From Ahram Online, following up on a story in which Muslims surrounded a church in Kom Ombo, Aswan, to demand the release of a local woman they believed was held against her will, forced to convert to Christianity:
A sheikh addressed a crowd of men in Kom Ombo to explain the events and dispel any rumours that had been circulating.
“Some say that she had a relationship with a man [who convinced her to convert] and others claim that a woman used to visit her and talk to her about Christianity,” he began.
He said that a man from Cairo, a former Muslim and Christian convert, communicated with her via the internet and the phone.
Allegedly, the divorcee in her mid-30s, had expressed thoughts about converting to Christianity.
“He told her that no one will be able to help, not even Christians, except one priest in Cairo who is [expelled from the Church] because he’s been attempting to convert Muslims,” the sheikh said.
The crowd reacted angrily to this information, interrupting the Sheik.
“When we sat with [Church leaders] they told us that they [do not encourage] such acts and explained to us that this priest is expelled from the Church,” he continued.
“This is a mere financial issue, the [man] came and told her ‘I will help you’ in exchange for EGP 3,500’
“We will bring the man here so that everyone can take revenge on him,” he added.
The sheikh then talked to the crowds about Islamic values and presented some counter-arguments to issues in the Christian religion that affected the girl during her absence.
“The woman told us that she was not fully convinced of several things she was told [by Christians] including the concept of the Trinity,” he said.
“She came and talked to us clearly, she said ‘I do not know if I am right or wrong,'” he added.
“We asked her to write down every point of confusion and we replied to all her concerns – everything has an answer in our religion.”
The sheikh said that curiosity had prompted the woman to leave; it is not known exactly where she had been staying during the past week.
“The woman’s brother had found a Christian hymn on her phone; when we asked her about it, the she said that she had asked for it… She obviously was… You see, the devil manipulates people’s minds. She was curious,” he said.
As the sheikh spoke, men from the crowds raised questions and points of concern to them.
“Do people who [encourage others to convert to Christianity] work through the internet?” one asked.
“Look, so that you know, the nearest person on such a network is from Luxor and the rest are from Cairo and Alexandria, they log on with fake names and we can’t –” but he quickly reassures, “We will get to them all.”
“Because we have already found three of them,” he added.
Additionally, the sheikh responded to the crowds several times saying, “Anyone involved will be held to account.”
This is a fascinating transcript. Very often in Egypt conversions in either direction are due to non-religious reasons such as love affairs, escaping difficult family situations, or securing a better financial situation.
Here, however, this woman appears to have simply been attracted to Christianity, likely through her association with Christian friends.
That which the imam speaks of also likely exists. Both religions have those who promote conversion on the internet, as well as individuals working to gain converts. In Egypt, of course, only the Muslim efforts are welcome.
The church probably had nothing to do with the woman, but needed to present official denials anyway. To placate the people, the imam needed to promise investigations and justice, even retribution.
In the West we would say ‘that poor woman’, and so we should. There appears no conspiracy here, just an individual with religious curiosity and inter-religious friends. Such trouble.
But here, they say ‘that poor family’, over what this innocent curiosity has done to the community. Such a description would apply equally if a Copt was found exploring Islam, though the scope here is much wider.
In both responses there is virtue, but where in all this, if anywhere, is God most pleased? The Muslim and the Christian may have very different answers, let alone the Egyptian and the Westerner.
It is a shame, I think, we have to know about this incident at all. And I’m the one sharing it. It is just too descriptive of Egyptian reality on the subject of conversion.
Our family recently had the privilege to go on a Nile tour from Luxor to Aswan. With my parents visiting from the US, one of the sites my Dad wanted to see was the Valley of the Kings. At first we said it was too far to try, but then Jayson heard our local Orthodox church advertise a trip to Luxor/Aswan, and so we enquired. Turns out, no one else in the church signed up, but the travel agent, who worships at this location, was able to get us the same good price as he was offering to the Egyptian congregation, and so we made the arrangements for Mom, Dad, Jayson, me and our three little girls to embark on this great tour.
First step was getting to Luxor which is located about 8-9 hours south of Cairo by train. We debated going by train or plane – big difference in time and price – and in the end, went with the more adventurous route. We weren’t sure what to expect as we boarded the sleeper train in Ramses station, but we had three sleeper cabins which were quite comfortable and roomy.
Since we left town around 8pm, we got our girls to bed as quickly as possible, anticipating a 5am arrival in Luxor. Then we enjoyed a good dinner before retiring to our different beds. I don’t think I slept too much and among the adults, we got varying hours of sleep. The beds were comfortable enough, but the train was really rough. We stopped and started all through the night, and felt like we were going to blow right off the track at different points. About an hour before Luxor, we got some breakfast, then woke and dressed the girls before arrival.
We were met in Luxor by a representative from the travel company and taken to a big tourist bus along with about 25 Egyptians. Our agent in Maadi had told us he had a group of doctors going on the same trip so we would be with them. After traveling together a bit, we realized that many of us were together in the same train car from Cairo to here. We went straight to the Valley of the Kings while our tour guide, Mohamed, began telling us about Luxor and what we would be seeing soon. He usually works with English groups, but of course could guide in Arabic as well. And so, our little family had our own English translation from him each time he finished his Arabic spiel.
The sites that day were interesting, and the three girls did well despite it being hot and including lots of walking. We were all enjoying the places we visited, but also curious to get to the boat where we would be living for the next five days. It wasn’t long before we learned of a complication in this trip. Due to a workers’ strike at the locks near Luxor, our boat was parked about one hour south of Luxor in the town of Esna. This meant that we had to drive over an hour after touring before boarding the boat. And so, the schedule I had worked out for day one was not going to work. Fortunately, our littlest one was able to nap during the long bus ride, and we all made it till the 3pm lunch when we finally got to the boat.
By that first evening together, Emma and Hannah had made friends with a young single Egyptian named Mahmoud, who was traveling with his two sisters, parents and grandmother. He quickly became like an uncle to them and throughout the week I often heard Emma call out, “Mahmouuuud, Mahmouuuud” as we walked around the temple ruins.
Day two was another complicated day due to the lock strike. Since we had more to see in Luxor, we now had to drive an hour each way making for a long morning. Or so I thought. We were supposed to leave by 8 or 9 am, but by 10am our whole group was waiting in the lobby of the boat as the tour bus we were supposed to ride was having trouble finding gasoline due to a gas shortage. I don’t know exactly what time the bus arrived to pick us up, because the boat left the port for about half an hour to allow another boat to set sail, and when we docked once again closer to noon, our tour guide was more than ready to get on with the tour.
(Click here for a tour of our Nile cruise boat, and here for a lazy gaze at a pastoral Nile River island.)
During our waiting time, the girls were once again playing with Mahmoud and this gave me a chance to meet him and his family and we had a nice time getting know each other. I wasn’t sure if I was the only one stressed out about such a late start to our day since the boat was supposed to sail for its next destination at 3:30. I knew we had two places to tour in Luxor and at least two hours of driving. How could we possibly do it? I was relieved to hear the concern of others in the group too, but they said that the sites we were to see, the Luxor and Karnak temples, were among the most important of the tour. We couldn’t just skip out on these sites. I quickly tried to refigure Layla’s eating and nap plan as it was obvious she would not be doing either of those things on the boat this day.
Out of the six or seven families in our tour group, there were four young children: our three girls, and a 1 ½ year old boy, Yusuf. He was traveling with his parents, aunt, and grandparents, and Emma and Hannah really took to him. By day four, Hannah practically looked like she was in their family as she walked along with them at the sites and played with Yusuf on the boat.
We also met up with them a time or two in the disco room and the kids all danced together. On the final day, Yusuf’s dad delivered three black plastic bags to our girls, each one filled with the same assortment of snacks: a pack of crackers, a lollipop, a tube of chocolate, a small cake, some gummy worms and a juice box. By that point, Hannah was too sick to enjoy any of it, but the gesture was so typical of the generous Egyptians we know. It never even crossed my mind to buy something small for anyone, and yet, they bought all three of our girls bags of snacks.
Several other people in our tour group enjoyed playing with our girls as well. One of the daughters in a family of three older girls often played with Layla when she was strapped to my back.
It wasn’t unusual to find Layla in someone else’s lap on a motorboat ride or as we were waiting in the lobby of the boat. Even though we were the only non-Egyptians in our group, they welcomed us in and made the trip extra-special for our kids.
Not only were we the only foreigners in our particular tour, we were the only foreigners on the whole boat of three tour groups. According to one of the workers on the boat, they’ve only had Egyptians riding the boat for quite awhile now. One evening while I was in line for dinner, one of the servers asked me how I liked the food. I answered that I thought it was very good, and he tapped the lady next to me in line and said, “See, she is American and she thinks the food is very good!” I felt very strange when he said that like my opinion is more important than anyone else on the boat?! But perhaps he was excited about the presence of foreigners in his restaurant for the first time in a long time. Tourism has taken a severe dive since the revolution.
There were three or four elementary-aged girls on the boat, and after the first or second day, they became friends with Emma and Hannah. Their time was limited together since we didn’t tour at the same time, but they could see each other on the sun deck or in the disco room. One night there was a gallabeya party. A gallabeya is a traditional robe-like dress which is a typical dress for men living in upper Egypt. Technically the woman’s equivalent for that is called an abaya. We weren’t planning on mentioning this party to our girls since it wasn’t going to start until 9pm which is two hours past their normal bed time.
However, the young girls on the boat, as well as the older girls in our group, were very excited about this party and asked Emma and Hannah if they planned to attend. Not only did this mean staying up quite late, but also buying a gallabeya! Following the lead of those in our group, we purchased a gallabeya for Emma and Hannah at one of the shops during our stop in Kom Ombo. We later purchased some more on the boat and then some fancy head-ware at the market in Aswan. Although it wasn’t in time for the party, by the end of the trip, our whole family was properly outfitted.
At dinner, just an hour before the party, Hannah was too tired to eat and decided to go to bed rather than attend the party. This meant only Emma had a chance to participate, and she had a great time with her friends.
We had a wonderful trip and saw amazing sites in the south of Egypt, but probably the highlight of the trip for our entire family was the living people of Egypt, rather than its ancient monuments. You can see pictures of the temples anywhere, but how else could you get memories like these?
(Too bad the normally punctual Americans were late for this group shot. Oh well.)