It is uncommon that the news of a wife’s disappearance after a family dispute, in a small village in Upper Egypt, becomes a headline in newspapers, circulates on international websites, and triggers the intervention of national security forces — unless the woman is a Priest’s wife.
The unexplained disappearance of Camellia Shehata Zakher, the 25 years old wife of a Coptic Priest in Upper Egypt, immediately ignited the rumors of abduction and forced conversion to Islam.
After her husband falsely reported her kidnap, he used the powers granted to him by the church to mobilize demonstrations to pressure the government to find her. To curb the dormant sectarian violence volcano from an inevitable eruption, National Security intervened in full force and led a wide investigation to return the woman safely to her husband.
The vanishing of the young woman escalated the religious tension that is already bubbling under the surface. Within hours after she was gone, more than 3000 Copts from her home village and the neighboring villages were mobilized to travel to Cairo, in buses, to join the thousand others who were already demonstrating at the Coptic Patriarchate there. They were stopped and detained on their way by state security.
For centuries, Egypt, the land of the Pharaohs where the Holy Family sought refuge, was a land of religious and ethnic tolerance. It was widely known as a safe haven that sheltered and protected its people regardless of their different religious beliefs.
Today with the soaring numbers of the Neo-Muslims and their preachers who are constantly venting their loath against the others, the religious tolerance is plummeting causing sectarian violent clashes between the Muslims and the Coptic minorities — especially in the south of the country, the heartland of the Copts. Such violence could be triggered by events as trivial as school kids fighting over a soccer game or by rumors that with no exception always involve women’s conversion to Islam.
Ibrahim Issa, CEO and Chief Editor of the Egyptian Al Dostur Newspaper wrote :
“There is an obsession among Muslim extremists who believe that converting a Christian to Islam is a victory for Islam and guarantees them a place in heaven…… [and] There is also a great deal of sensitivity among Christians who consider a conversion by a Copt to Islam to be an insult to their religion and a threat to Christianity…..”
But within days, National Security investigations revealed that Camellia left her home willingly after a fight with her husband. She was located at a friend’s house, detained by National Security forces and escorted back to the husband, against her will, without even considering the reasons of why she left in the first place. The country’s national security is by far more important than its women’s rights. Camellia denied all allegations that she was kidnapped or subjected to attempts to convert her to Islam. However, she confessed that she was not planning to return back to her husband who played the sectarian card to bring her back.
Not only was Camellia forced to return back to her husband against her will, in exchange for the country’s security, but to add to the drama of this soap opera, the president of the Egyptian Union for Human Rights in Cairo, Dr. Naguib Gibrael, sent a request to the Pope Shenouda III to issue a papal order that bans priests’ wives from seeking employment outside the church. This is a strange request coming from a human rights activist. It raises the question, whose rights does Dr. Naguib represent?
Camellia’s disappearance brought back the memories of Wafaa Constantine’s episode in 2004. Constantine, an unhappy wife of another priest took refuge in a police station in mid-December 2004 and announced that she had converted to Islam. A combination of an unhappy marriage and the church’s ban on divorce seemed to be the reason behind her action. Constantine demanded protection from her co-religionists, who sought to convince her to return to her husband’s side.
Within a few weeks, Pope Shenouda III himself went into seclusion and threatened to stay there until the matter was resolved, even if it meant skipping mass on the January 7 Coptic Christmas. Eventually, the security services came to an accommodation with the church: Shenouda would come out of his retreat and Constantine’s conversion to Islam would be considered null and void (under Egyptian law, conversion from Islam is illegal, but not the reverse). Constantine has since been sequestered in the monastery of Wadi Natroun and has not been heard from, to the alarm of human rights activists who believe she is being held against her will.
As long as the suffering of women continues, Zakher and Constantine’s cases will neither be the first nor the last. They will always be a reminder of the strict Church laws governing marriage and divorce. Such laws are forcing thousands of unhappy women and men to live together, against their will, because they don’t have a way out. They also shed a light on the fragile situation of a country that tries to stay stable by involving its security apparatus to resolve family disputes.
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