ASSIUT, Egypt (AP) — In one case, an Egyptian Christian man stabs his wife after she converts to Islam with the support of hard-line Islamists. Then after surrendering to police, he dies in mysterious circumstances, falling from a court building window.
At about the same time, a Muslim woman in another small village converts to Christianity and elopes with a Christian man. A crowd of Muslims attacks the local church in outrage. None of the attackers are prosecuted, but police arrest the Christian man’s family.
The case is elevated to a national issue as angry Islamist lawmakers in parliament dedicate a whole committee session to demanding the conversion be stopped and decrying an alleged foreign plot to convert Muslims.
The two recent instances that took place in southern Egypt illustrate the deep sensitivities surrounding conversions in Egypt’s conservative society.
But they also demonstrate the discrepancies in how the cases are treated. Christians say politically powerful Islamist hard-liners have stepped up efforts to encourage Christians to embrace Islam. Meanwhile, the rare cases of Muslims turning to Christianity often bring violence against the community. In either case, authorities tend to turn a blind eye.
That has heightened Christians’ sense of siege amid the increasing influence of Islamists since the 2011 ouster of autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
Under Mubarak, there were two or three cases a month nationwide of Christians converting to Islam, says Ibram Louiz, an activist who tracks conversions and disappearances of Christian women.
“But now I hear at times up to 15 cases coming from just one province,” he said.
He estimated some 500 conversions since Mubarak’s fall, 25 percent of them involving underage Christian girls, some as young as 15, who end up being married off to older Muslim men.
Public conversions to Christianity are far rarer. Technically, it is not illegal for a Muslim to become Christian — though under Islamic law it can be punishable by death. But in the handful of cases the past decade, converts were imprisoned for insulting religion, threatening national security or other charges.
With communal feeling strong in Egypt, conversions are rarely seen as simply a matter of personal choice. Among Christians and Muslims alike, families are outraged when a loved one switches religion and often react violently. Questions of honor become mixed in when it involves a daughter or wife.
What begin as domestic family dramas easily spin into wider sectarian tensions as each community tries to punish converts or “defend its own.” In 2011, for example, a Cairo church was burned by Islamists determined to protect a woman they believed was being held there to force her to renounce her conversion to Islam.
President Mohammed Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood, frequently declares that Muslims and Christians are equal before the law, and the Brotherhood is not known to be involved in conversions. But hard-line Islamists known as Salafis, allied to the Brotherhood, prominently defend converts to Islam, and they have a powerful presence in parliament. The Christian minority, about 10 percent of the population, has far less political power.
Romani Farhan Amir, an impoverished Christian day laborer, had little choice but to accept when his wife marched into a police station in the southern city of Assiut, accompanied by members of the hard-line Gamaa Islamiya group, and registered her conversion to Islam in February, his family says. Amir just told police that he did not want her anywhere near their four children, they say.
On May 11, when she showed up at the school of one of their sons, he believed she was trying to snatch the boy — something she denies. He stabbed her in the principal’s office, leaving her wounded.
Amir surrendered to police, and while he was at a court complex waiting to be questioned, he fell from a fourth-story window. Police say he committed suicide and deny any foul play.
The provincial security chief acknowledges that, while tragic, Amir’s death averted Christian-Muslim violence. If the wife had died “there would have been grave consequences,” Abul-Qassim Deif said. “So in the end, that he died and she lived quickly ended the whole affair.”
His family is convinced he was killed in retaliation for attacking a Muslim, though they balk at accusing anyone specifically.
At a memorial prayer for him in the family’s tiny apartment in Assiut, his mother argued with one of his six sisters whether to speak out. The sister tried to silence her, fearing retaliation from Islamists. Even the priest who led the memorial prayer advised them to lay low and avoid trouble.
But the mother, Maria Sourial, screamed, “Romani went into the building walking on his own two feet but came out dead. My son never committed suicide. How could he with so many policemen and suspects around him?”
The Gamaa Islamiya, which waged an armed insurgency in the 1990s but has since forsworn violence, has championed the cause of Amir’s ex-wife, Azza William — now called by her Muslim name Habibah Shaaban.
A local Gamaa leader, Shaaban Ibrahim Ali, denied his group pushes Christians to convert.
“They keep coming and we keep telling them to go back and consider the consequences,” he told AP.
But he said if someone is determined to become Muslim, the group is morally obliged to protect them. He said Christians converting is a source of “happiness” for him and that his dream is to see Egypt’s entire Christian population turn to Islam.
William disappeared from her husband’s home in January and took refuge with the Gamaa, according to the Assiut security chief. Three weeks later, Ali and other Gamaa members accompanied her to the police station, where she registered her new Muslim name and sought a restraining order against Amir.
Speaking in her hospital room, recovering from stab wounds to the chest, arms and thighs, she told AP her husband first found her praying as a Muslim a year ago. He beat her, then got her a job as a cleaner at a church nursery, hoping that would dissuade her from becoming a Muslim.
“It didn’t,” she said, with Ali standing near her during the brief interview.
When her husband attacked her May 11, “I did not duck to avoid his stabs, I stood still in front of him when all the other women at the room were screaming,” she said, with drips connected to both arms and her entire body — except her eyes — cloaked in a dark brown veil and robes.
Now, with Amir’s death, she now gets custody of her four children. “May God show them the way to Islam while they are with me,” she said.
The other conversion story, in Beni Suef province north of Assiut, provides a telling contrast.
In this case, a 22-year-old Muslim woman Rana el-Shenawi disappeared and is believed to have converted and fled abroad with a Coptic Christian she fell in love with.
In retaliation, Muslim mobs hurling rocks and firebombs attacked the Mar Girgis Church in her hometown of Wasta in late April after her father accused a local priest of using witchcraft to convert her. A priest’s car was set on fire. Islamist hard-liners forced Christian businesses to shut down for more than a week.
“We want to raise the banner of Islam and not sit and watch our Muslim daughters getting kidnapped and converted to Christianity,” said a leaflet distributed in Wasta by Islamists.
Ten people were initially detained for the church attack but were later released. The church is now guarded by police.
Police detained the father, mother and cousin of Ibram Andrews, the Christian with whom el-Shenawi allegedly eloped. They are under investigation on suspicion of helping her disappearance, inciting sectarian tensions, disturbing security and blasphemy.
Salafi groups, meanwhile, drummed up a nationwide uproar, warning of a foreign plot to convert Muslims. Even parliament took an interest. A committee held a hearing April 30, with Islamist lawmakers demanding action to retrieve el-Shenawi. The session devolved into furious arguments between Christian and Islamist lawmakers.
The el-Shenawi family’s lawyer — a member of the Salafi Watan Party — was granted meetings with senior aides at the presidency to discuss efforts to retrieve the woman and investigate alleged foreign proselytizing.
The lawyer, Ashraf el-Sissi, told the AP he doesn’t want the case to fuel sectarian tensions. But “what I am concerned with is whether there are foreign groups trying to undermine our nation.”
In Wasta, the priest of Mar Girgis church, Father Angelos, said he didn’t understand why his church was blamed for el-Shenawi’s disappearance. Andrews never attended services there and lived in the city of Beni Suef, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) away.
“Here, rumors swiftly get treated as facts,” said Angelos. Mar Girgis is separated by a narrow alley from a mosque from which Salafis have launched protests against the church.
“Attacks on churches continue to happen because the culprits act with impunity, knowing that there is no law and there is no punishment,” he said. “Generally, we suffered as Christians under Mubarak but nowhere near what is happening to us now.”
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.
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