(AINA) -- Hundreds of Christian Egyptian girls having been abducted and forced to convert to Islam and marry Muslim men since the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. But the case of 14 year old Sarah has become symbolic, bringing to confrontation Muslims groups, whose members are implicated in the kidnappings, and the Coptic Church and human rights organizations.
On Sunday, September 30 Sarah Ishaq Abdelmalek, born on August 1, 1998 in the town of el-Dabaa, 130 kilometers from Mersa Matrouh, was on her way to school with her cousin Miriam, when they stopped at a bookshop. Miriam went ahead of Sarah to school, leaving Sarah behind. Sarah never made it to school and no one has seen her since then. Her father was hesitant at first to contact the authorities for fear of harm to his family and his other children by the Salafi Muslims, who have a large presence and influence in Mersa Matrouh and Alexandria. He finally filed a report with the police on October 20, accusing 27 year old bookshop keeper and Salafist Mahmoud Abu Zied Abdel Gawwad, a married man and father of children, of abducting Sarah and marrying her against her will (AINA 11-2-2012).
"Sarah was smuggled across the borders to Libya with the help of the Interior Ministry," said Ebram Louis, founder of the Coptic non-governmental organization Association of Victims of Abduction and Enforced Disappearance (AVAED), which handles cases of abducted Coptic minors. Louis blamed the interior ministry for all the disappearances of Coptic minors, saying the ministry colludes with the Muslims.
The recently elected Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II said the kidnapping and forced conversion of Sarah is a "disgrace for the whole of Egypt." During a meeting with a delegation of the Journalists Syndicate Council at Anba Bishoy Monastery in Wadi Natrunon on November 12, he said "Can any family accept the kidnapping of their daughter and her forced conversion?"
The Pope dismissed the term "emotional ties" for what is happening among young men and girls from different religions, cited as the apparent cause of conversions by the Salafists. In an interview with Al Ahram Daily he said it is "sentimental coercion of girls who have not reached adulthood." The Pope said it is now common among Coptic families not to send their daughters to school because of fear kidnapping and forced conversion. Anba Pakhomios, the bishop of Mersa Matrouk, said Coptic families are increasingly choosing not to send their girls to public schools, making them study at home and only go to school during the examinations.
The Muslims accused the Coptic Church of causing sedition, because they claim Sarah left home, embraced Islam and married a Muslim of her own free will. They have denied that she is a minor. "When they talk of adulthood, it is not adulthood in the legal sense (18 years old)," says Dr. Naguib Gabriel, head of the Egyptian Union of Human Rights Organization, "but according to their concept that a girl reaches adulthood when she starts menstruating."
The Coptic Church and several rights organizations, including the Egyptian National Council for Women, categorically regard Sarah as a minor and insist on upholding the law and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), ratified by Egypt, including the Minimum Age Convention, which clearly declares anyone below the age of 18 as a minor.
Dr. Ahmed Rifaat, a law professor at Beni Suef University confirmed that Sarah is a minor in the eyes of the law, hence she may not copulate nor marry until she reaches the age of 18 and any talk about her marriage or change of her religion is completely against the law; her marriage is considered void and she must get divorced . Also the authorized Islamic marriage registrar (mazoun) and her husband bear full responsibility as they knew she was a minor. Al-Azhar also stipulates a minimum age of 18 years for changing one's religion to Islam.
Reverend Bigemi Anba Paula, from the Mersa Matrouh dioceses, where Sarah attended church, replied to the Salafist accusations that the church is meddling, saying "If the State did its work, the church would not have been pushed into the problem. We reported the case to the director of security, central security, military security, minister of interior, heads of Bedouin tribes and NGOs. We also hand delivered a complaint to President Morsy on October 18 during his visit to Mersa Matrouh. The prosecutor in Alexandria ordered the arrest of the Muslim husband, but no action was taken by the police." He accused the authorities of siding with the Salafists, "all the time security knew where Sarah was, I wonder whether security are afraid of a confrontation with the Salafists?"
In a statement, Salafist Front made clear that they will not hand over Sarah under any circumstances. They claim that "When we take up the issue of the girl Sarah, our response is purely in terms of her human rights." Their spokesman, Khaled el Masry, said that once a girl has embraced Islam she has no Christian guardian and can therefore get married without consent.
By Mary Abdelmassih