A recent hearing in the nation's capital drew attention to the growing accounts of Coptic women in Egypt being kidnapped and forced to marry and convert to Islam against their will.
Nearly a year and half since the country's revolution, Egypt remains in the “fires of transition,” where “order seems to hang by a thread,” said Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J), chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe.
On July 18, the commission – also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission – held a hearing on increasing accounts of abduction, forced conversion and coerced marriage among young Coptic women in Egypt.
Witnesses warned that the violent actions, as well as the government’s failure to acknowledge and address them, could have grave consequences on the future of democracy and human rights in the country.
The urged the U.S. and the entire international community to stand up on behalf of the Coptic women who are victims of these crimes.
Michele Clark, adjunct professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University, testified at the hearing, presenting the findings of a new report that she co-authored on the subject.
While exact numbers are difficult to pinpoint, attorneys interviewed for the report said that disappearance and abductions cases have been increasing in recent months, with one attorney referring to nearly 1,000 women petitioning in recent years to have their Christian identities restored.
As the number of abdications seems to be rising, it appears that fewer young women are returning to their families, the attorneys added. While there is speculation that they may be trafficked overseas, this possibility has not yet been confirmed.
The individuals interviewed also said that the disappearances are the result of “organized and systematic planning.” They often involve attempts to befriend victims, or else use force and fraud.
Abductors target vulnerable young Coptic women, members of a religious minority who come from “closed, insular communities,” Clark said. They physically separate these women from their families and proceed to abuse, threaten and brainwash them.
Clark called for local police in Egypt to investigate and report all disappearance claims and for the national government to keep a registry documenting disappearances.
Furthermore, she said, children of parents who convert should retain their birth religion until age 18, which is the legal age of consent in Egypt.
She asked the Coptic Church to maintain a registry documenting disappearances, abductions, forced marriages and conversions among Coptic women, as well as to educate its members about these threats.
Clark recommended that a legal defense fund be established to help Coptic families in need of an attorney. She also called on international organizations to acknowledge the significance of the problem and stop referring to the disappearances as mere “allegations.”
Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett, who chairs the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, also testified at the hearing, discussing the commission’s ongoing concerns about the state of religious freedom within the country.
For years, religious freedom conditions in Egypt “have been extremely problematic,” she said, explaining that the nation’s transitional government “continues to engage in and tolerate systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom.”
Despite some “hopeful developments” in recent months, “Copts and other religious minorities aren’t being sufficiently protected,” she warned.
In the last year alone, sectarian violence has left some 100 people dead, she observed.
On behalf of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, Lantos Swett recommend that the U.S. government “take strong action in support of religious freedom” by working to urge Egypt to include “robust” constitutional protections for religious freedom, to remove discriminatory decrees and to prosecute crimes against religious minorities.
“Copts must be protected - along with every other member of Egyptian society - from attacks on their right to order their lives and practice their beliefs in dignity and peace,” she said.