Rumor has Upper Egypt in flames - Muslim woman's alleged conversion sparks violence
A rumor has spread in the Upper Egyptian city of Kom Ombo that a divorced Muslim woman in her mid-30s has been kidnapped by the Coptic Church and converted to Christianity. In an area socially divided across tribal loyalties and religion, the story managed to fuel violence against the area's Christian minority.
The city's most central and largest church, Mar Girgis, has been under attack for the past three days from what residents described as "unknown assailants." Mostly in their teens, hundreds of young boys and men have been surrounding the church, showering it with rocks and Molotov cocktails.
With Central Security Forces (CSF) trucks and soldiers fighting the assailants with teargas grenades, the church was relatively protected, although Molotov cocktails and rocks managed to reach its roofs and its open central courtyard.
A field hospital was set up in one of the corners of the courtyard while many of the injured sat inside the church resting, others praying. One young man in the church had obviously burned skin on his arms and back, which he said he suffered from one of the Molotov cocktails thrown at the church.
"The missing woman is not in this church as you can see … Her family never claimed she was," Priest Abanob Wahid of the Mari Girgis Church of Kom Ombo told Ahram Online.
"Influential Muslim figures as well as imams in mosques have been urging people to calm down, assuring them the woman is not in this church … Some have even visited the church and looked around, to assure people, but the violence continues," he added.
The violence is not only limited to the church. Seventeen-year-old Copt Abanob, whose arm was covered with medical bandages, explained he was attacked by a young man also in his teens who had first asked him whether or not he was Christian.
"'Yes, I am a Christian! What's your problem?' I exclaimed before he followed me accompanied by a friend of his and took out a pocket knife. He aimed for my face but cut my arm instead, which I quickly raised to cover my face in an attempt to protect myself," Abanob told Ahram Online.
Not far away from the scene of the clashes is the home of the missing woman, to where Ahram Online headed to meet the brother at the mandara, a space for social events, located near their house. The meeting failed, however, as a crowd — very similar to that surrounding the church — intervened.
Tens of young men, also mostly in their teens, carrying sticks and pocket knives quickly surrounded themandara. Tense and on-edge, family friends quickly rushed to close the doors and windows, hushing away the crowd seemingly angered by the presence of the media.
"You can only learn about the story from her father, uncle or brother … no one else," said an old man firmly who later identified himself as a distant uncle of the missing woman.
Time passed and the brother would not appear while the persistent crowd remained determined to storm the place. The knocking and slamming of the angry crowd increased tensions minute by minute.
"We don’t know who these people are … We don’t know what they want … Do not worry, you are under our protection," the old man said repeatedly.
A family member, a brother, finally showed up.
"We don’t have anything to say other than what we told investigations. She went missing and we know nothing of her. None of us (family members) is at the church [amongst those attacking it] … We never claimed the church had her. We don’t know where she is. We know nothing about her."
An older, seemingly influential, figure suddenly entered, refusing interviews.
"No interviews will be held. Leave now," said the man who was later identified as Ashraf Hashem, a powerful former National Democratic Party (NDP) member and MP.
A car was called to come meet me at the back door, into which I was quickly bundled, transported away from the angry crowd who were still trying to storm the site, angered by my presence, and who the family repeatedly denying knowing or having anything to do with.
"We don’t know these people. Here (in the area) we all know each other, but we don’t know who these people (the rioters) are," the driver told Ahram Online.
Hashem, Ahram Online was also later told, was in a meeting with Sheikh El-Sayed Idris, an influential sheikh who was described as being from a large family descending from the Prophet Mohammed.
According to Priest Wahid, Idris had intervened to calm down the clashes. He held a meeting at the church with several influential figures of the city to discuss the situation. He also intervened to release 18 of the church attackers after they were detained by security, in order not to escalate tensions even further, Abanob said.
Family denials have no effect
Despite denials made by the family, church figures, and influential men of both religions that the woman had been kidnapped by the church, violence continues against Kom Ombo's Copts for a third day.
Since the missing woman disappeared a week ago, rumours have continued to spread and change without their sources ever being confirmed.
The latest widespread belief was that the room of the missing woman, who is also a well known school teacher in the area, was left full of crosses and Christian texts. Some say her ex-husband has kidnapped her; others claim she escaped with her Coptic lover and converted in a place far from Kom Ombo.
"Maybe someone spread this rumour (that the missing woman was kidnapped by the church) because security was not doing anything to find her earlier," Abanob opined.
Rife speculation aside, the woman's whereabouts is not all that is ambiguous. No one knows the source of the rumours or identity of the church assailants. While sectarianism plays a role in the ongoing violence, too much remains unanswered as to what is the source of the city's current crisis.
Kom Ombo is located on the Nile River around 50 kilometres from Aswan in Upper Egypt. Its has an estimated of 60,000 residents.
In recent years, Egypt had witnessed several attacks on churches, especially in Upper Egypt where sectarian tensions are more commonplace.
Clashes over alleged forced religious conversions have also been common in recent years. Most alleged instances centred on Christian women converting to Islam and believed held captive by the Coptic Church. The best known case was that of Camelia Shehata, the wife of a Coptic priest who was allegedly detained by the Church after she converted to Islam.
Copts have frequently complained that young Coptic women have been kidnapped by Muslim men and forced to convert for the purposes of marriage.
While conversion from Islam to Christianity is legally recognised, the opposite is not.