In recent years, Egypt has witnessed an increase in cases of disappearance among Coptic girls. According to the Association of Victims of Abduction and Enforced Disappearances (AVAED), 500 cases were reported in 2012 and 10 already in January 2013.
In many cases, members of the Salafist movement declare that the disappeared girl has converted to Islam and married a Muslim man. Her family would be asked to stop searching for her despite that in many cases the girl would be underage and should enjoy protected rights under Egyptian law and the international Convention on the Rights of the Child.
In the case of the disappearance of Sara Abdel-Malik, who came to be known as the ''Dabaa girl," a 13-year-old girl was reportedly kidnapped in Matrouh last September. Several Salafists said Abdel-Malek was not kidnapped but that she made a decision to convert to Islam and marry. While her family considered her abducted, especially as she is underage, several Salafists argued she was mature enough to make life decisions and refused that she be returned to her family.
Such cases have Coptic activists worried about the state and future of religious freedoms in Egypt, especially after Sharia (Islamic law) has moved to the centre of public debate and taken a more prominent positition in Egypt's constitution.
Abram Louis, AVAED head, and lawyer Saeed Fayez have called for the return of counseling sessions for those who want to convert from Christianity to Islam.
The process of conversion of a non-Muslim traditionally included a counseling session consisting of the prospective new convert and a member of the clergy of his faith of origin along with Muslim clergy. These sessions were intended to give the potential convert the chance to make an informed decision about his conversion after hearing from both sides.
The Ministry of Interior demanded that in such sessions the one seeking to convert would be asked about the extent of their conviction in Islam. If their reply affirmed their belief in Islam, the would-be convert would proceed with the process of conversion. However, if the reply was negative he would be returned to his family and the required legal action taken.
"In Egypt’s new Sharia-based constitution, which President Mohamed Morsi signed into law at the end of last year, Article 43 protects freedom of religion and gives the right to practice religion and to establish places of worship to Muslims, Christians, and Jews ... We respect freedom of religion but the only aim of these sessions is to ensure that converts to Islam have made their decision according to their own free will," said Fayez.
“'Sometimes conversions take place under duress and frequently include abductions and physical abuse. Victims are reluctant to press charges against perpetrators for fear of reprisal," he added.
According to Fayez, counseling sessions were the norm for almost 142 years, between 1863 and 2004 when the former government halted the practice without any warning or debate.
Article 58 of the real estate registration and certification law stated that when a person requests to convert to Islam, the administrative authority (the Security Directorate) is required to notify the relevant religious authorities (the Church) to head to the Security Directorate and discuss with the potential convert their decision.
The priest is given the right to sit alone with the person requesting the conversion and verify there is a genuine desire and that there is no pressure or coercion. It is also permissible for the priest to hold more than one session with the same person, explained Fayez.
On the other hand, the general Islamist trend, which includes more than 22 parties and coalitions, refuses this requirement, arguing it goes against the freedom of religion.
"Conversion to Islam is not a sin for which the state should offer counseling. On the contrary, the state must support and assist new Muslims, as the state must get rid of the legacy of Mubarak's regime, which was hostile to all manifestations of Islam in society," said Khaled Harbi, spokesman of the General Islamic Trend.
Hamed Ahmed, media spokesman of National Centre for the Defence of Freedoms, also refuses the counseling sessions, saying "Advice and guidance sessions are a suspicious switch back to the legacy of the Mubarak era. Each one should have full freedom to have or adopt a religion. So we promise if they return these sessions, we will take the actions necessary to respond."
Acknowledging there is resistance to the idea of counseling sessions for converters, Louis says his fellow activists are now suggesting that instead of security directorates being the place to hold these sessions, they could and should be held at the National Council for Human Rights, "so as not to involve the interior ministry in a conflict with Islamist extremists."
Meanwhile, campaigners are trying to convince authorities to reinstate the counseling sessions. Louis explained that a memo has been submitted to the prosecutor general and the interior ministry demanding the reinstatement of counseling sessions. Campaigners have also held meetings with the deputy head of the interior ministry's human rights affairs section, General Abdel-Karim Abu Bakr, along with members of the National Council for Human Rights and Shura Council to discuss the matter.
During these meetings, Louis explained, “violations suffered by underage girls converting to Islam in the absence of the (counseling) law, and with the blessing of some state institutions, are also discussed.”
Louis confirmed authorities have promised to answer the counseling reinstatement request soon, although nothing has been confirmed.