Arab West Report Middle East Published Articles

Bring Back our Coptic Girls

Coptic Kidnapping

Seeking commonality with the outrage over the schoolgirls kidnapped in Nigeria by Boko Haram, Ebram Louis and the Association of Victims of Abductions and Enforced Disapperances (AVAED) is launching a hashtag of his own. #BringBackOurCopticGirlsEgypt.

I might advise to remove the ‘Egypt’ from the hashtag, thinking ‘Coptic’ builds sufficiently on the now viral #BringBackOurGirls. But Ebram is a dedicated advocate and researcher, and the issue of kidnapped Coptic women is longstanding.

Here I share some recent reflections on the issue, from an article in Arab West Report, excerpting my reflection on the difficulty of this research:

One of the greatest horrors that can befall a family is the sudden disappearance of their child. No country in the world could doubt such tragedy. Why then does controversy surround Coptic minors?

There are two prominent reasons, and both relate to the contested sectarian nature of Egyptian society. While Muslims and Christians live side by side as neighbors, colleagues, and often friends, there is an undercurrent of tension among many, stemming from religious identity. During a moment of crisis or a community dispute, sides can be drawn along religious lines.

Many Christians harbor suspicions that the Islam in a Muslim will push an otherwise friendly neighbor to discrimination, or worse. Many Muslims harbor criticisms that Christians are actually treated better than the average Muslim in society, yet complain constantly. While this tension is generally unspoken a disappearance can shatter the peace.

The first reason is due to an often heard accusation: The girl was kidnapped, with blame assigned to extremist Salafi Muslims. Salafis are understood to be very traditional, and though not necessarily anti-Coptic in essence, often hold a viewpoint assigning non-Muslims a secondary status as if in the historical Islamic caliphate. They also believe in early marriage for women, often below the Egyptian legal age of consent of eighteen. Combining these two characteristics it is posited that some Salafis will kidnap Coptic minors and convert them to Islam to weaken their community, and then marry them off within the Muslim fold.

Setting aside for now the legitimacy of this accusation, it is easy to comprehend its inflammatory nature within a sectarian-laced society. Muslims would be horrified to imagine that such a crime is committed, but furthermore, that it is committed on a religious rationale. But at the same time the alleged crime touches the nerve points of Coptic consciousness, molded over centuries of living within that historical secondary status. Raising the accusation offends Muslims, denying it embitters Christians.

The second reason is due to the social setting surrounding the accusation of kidnapping. Much of Egypt maintains a patriarchal attachment to women, attaching their purity to the family or community’s status of honor and shame. If a woman loses her virginity outside of marriage the offense is felt by the community. A woman who disappears puts their honor at risk, no matter the reason for her absence.

This charged setting is amplified if the suspected disappearance crosses religious lines, in any direction. But first imagine the situation is not one of forced disappearance, but simply of individual choice. The decision of a female to attach herself in relationship outside of family approval is a scandal; it is even greater if the relationship is with a man of a different religion. The reasons can be many and are essentially human: Often they are of love, money, or the desire to escape a difficult home situation. The temptation can therefore be very strong for a family to defend its damaged honor by claiming their daughter has been kidnapped.

These two reasons help explain the controversy, but there is a third factor that may or may not be equally sectarian. The Egyptian state, especially outside of the major population centers, is notoriously weak. Police investigations are often feeble, and the judicial system takes years to process a case. Community transgressions are often left to be solved by the community – with security looking on – and if the crime takes place across religious lines the two sides are encouraged-cum-compelled to ‘reconcile’.

What is more difficult to say is if there is an additional sectarian aspect in police conduct. Christians often accuse security of paying even less attention to crimes against their community. In cases of disappearance of minors, sometimes they fail to investigate at all. Is this due to individual fanaticism, institutional bias, or simply a common indifference?

But the end result for many families is they may have no idea if their daughter was kidnapped or not. She is simply gone. It could be she ran away from home to join her boyfriend. It could be she ran away, but then is met with a host of barriers denying her ability to return. Among these, it is claimed, is the pressure placed on her by the Muslim family, implying the horrors of what will happen to her if she goes back, having violated her family’s honor. Whatever violence she might face, she knows the shame she brought them.

Or, perhaps she was outright kidnapped. Especially following the revolution kidnapping has become a potentially lucrative career given the security vacuum. But if the police do not give due diligence to the cries of a distraught family, what conclusions can they draw? Even if she wishes to marry freely, even if she wishes to convert to Islam freely, the law prohibits these actions until she is eighteen. As a minor, she must be returned to her family. Very often, the law fails.

And also the fact that in a country of more than 85 million people, any one person’s individual problem is drowned in a sea of difficulty and inequity. In order to get the attention of authorities, one must yell louder than everyone else. ‘Kidnapping’ makes for a very loud scream.

Given all the above, this is why proper research into a disappearance is essential. Without it, not only can religious and social taboos be violated, but far worse, the girl may never return home.

But when research must take place independent of the properly invested authorities, it also acquires an air of advocacy. But what can be more appropriate? The task is to put right a wrong, not study sociology.

As such, Ebram Louis is both a researcher and an activist.

The rest of the article profiles his work through the Association for Victims of Abductions and Forced Disappearances. I have written about him earlier, and you can additionally click here for more information.

Ebram Louis
Ebram Louis

But the article closes with his idea for solving the issue. One of his colleagues proposed going through the newly formed Ministry of Transitional Justice, to right past wrongs. Louis, however, wishes to resurrect an old practice:

One possible solution can help sort through the vagary, and is endorsed thoroughly by AVAED. In 2004 in a case similar to that of Camīliah Shihātah, Wafā’ Constantine, another wife of a priest, sparked rumors and demonstrations when she disappeared. Eventually she was returned to the church, but the antagonism that developed between the church and security led to canceling the then-mandatory ‘counseling sessions’ for anyone wishing to convert to Islam.

These sessions were instituted in order to make certain that anyone expressing interest in Islam did so from their full and free will. The would-be convert would meet with a priest under supervision of security, and express his or her desire. The priest had the opportunity to counsel the individual back to the faith, and the presence of security ostensibly ensured an atmosphere of non-coercion.

Reinstituting these counseling sessions would not eliminate the problem of disappearances, but it would carve out space to explore the argument that these young Coptic women are converting to Islam freely. Of course, this only applies when they are of age; otherwise, the law must rule and return all minors to their families. But in the controversial cases where an initial love relationship becomes complicated, a formal procedure to evaluate and process a conversion to Islam would remove much ambiguity from the controversy of disappearances.

Of course, rule of law and freedom of religion are much more basic solutions, but given the nature of Egyptian reality, they are unfortunately not simple solutions. Except for the basic fact that families do not know where their children are, little about this issue is simple.

Please click here to read the full article at Arab West Report.


An Anecdote on Christian Kidnapping

From Slate, a unique first-person account of travels to Upper Egypt, to witness the alleged surge in weapons trading. The journalists find a sleepy town filled with older arms models, feuding families, and unengaged police, but little evidence of proliferation.

But they do encounter a local thug:

A man in a karakul hat—a favorite with Soviet party leaders and Bond villains—strides up to our table and sits next to the omda [village mayor]. He regards us with a rather unctuous smile, revealing his coffee- and nicotine-stained teeth.

Before he arrived we had been talking about government negligence. He offers us a curious anecdote. We’re, it seems, in the company of a kidnapper.

He is a kidnapper armed with what he and the omda’s pals think is unassailable logic. That is, without loans from agricultural banks—who refuse them on “security grounds”—he and other farmers are left without a steady income. Kidnapping, being a very lucrative trade, allows him and others like him to purchase property and build.

“Some ask why we target Christians and not Muslims,” he says with a smirk, looking at my colleague and me. “Because our [Muslim] men are not worth as much.”

He turns to one of the omda’s friends, a Christian who is seated at the table. “It’s nothing personal.”

Often amid the evidence of Christian persecution in Egypt is the tragedy of Christians being kidnapped. Many times the stories say the victims, usually underage girls, are forced to marry and convert to Islam. Surely some of these stories are true, sometimes perhaps not.

But this anecdote reminds us the reality is very complex. Some might use this version alone to deny the more obvious persecution accounts. But a single, simple narrative is best to advance a cause, on whatever side of the issue you advocate.

Meanwhile, muddying the waters in complexity works well to promote confusion and immobility, denting outrage through a fog of uncertainty. It elevates the status of the ‘expert’, but does little to help everyday realities.

God help us. The task is a commitment to both truth and justice. Truth includes the diversity of anecdotes, testing every narrative to divide the wheat and the chaff. Justice proceeds further, to process the wheat and cast off the chaff. The former is made useful into sustaining bread; the latter deemed worthless and thrown to the wind or fire.

May we remember, and act accordingly. And, may all kidnapping cease.

Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Why Egypt’s Christian Families are Paying Ransom

Coptic Ransom

From my recent article at Christianity Today, published online on January 8, 2014, and in the Jan/Feb print edition:

In 2011, Nadia Makram, 13, was walking home from church near her working-class Cairo neighborhood when she vanished.

Her mother, Martha, went to the police, who refused to file a report. Soon after, Martha received a call demanding $15,000. She went back to the police, who registered a complaint but noted only Nadia’s disappearance.

When the police did nothing, Martha gathered money from family and friends and traveled to a village 65 miles south.

Martha met Nadia’s 48-year-old kidnapper in the home of the local mayor. After she handed over the money, the men showed her what they called a “marriage certificate.” Nadia, they said, had converted to Islam and married her abductor. Martha left empty-handed—an increasingly common story among Coptic Christians. Abductions have increased sharply in the past few months.

The article deals with grassroots efforts to uncover these cases, some of the details in paying ransoms, theological reflection from an Egyptian seminary professor who’s relative was a victim, and budding hopes that a new government ministry might partially solve this issue.

Please click here to read the rest of the article at Christianity Today. (photo credit: AP/Thomas Hartwell)

Atlantic Council Middle East Published Articles

Ebram Louis and the Contested Nature of Coptic Disappearances

Ebram Louis
Ebram Louis

From my recent article on Egypt Source:

Maryam Milad disappeared in 2012. Last seen in the church of St. Anthony in Shubra, her father believes his now eighteen year old daughter has been kidnapped and perhaps married off to a Salafi Muslim somewhere. Police, he says, have been uncooperative.

“I plead with all the authorities in Egypt,” he said at a prayer meeting highlighting more than a dozen similar cases. “Put yourselves in the place of us parents.”

According to Ebram Louis, founder of the Association for the Victims of Abductions and Enforced Disappearances (AVAED), this is just the tip of the iceberg. He has documented 500 such cases since the revolution.

The article describes his process of documentation, and reveals interesting statistics from AVAED’s findings:

But according to AVAED chief field researcher George Nushi, up to 60 percent of all cases are [stemming from initial love relations]. Most of these, he said, involve Muslims of bad intention. The girl becomes infatuated, but then she is told she cannot go home again.

There are violent cases, but they are limited in number. Even so, AVAED sees religious extremism involved prominently:

“We do not say ‘kidnapping’ in the beginning,” he said, “We say ‘disappearance.’” Nushi says only 5 percent of girls suffered violent kidnappings in the traditional sense.

How does he then have such certainty that malevolent, organized Salafi groups are involved? Of their 500 cases, ten have escaped to tell their story. These stories reveal patterns which indicate similar activity, locations, and even phone numbers.

This issue requires deep research and understanding of the Egyptian social and cultural settings, far deeper than the scope of this article. But please click here to read the rest at Egypt Source.


Kidnapping Christians in Upper Egypt

From the AP, providing an excellent and balanced account of reported Christian kidnappings in Upper Egypt. Following the Fox News story I highlighted two days ago, this is the type of investigation the issue deserves. I’m both jealous and proud, and quite concerned over the content:

Crime has risen in general across Egypt, hitting Muslims as well. But the wave of kidnappings in Minya has specifically targeted Christians, and victims, church leaders and rights activists ultimately blame the atmosphere created by the rising power of hard-line Islamists.

They contend criminals are influenced by the rhetoric of radical clerics depicting Egypt’s Christian minority as second-class citizens and see Christians as fair game, with authorities less likely to investigate crimes against the community.

Over the past two years, there have been more than 150 reported kidnappings in the province — all of them targeting Christians, according to a top official at the Interior Ministry, which is in charge of the police.

Of course, I wish this official’s name was provided. Egypt is a nation of rumors, and much reporting is based on ‘sources’ obtained from the military, police, judiciary, Muslim Brotherhood, whoever – and it often seems the purpose is to steer the media discourse without owning responsibility for the accusation. But here is an official who provides his name:

Responding to the allegations that authorities do not aggressively investigate crimes against Christians, Minya’s security chief Ahmed Suleiman said it is because victims’ families negotiate with kidnappers rather than report the abductions.

“We cannot be held responsible for kidnappings that are not reported to us,” he said, blaming hardened criminals for the kidnappings.

Christians say they don’t bother to report because they have no confidence in the police.

And here is the Islamist denial of responsibility along with a highly controversial and politically expedient remedy:

Essam Khairy, a spokesman for the hard-line Islamist group Gamaa Islamiya in Minya, said “there is not a single case of Christian kidnapping that has a sectarian motive or linked to the Islamist groups.”

He blamed the “security chaos” in Egypt and said the way to stop kidnappings is to create popular committees — vigilante groups that the Gamaa Islamiya has been promoting since a spate of strikes in the police last month.

The governor the region is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, which the article highlights holds continual meetings with local Christian leaders. But members of the party do not necessary believe in equality:

The Brotherhood and its political party frequently underline their respect for Christian rights. But at times members reveal an attitude suggesting a second-class status for the community.

On Wednesday, Yasser Hamza, an official in the Brotherhood’s party, argued in a TV interview that while the campaign slogan “Islam is the solution” is permissible, the slogan “Christianity is the solution” would not be. He was addressing specific election rules, but then broadly declared, “This is an Islamic nation with an overwhelming Muslim majority … The minority doesn’t have absolute rights, it has relative rights.”

But perhaps the reason behind these attacks is as old as it is simple:

The Interior Ministry official acknowledged that Christians are seen as less defended.

“Kidnapping Christians is an easy way to make money,” he said. They “don’t have the tribal or clan backup that will deter kidnappers and they are happy to pay the ransom to gain the freedom of their loved ones.”

Wouldn’t you? Goodness, such a horrible situation. Solving it only makes it worse. Please click here to read the rest of the article at AP.


Update on the Fox News post: My wife suggested the presenter in the video may have been referring to ‘Garbage City’ as the Christian quarter and slum. If so, he is right, it is a slum, where a nearly 100% Christian population sorts and recycles the nation’s trash, living in the middle of it.

This area is very close to suburban Muqattam where the Muslim Brotherhood headquarters is. But the suburban development came long after Christian migrants from Upper Egypt settled off in their isolated mountain community. The reason has nothing to do with discrimination or lack of political rights: Garbage collection involved raising pigs, and pigs were the province of Christians alone.

The pigs have since been killed, in what appeared to be a very discriminatory act ostensibly taken several years ago now to prevent the spread of swine flu. But the Christians of Garbage City labor on, though some of their livelihood has been further removed as trash collection is outsourced to foreign based companies – who do not recycle nearly as well.

For anyone who would like more information about this community, check out the documentary ‘Garbage Dreams’. It’s quite good.