Disappearance of Coptic minor raises allegations of forced marriage, conversion

The disappearance of a Coptic minor in the coastal city of Matrouh, has sparked a conflict between a Salafi organization, whose representatives have made claims which suggest some knowledge of the girl's situation, and Coptic campaigners, who say she has been abducted.

The Salafi Front says the girl has converted to Islam. Coptic campaigners say that she must have been forced to do so.

Sarah Ishaq Abdel Malak, 14, disappeared on 30 September when she left her school in Daba'a, Matrouh, to buy some stationary. Her father filed a complaint at the Matrouh prosecution office to investigate his daughter's disappearance, after which a school friend came forward and mentioned a Muslim man who could be behind her disappearance.

“Her friend said that a young Muslim, named Mahmoud Abu Zied Abdel Gawwad, 27, used to wait for her in front of the school to flirt with her,” a founder of the Association for Victims of Abduction and Forced Disappearance, Ibram Louis, told Egypt Independent.

Louis says that Abdel Malak's parents have received information that their daughter has married Abdel Gawwad. But minors are not legally allowed to marry. Furthermore, she would need to have converted, since Christians and Muslims are not legally able to marry in Egypt. 

The Coptic association, which campaigns around cases of Coptic females allegedly kidnapped and forced into conversion to Islam, filed a lawsuit with the public prosecution on Thursday against the Salafi Front, an Islamist movement that claimed that Abdel Malak willingly converted to Islam and was not abducted.

Louis claims that his organization registered 75 cases of such “disappearance” in 2011, but that in far more cases, families were not willing to register their cases officially.

“Some extremists abuse the fact that some girls have bad relationships with their families and force them to convert to Islam, while others willingly convert when they become involved in love affairs with Muslim men,” he says.

Louis accuses the Salafi Front of knowing Abdel Malak's location, quoting a statement by member of the Salafi Front's political bureau Khalid al-Masry published on Monday confirming that the girl is not a minor. “If we knew she was a minor, we would have searched for her and brought her back to her family,” the statement read.

“We know that Abdel Malak converted to Islam, her family knows of her conversion, and the church as well,” he continued.

But, Louis says, the girl is 14, and therefore clearly a minor; and the Salafi Front's statement shows that they know where the girl is. “That's why we filed the lawsuit against them,” he said.

The Salafi Front released another statement on Wednesday completely denying any relationship with the girl or with her alleged abductors, saying that they are only volunteering to defend the girl's right to believe in whatever religion she chooses, describing any future attempts to hand the girl over to the church or her family as “a threat to her life,” since, they say, she converted to Islam against her parents' will.

In saying so, however, the statement appears to suggest that the front has information on the girl.

The front also said they are only defending the girl's right to convert to Islam, declaring their respect for the Egyptian marriage laws banning marriage of minors, although they disagree with them.

Ishaq Ibrahim, researcher of religious freedoms at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, told Egypt Independent that the most problematic element in Abdel Malak's case is not her alleged conversion to Islam, since everyone has the right to believe in any religion, with no age limits.

“The real problem will be in her marriage. According to the Egyptian Child Law, marriage of minors is a crime even if the marriage happened of her own will. It is a violation of the right of physical safety, let alone her alleged abduction,” Ibrahim added.

Louis said that Public Prosecutor Abdel Meguid Mahmoud promised to ask the Matrouh prosecution to increase efforts to find the abducted girl.

He added that everyone in town knows that Abdel Malak was abducted by the man in question, but her family prefers not to take action that would fuel any sectarian tension. “That's why the family is awaiting the prosecution's findings,” he added.

Khaled Saeed, a spokesperson for the Salafi Front, was not available for comment.

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