Egypt’s most senior Coptic Christian cleric, Pope Shenouda III, may be summoned to court and forced to release an alleged convert to Islam.
A group of Islamist lawyers has appealed to Egypt’s administrative court demanding that the Coptic Church release Camillia Shehata, the wife of a Coptic preacher, whom they allege has been forcibly incarcerated by the church. The court hearing is scheduled for November 2.
Shehata, 24, left her home at the southern city of Dir-Moas in July and disappeared for five days. She was eventually found by Egyptian security forces and delivered to the church, where she is said to be currently held.
Originally, rumors surrounding Shehata’s possible kidnapping and forced conversion to Islam sparked anti-Muslim protests by Copts in the Egyptian capital Cairo and in Shehata’s province of Minya.
This week, human rights organizations and Muslim demonstrators reversed the charges, demanding that the Coptic Church expose Shehata to the public eye.
"We are concerned for Mrs. Shehata’s safety and personal liberty," Hossam Bahgat, Executive Director of the Cairo-based Egyptian Initiative for Human Rights, told The Media Line. "Shehata left her family home willingly and was nevertheless forcibly returned to her family. There is no legal basis for an adult citizen to be transferred to their religious community or his family.”
Bahgat added that the forced return of Shehata to her family would only exacerbate existing sectarian tensions.
"The state and the Church may think that by returning her they will preempt sectarian tension, but in fact we warn that this behavior will only add to tensions in an alarmingly tense atmosphere," Bahgat said. "The Coptic community is already vulnerable and exposed to sectarian violence. This may escalate the situation to disturbing levels."
Gamal ‘Id, director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, went further, calling Shehata’s disappearance an "abduction" by the Coptic Church. In a press conference marking "the International Day against Enforced Disappearance" he blamed the Egyptian government for allowing the Church to function as a "state against the state".
On Saturday hundreds of Muslims demonstrated across from the Nour mosque following evening prayers, calling on Shehata to "return to the Muslim community." The protesters carried pictures of Shehata wearing a black veil and signs reading "I will die a Muslim," reported the Egyptian daily Al-Masry Al-Youm.
Dr. Walid Kazziha, a political scientist at the American University in Cairo, argued that the Coptic behavior was a reaction to the resurgence of Islamism in Egypt over the past 30 years.
"This wave of Islamism has confined minority groups in the region, including Egypt, to limited political areas," he told The Media Line. “As a result, we are witnessing a reaction from minority groups – both ethnic and religious.”
Dr. Kazziha said the crisis could be resolved by opening the political and legal arena in Egypt to a more inclusive system, where minority groups who feel suppressed and disenfranchised could express their views freely.
"What we see now are accusations and counter accusations. We need a new system to allow de-escalation," he added.
Copts are said to comprise some 9 percent of Egypt’s 80 million strong population.
Dalia Ziada, director of the American Islamic Congress in Cairo, blamed the current crisis on both Muslims and Christians.
"Both sides are exaggerating," she told The Media Line. "The problem in our society is that both sides try to play God and decide for people which religion to have. This reflects a problem of absence of religious tolerance."
"In the end,” she said, “it’s a matter of personal choice for Shehata.”