa and married him to live now near her house and her school” in Shubrā.

The cases of both girls mentioned by CSI would need further research though, especially the claims about organized attempts from Muslim extremists to lure Christian girls into marriage with Muslims and conversion to Islam.

Between 1995 and today, staff members of Arab-West Report [formerly called Religious News Service from the Arab World, RNSAW] have investigated around 200 of claims of forced conversion of Christian girls in Egypt and found not a single one of them to involve kidnap, i.e. the use of physical force to get young Coptic girls to convert to Islam. [The most comprehensive material is the report “Forced Conversions or not?”, New York Council of Churches, June 28, 1999 (RNSAW 1999, 26A, art. 37), the report “Conversions of Christians to Islam,” by Dr. Rodolph Yanney, January 9, 2001 (RNSAW 2001, 01A, art. 4) and the “Open letter to former US Congressman Pastor Ed McNeely” (AWR 2003, 30, art. 34). Also see AWR 2004, 28, arts. 21-22, 37-38, and AWR 2004, 36, art. 28 for the case of Injī Edward Nājī] In most cases, it was rather the male members of the family who claimed that their daughter was kidnapped in order to save the honor of the family and cover the shame it means for them that their daughter had a relationship with a Muslim man. Several girls have been found to see marriage with a Muslim man as the easiest way of escape from social problems, poverty or violence in their own family.

It seems that CSI Switzerland simply based their report on other publications without explicitly mentioning them, but CSI did not check the information with credible sources in Egypt. CSI’s focus on defending the religious freedom of persecuted Christians seems to lead them to very quickly interpret any incident, or rumor of an incident, as persecution. A look at the material currently posted on their website, including the list of books CSI recommends [http://www.csi-schweiz.ch/pdfs/literaturliste_islam.pdf], very clearly shows that they try to present Islam in the darkest possible picture – an attitude that is widespread in Evangelical circles with right-wing tendencies. This is even more alarming as the founder of CSI, Hansjürg Stückelberger, is a well-respected Protestant pastor in Switzerland.

Organizations like CSI frequently use the means of protest letters and e-mails to the governments of the respective countries as a means for pushing for change. [An example of an e-mail CSI supporters can send to President Mubarak: http://www.csi-schweiz.ch/protestbrief_aegypten.php?dil=188. The international organization of CSI even addressed President Bush, making outrageous claims about the religious situation in Egypt, in order to ask him to urge Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif “to end the persecution” of the Coptic community:

This way of intervention gets problematic when the protest is based on claims which have not been verified in the concerned country. In Egypt, such protest coming from people abroad, with potentially one-sided information, is often perceived as a means of trying to put pressure on Egypt from outside the country. Such campaigns create the impression of foreign interference, and therefore only create animosity against the West. Egyptians are convinced that internal problems, e.g. human rights violations, should and can be addressed and solved internally. 

Therefore, is there a constructive and effective alternative to sending protest letters? In my personal opinion, international organizations concerned with human rights and religious freedom should strengthen local civil society organizations which address problems and face challenges locally, calling for justice and human rights for all citizens of the country, not only for a specific group. International organizations should promote local peace building initiatives, which involve people from different groups and religions, who can together address violations of the freedom of religion.

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