（Image used for illustrative purposes）
Mirna Malak was 16 years old when she disappeared. She was on her way to church.
Her father, Malak Shenouda, told World Watch Monitor that his daughter left for Anba Shenouda Coptic Orthodox Church on May 4, 2018, and was expected to return an hour later.
The one-hour mark came and went, and Shenouda and his family grew worried. Family members called Mirna’s phone, but she never answered. When they checked with the church, priests and other churchgoers said Mirna was never there.
Earlier that day, as Mirna had approached the church, two women and a man sprayed her in the face with potent anesthetics and shoved her into a tuc-tuc (a motorized rickshaw).
She woke up on a train to Cairo. Cleverly, she pretended to be unconscious, and at the next stop, she was able to slip away without her kidnappers noticing.
While Mirna was able to stage an escape from three people who could have easily overpowered her physically, others are not so lucky.
The panic felt by Shenouda and his family is nothing new for many Coptic families. Since April of this year, several Coptic Christian young women have recently been reported missing from various communities around Egypt in what World Watch Monitor calls a recurring phenomenon.
Vivian Adel Youssef, 18, never returned from her secondary school.
Briskam Raafat Mikhail Maher, 17, went missing from her grandparents’ house. Her mother had already been taken 10 years ago.
Meray Girgis Sobhy, a second-year student at a local university, never returned home from school.
Rasha Khalaf Thabet Aziz, 18, was shoved into a car by masked men.
Hoda Atef Ghali Girgis, 16, went missing from church.
Mary Adly Milad, 40, a mother of three, never came home from work.
Christine Lamie, 26, was threatened by a stranger on social media, and later disappeared.
These are not isolated incidents. Many go without being officially reported, since some families don’t even file a report for fear of bringing shame on their family. In other cases, police don’t bother to investigate. In 2014, the Egyptian Association of Victims of Abduction and Enforced Disappearances reported that from 2011 to 2014, approximately 550 Coptic Christian girls and women had disappeared in the country (#17 on the World Watch List).
Many families of Coptic girls who have gone missing believe they were kidnapped by Islamic extremists in an attempt to forcibly make them convert to Islam.
The husband of Christine Lami, Bahaa Girgis, recounts the days leading up to and after her disappearance. He says his wife was forced to convert to Islam.
A few days before she went missing, Lamie, a mother of two from northeastern Egypt, received a threatening message on Facebook from someone she didn’t know, saying, “I will not leave you, Christine, I will take you even on the last day of my life.” Immediately, she blocked the person from her Facebook account.
“She told me about this and was very afraid,” Girgis said.
When Christine didn’t return home, Girgis started calling relatives and friends, but no one knew where she was. The next day, he reported his wife’s disappearance to the police. Four days later after hearing nothing, Girgis went back to the police station to ask for an update. He was surprised to hear from the officer on duty that Christine had gone to a police station the day before, filed a report saying that she wasn’t kidnapped and that she had “converted to Islam by her full will.”
“I know my wife very well,” Girgis says. “She would not convert to Islam by her will. She likes Christianity and she is very religious. She loves me and her sons very much; she cannot be away from us. Whenever she returns home after work, she rushes to our sons and hugs and kisses them and tells them how much she missed them.
“She was forced to convert to Islam after she was kidnapped,” he added. “She was pressured and threatened to make her do so.”
STRENGTHEN ISLAM, WEAKEN CHRISTIANITY
Last year a former member of a human trafficking ring in Egypt confirmed that kidnappings of Coptic Christian girls and women are likely tied to Muslim extremists. Gahiji, a former Muslim who worked in a prominent human trafficking network, told Open Doors last year that many girls are handed over to extremists in an effort to gouge Christian populations and bolster Islam.
“(One extremist group) I knew rented apartments in different areas of Egypt to hide kidnapped Coptic girls,” he said. “There they put them under pressure and threaten them to convert to Islam. And once they reach the legal age, an Islamic official comes in to legally change their religion to Islam.”
If all goes according to plan, they are married off to a strict Muslim–solely so that more women are converted to Islam, according to Gahiji.
According to a Washington Times article, abductions are part of a campaign to Islamize Egypt’s Christian community. Mary Abdelmassih, a Coptic Christian activist, noted that girls as young as 12 are being kidnapped off Egyptian streets regularly, and during their abductions, Muslims shoot photos of the girls being raped as a means of blackmailing them into converting to Islam.
“She’s told the pictures will go to her family,” Abdelmassih said. “They’d rather die than have that happen.”
In other cases, Coptic women are sent to Saudi Arabia or other Gulf states to work as domestic servants, where they are sexually exploited and physically abused.
According to one Open Doors source, an estimated 80 percent of families in these situations do not speak publicly due to shame–and because it makes their other daughters less eligible to find a good partner.
THE NEXT VICTIMS OF PERSECUTION IN EGYPT
In a country where 90 percent of the population is Muslim, Christians in Egypt have been treated as second-class citizens since the advent of Islam in the region.
The rise of radical Islamist groups has only exacerbated Christian persecution, affecting believers in their villages, neighborhoods, and workplaces. Adding to this persecution is the Egyptian state’s low regard for religious freedom and other fundamental rights.
Christians with Muslim backgrounds face enormous pressure from immediate and extended families to return to Islam. Severe restrictions on building or securing places for communal worship are designed to prevent Christians from gathering together, in addition to hostility and violence. Radical imams regularly incite hostility and violence towards Christians, resulting in the deaths and injuries of many believers in the past year alone.
Christian women regularly face discrimination and abuse in their workplaces and the public square.
And as persecution continues in Egypt, Coptic families fear their daughters may be the next victims of kidnapping and forced conversion.
THE SPIDER’S WEB
Other than that, vulnerable Christian girls are being targeted by extremists in Egypt. They choose the girls who are already experiencing problems in their families. For instance, those who have an absent father. They are an easy target. Girls should be able to find love at home and in the church, but they felt no love and respect. They were lured away, kidnapped and forced to convert to Islam.
POLICE WHO DON’T POLICE
In Egypt, a missing person case cannot be filed until a family member or friend has been missing for more than 24 hours. But even after the 24-hour mark, police are in some cases biased against Christians, according to Gahiji. He said police sometimes don’t even open an investigation if they know the victim is a Christian.
“The police don’t report it as a kidnap, but say the girl ‘went missing,’” Gahiji said. “This way, they cover up the crimes of those they see as their Muslim brothers.
This is the situation the parents of Meray are facing. A second-year university student, Meray took a tuc-tuc from her home to go to school, then visit a private tutor and return home.
When she didn’t return at the expected time, nor answer her phone, her father called the tutor only to learn that his daughter had not attended the class. He searched extensively for Meray in every local hospital and then filed a report with the police.
“They made no effort to investigate the matter and search for her,” he told World Watch Monitor.
BRINGING THEM BACK, ONE AT A TIME
One Coptic priest wasn’t afraid to take the law into his own hands. When his own daughter was nearly kidnapped in 2011, he grabbed his gun and shot in the air twice, scaring the kidnappers away. He has since become an advocate for missing girls and women–and has received threats on his life and family’s lives because of it.
“I have received threats,” he told Open Doors. “But I fear no one, only God.”
He said about 15 girls go missing in his area each year.
In the past 10 years, he has been able to get eight of them back.
“Every girl who doesn’t return feels like a daughter I am losing,” he said.
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