Inter Press Service
When a young Christian girl goes missing in the Egyptian port city of Alexandria, her family will call on a certain Muslim sheikh in the nearby town of El-Ameriya.
The local Salafi leader, whose ultra-conservative views condone the marriage of girls as young as nine, has a history of abducting Coptic Christian girls and forcing them to convert to Islam and marry Muslim men, claim rights activists.
And so the sheikh and his associates are the natural starting point for any investigation into missing underage Christian girls. And, according to activists, that is usually where they find them.
“Whenever a young girl disappears in the area the trail leads to this sheikh,” says Mamdouh Nakhla, chairman of the Al Kalema Organisation for Human Rights.
In a recent case, a 13-year-old Coptic Christian girl from a village near Alexandria was allegedly kidnapped and held for over a week as her abductors tried to force her to renounce her religion.
According to her testimony, she was drugged unconscious while in a taxi on her way home from school. She woke up in a secluded house with two Salafi sheikhs and an elderly woman. Her abductors forced her to wear niqab, a full veil covering the body and face, and beat her when she refused to convert to Islam.
Girgis claims she was released nine days later when the sheikhs became nervous after her family organised large demonstrations for her return. The Salafis turned her over to police, who feared the girl’s testimony would spark sectarian clashes, and so tried to convince her to claim she had wilfully gone to a sheikh seeking to convert to Islam.
“The only thing unusual (about this case) was that the girl was returned,” says Nakhla. “In one case I investigated a kidnapped girl was allowed to call her parents, but in all others the girl was never heard from again.”
Christian rights watchdogs say abductions and forced conversions of young Egyptian Coptic girls have been going on for decades right under the noses of local authorities. But the frequency of the kidnappings has increased alarmingly since the uprising in 2011 that toppled dictator Hosni Mubarak and brought an Islamist-led government to power.
More than 500 Christian girls have been abducted in the last two years, according to the Association of Victims of Abduction and Forced Disappearance (AVAFD), which documents the disappearances. A growing number of cases involve girls between the ages of 13 and 17.
AVAFD head Abram Louis claims the abducted girls are taken to ‘safe’ houses, where they are manipulated or blackmailed into converting to Islam and forced to marry Muslim men, often to serve as second wives.
“If we inform the police where the kidnapped girl is being kept, they inform the Salafis, who then move her away to another home and then we lose all trace of her,” Louis said in a recent interview.
“Egypt has laws in place to protect girls under 18, but Salafis do not accept them,” says Amal Abdel Hadi, head of the New Woman Foundation. “To them, a girl is only a minor until she has her first period.”…