A rumour has spread in the Upper Egyptian city of Kom Ombo that a divorced Muslim woman in her mid-30s was kidnapped by the Coptic Church and converted to Christianity. In an area divided by tribal and religious allegiances, the story has fuelled violence against the area's Christian minority.
The city's largest church, the Church of Mar Girgis, has been under attack for the past three days by what residents describe as "unknown assailants." Mostly in their teens, hundreds of young boys and men have been surrounding the church and pelting it with rocks and Molotov cocktails.
Central Security Forces (CSF) and soldiers have used teargas to repel the assailants, but Molotov cocktails and rocks have landed on the roof of the church and in its central courtyard.
A field hospital was set up in a corner of the courtyard, while many of the injured sat inside the church resting. Others prayed. One young man in the church had burns on his arms and back, which he said he had suffered from a Molotov cocktail thrown at the church.
"The missing woman is not in this church as you can see … Her family never claimed she was," the church's Father Abanob Wahid told Ahram Online.
"Influential Muslim figures, as well as imams in mosques, have been urging people to calm down, assuring them the woman is not in the church … Some have even visited the church and looked around to assure people, but the violence continues," he added.
The violence is not only limited to the church. Seventeen-year-old Copt Abanob, whose arm was covered with medical bandages, said he was attacked by a young man also in his teens who had first asked him whether or not he was Christian.
"'Yes, I'm a Christian! What's your problem?' I exclaimed before he and his friend followed me. He took out a pocketknife and aimed at my face but cut my arm instead, which I quickly raised to cover my face in an attempt to protect myself," Abanob told Ahram Online.
Not far from the scene of the clashes is the home of the missing woman, to which Ahram Online headed to meet the woman's brother at the local mandara, a space for social events, located near their house. The planned meeting never materialised, however, as a crowd — very similar to that surrounding the church — intervened.
Tens of young men, also mostly in their teens, carrying sticks and pocket knives quickly surrounded the mandara. Tense and on-edge, family friends quickly rushed to close the doors and windows, hushing away the crowd seemingly angered by the media's presence.
"You can only learn about the story from her father, uncle or brother … no one else," said an old man firmly who later identified himself as a distant uncle of the missing woman.
Time passed and the brother did not appear, while the persistent crowd remained determined to storm the place. The presence of the angry crowd increased tensions minute by minute.
"We don’t know who these people are … We don’t know what they want … Don't worry, you are under our protection," the old man repeated.
A member of the missing woman's family, a brother, finally showed up.
"We don’t have anything to say other than what we told investigators. She went missing and we know nothing about her. None of us [her family members] have attacked the church… We never claimed the church had her. We don’t know where she is. We know nothing about her."
An older, seemingly influential, figure suddenly entered, refusing to speak with reporters.
"No interviews will be held. Leave now," said the man who was later identified as Ashraf Hashem, a powerful former National Democratic Party (NDP) member and former member of parliament.
A car was called to pick up this reporter at the back door, into which I was quickly bundled and transported away from the angry crowd which – angered by my presence – was still trying to storm the building. The family denied knowing – or having anything to do with – members of the crowd outside.
"We don’t know these people. We all know each other here, but we don’t know who these people are," the driver told Ahram Online.
Hashem, Ahram Online was later told, was at a meeting with Sheikh El-Sayed Idris, a local sheikh from a large and influential family.
According to Father Wahid, Idris had intervened to calm the clashes. He had met at the church with several local figures to discuss the situation. He had also intervened to secure the release of 18 of the church attackers who had been detained by security forces in hopes of deescalating tensions, Father Wahid said.
Family denials have no effect
Despite denials issued by the family and influential figures of both faiths that the woman had been kidnapped by the church, violence continued against Kom Ombo's Copts for a third day on Sunday.
Since the missing woman disappeared a week ago, rumours have continued to circulate without their sources ever being confirmed.
The latest story – which has become widespread – is that the room of the missing woman, who is a well-known schoolteacher in the area, had been left full of crosses and Christian texts. Some say her ex-husband has kidnapped her; others claim she escaped with her Coptic lover and converted in a place far from Kom Ombo.
"Maybe someone spread this rumour [that the missing woman had been kidnapped by the church] because security failed to do anything to find her earlier," Father Wahid opined.
Speculation aside, the woman's exact whereabouts are not the only ambiguous part of the story. No one knows the source of the rumours, as well, nor do they know the identity of the church assailants. While sectarianism has played a role in the ongoing violence, much remains unanswered as to the source of the crisis.
Kom Ombo is located on the Nile River around 50 kilometres from Aswan in Upper Egypt. It has an estimated of 60,000 residents.
In recent years, Egypt had witnessed several attacks on churches, especially in Upper Egypt where sectarian tensions are more frequent.
Clashes over alleged forced religious conversions have also been common in recent years. Most alleged instances centred on Christian women converting to Islam and believed held captive by the Coptic Church. The best-known case was that of Camelia Shehata, the wife of a Coptic priest who was allegedly detained by the Church after she converted to Islam.
Copts have frequently complained that young Coptic women have been kidnapped by Muslim men and forced to convert for the purposes of marriage.
While conversion from Christianity to Islam is legally recognised, the opposite is not.