Friday,22 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1121, 8-14 November
Friday,22 February, 2019
Issue 1121, 8-14 November

Ahram Weekly

Case of the missing Coptic girl

The disappearance of a young Christian student is causing sectarian tensions

Al-Ahram Weekly

On 4 November, Prosecutor-General Abdel-Meguid Mahmoud ordered the arrest of Mahmoud Abu Zeid Abdel-Gawad on charges of abducting and marrying a Christian adolescent, reports Reem Leila. Until the paper went to print the whereabouts of Abdel-Gawad and the abducted girl remained unknown.
Sarah Ishaac Abdel-Malek, a 14-year-old Christian student at Al-Dabaa Preparatory School, disappeared on 30 September. Abdel-Malek was on her way to school with her cousin Miriam when they stopped at a bookshop. Miriam left Abdel-Malek at the bookstore and went ahead to school. No one has seen Abdel-Malek since.
Two and a half hours later, her father Ishaac Abdel-Malek filed a missing report at the police station of Al-Dabaa, a town 130km away from Marsa Matrouh. The girl’s father accused Abdel-Gawad, a 25-year-old who owns a bookshop next to the school, of abducting his daughter. Abdel-Gawad is the son of a Salafi leader in the area. “I received a phone call from Abdel-Gawad’s maternal uncle telling me I will never see my daughter again,” the father said.
The father also reported the incident to the National Council for Women (NCW) as well as the Orthodox Church requesting their intervention. “I am just an ordinary father. I want my girl back in my arms,” said Abdel-Malek.
The NCW issued a statement condemning the incident. According to the statement, Abdel-Malek is a teenager abducted by a Muslim man and forced to marry him. The statement also called on the Ministry of Interior and Marsa Matrouh security apparatus to take all necessary measures to bring the girl back to her family.
Mervat Al-Tellawi, head of NCW, said the marriage was illegal. “According to law, females and males cannot get married if they are under 18. Accordingly, this marriage is null and void,” said Al-Tellawi.
Mahmoud Sayed, a police officer in Marsa Matrouh, told the press that the girl’s father did not file a missing person’s report at the police station and the girl was not kidnapped. She left her home in Dabaa and instead of going to school she ran away with her boyfriend.
Hani Abdel-Malek, brother of the abducted girl, denied Sayed’s allegations. “We reported her missing two hours after her disappearance. The report’s number is 409. There is also another police report 582 on 20 October, filed against Abdel-Gawad, accusing him of kidnapping my sister, forcing her to marry him and convert to Islam. Accordingly, the prosecutor-general issued an arrest warrant, so how is it that we didn’t file a report at the police station?” asked the brother.
The Salafi group issued a statement on 28 October warning human rights organisations, especially the NCW, of attempting to return the girl to her family, arguing that she converted to Islam and is married to a Muslim. The statement pointed out that “all Church attempts as well as that of human rights organisations to pressure the Interior Ministry to return the girl are rejected in form and substance.” The statement said the girl has full freedom to convert to Islam and has full freedom to marry as long as she has reached puberty “and can deal with marriage with all its consequences and responsibilities.”
While the head of Al-Azhar’s bureau for converting to Islam refused to comment on the incident, Ibrahim Negm, counsellor of Grand Mufti Sheikh Ali Gomaa said there are several regulations for converting to Islam. “Anyone who wants to convert must be an adult not less than 21 years old, in order to be able to comprehend the new religion and understand his obligations and duties. A convert must also memorise several verses of the Quran. A Christian who wants to convert must attend several sessions with Al-Azhar’s sheikhs in order to make sure he wants to convert to Islam,” said Negm.
The Salafi statement was rejected by the Church. Bishop Bakhomious, who was then the head of the Orthodox Church before the selection the new Pope Tawadros II, said during a TV show that the Church will not be silenced by the “threatening statements” of the Salafis. “Does the law allow a girl at this age to marry?” asked Bishop Bakhomious. “Have you taken the opinion of the girl’s family before marriage since she is a minor? How can her parents know for sure that she was not forced to marry this young man and was obliged to convert to Islam? Did the girl receive advice and guidance?” This has been obligatory in cases of conversion since 1851. In sessions a priest or a sheikh would interview a potential convert to make sure of the decision.”
Lawyer Naguib Gabriel, head of the Egyptian Union of Human Rights (EUHR), delivered a memo to Minister of Interior Ahmed Gamal from Bishop Bakhomious on 30 October, stating that the bishop is furious over the girl’s abduction and should go back to her family as soon as possible “in order to achieve peace, justice and security”. The memo warned against the outbreak of sectarian tension if the matter remains unsettled.
Most Copts believe the abducted girl should return to her family, even if they have to go on strike. “If we let this matter go, none of our girls will ever be safe again. This is not the first incident. Camelia, Abeer and many others,” said Morcos. “If the girl does not return to her family I will make it an international issue. I will ask the help of international organisations of child’s rights to rescue the girl.”
Abdallah Al-Naggar, a member of the Islamic Research Centre said any person can convert to Islam at any age. “True will as well as a proper understanding of the teachings and regulations of Islam are a must. The individual must also be mature enough to be sure of his decision. This is not easy. It’s a lifetime decision.”

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