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Muslim extremists have allegedly abducted a Coptic priest’s wife in Egypt and forced her to convert to Islam, prompting demonstrations today by thousands of Christian Copts in various parts of the nation against what they say is the government’s failure to protect them against anti-Christian crimes.

Foreign journalists have been barred from the protest areas, the U.S. Copt Association told WorldNetDaily.

Over 3,000 Coptic demonstrators gathered yesterday and today in Cairo, el-Minia, el-Behara and Assiut provinces to protest what they say is the abduction and forced conversion to Islam of Wafaa Constantine Messiha, the wife of a Coptic priest based in Egypt. Demonstrators charged Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has been indifferent to Coptic pleas for protection from Muslim-led persecution, and called on the U.S. to immediately intervene.

“The situation in Egypt is exploding every minute for the last three days,” Emil Zaki, vice president of the U.S. Copt Association told WorldNetDaily. “Muslims are regularly attacking Copts, and they kidnapped the wife of a priest to force her to convert to Islam.”

Zaki, who says he has been in hourly contact with the protest leaders, said he was told the Egyptian government has barred foreign journalists from attending the rallies. He said only state-run and Arabic networks have been allowed to report from the protest sites.

Indeed, the only media outlet with footage of the protests, Al Jazeera, reported Messiha was not kidnapped, but willingly converted to Islam and ran away from her husband.

“The government wont be able to keep the situation hidden from the international media for long, with clashes increasing by the minute,” said Zaki.

Although Egypt’s native Christian Coptic population, which constitutes between 8 and 15 percent of Egypt’s population depending on which statistical information is used, have long clashed with Muslim extremists, demonstrators say a recent rise in anti-Coptic sentiment has prompted an escalation in violence.

Recent crimes cited by the demonstrators include an increased rate of kidnapping, rapes and forced conversion of young Coptic women.

They said on Friday Muslim villagers stormed and set fire to a building housing a Coptic prayer room. The mob then swept through the village, looting and burning Coptic homes and businesses, destroying a Coptic priest’s car and injuring several Copts in the process, the demonstrators said. They claim the mob was prompted by an announcement that Mubarak refused a request by a local Coptic community to build a church.

In a letter to President Bush, Michael Meunier, president of the U.S. Copts Association, appealed for his immediate intervention with Mubarak on behalf of Egypt’s persecuted Copts.

“Mubarak’s regime has not only ignored, but in many cases contributed to the alarming increase in anti-Coptic violence,” said Meunier. “Only President Bush’s personal intervention can help prevent the escalation of these hate crimes into full-fledged cultural genocide.”

An online petition prompted by the association, asks U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, through the U.S. ambassador in Egypt, David Welch, “to interfere and demand the release of Mrs. Messiha from her captors, and put and end to the police brutality, terror and organized persecution against the Coptic Christians of Egypt.”

“Please be advised that thousands of Coptic Christian youth are currently demonstrating for her release inside and around churches in several provinces, including Cairo, and being subjected to brutality by local police and security forces,” says the petition.

The Coptic Church, a major Christian community in Egypt, reportedly dates back to the origins of Christianity. Christians were the majority in Egypt until several centuries after the Arab conquest of the seventh century.

The church is headed by the “patriarch and pope of Alexandria, Pentapolis and Ethiopia,” who is elected by the entire community of clergy. His permanent residence is in Cairo.

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