Female’s faith threatens delicate religious balance in Egypt

Ekram Ibrahim , Thursday 5 May 2011

Islamists threaten to protest in front of a Coptic cathedral over Camilia Shehata, who they say converted to Islam but is captive by the church; experts tell Ahram Online they fear violence if she doesn’t appear in public

Islamists protest
Islamists protest in Cairo near the Coptic Cathedral in Cairo (Photo: Reuters)

Islamists are preparing to protest in front of a Coptic cathedral this Friday, demanding for the release of Camilia Shehata - a Copt who they claim has converted to Islam and is now being held against her will by the Coptic church – as well as to oust Pope Shenouda III.

The wife of priest Tadros Samaan, Camilia Shehata, 26 years old, disappeared in July 2010 after reportedly converting to Islam, causing a stir among Islamists. In response, Islamists have already protested multiple times.

“If the Salafists and the Copts clash this Friday, a civil war will break out in Egypt,” Emad Gad, Researcher at Ahram Strategic Center voiced his fears.

Other Islamic scholars are also sceptical about the Salafists protesting before the Coptic cathedral.

“If the Salafists want to protest, they ought to do that before governmental buildings and not religious ones,” Kamal Habib, specialist in Islamic groups studies, told Ahram Online.

Habib echoes the fear that Salafists protesting before the cathedral might increase the sectarian tension in Egypt.

The General Prosecutor has started an investigation on the issue Tuesday by interrogating Priest Aghabious, the priest of the church of Shehata’s husband, Amwas and her lawyer, Naguib Gobrael. “Shehata’s faith was not mentioned during the investigation,” said Gobrael, knowing that it would make a difference in Egyptian’s response to these events.

In an attempt to calm things down, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) posted a statement on its Facebook page, communiqué number (44), declaring that, currently, there are several attempts to challenge Egyptian unity and that the SCAF would work to combat them by any means.

“The SCAF should prevent the Salafists from protesting before the Coptic cathedral to avoid any clashes,” Gad asserts to Ahram Online.

Moreover, the ruling military has promised to deliver Shehata within 15 days.

Currently, Copts blame the ruling military, SCAF, for the Salafists presence amid general protests and for giving Salafists the opportunity to threaten Egyptian unity. Meanwhile, the Salafists blame SCAF for not ordering the church to release Shehata.

Shehata has been out of sight.

Gobrael, who seems to know her whereabouts, simply said to Ahram Online “Shehata is living with her husband in a place that I cannot disclose.”

Shehata herself has made no public statement, with the exception of a video whose authenticity is disputed, since the issue erupted in July.  

Shehata’s lawyer refuses to have her appear in the media or to be investigated by the attorney general because she is not accused of anything.

Islamists do not find the lawyer’s statements of any use. Actually, not only Islamists, but many others believe that Shehata’s media appearance would calm things down.

“We have not seen her. She should appear in the media herself to validate that [the statement],” Habib told Ahram Online. 

“Shehata appearing in the media would solve many things, in spite of the fact that this is an invasion of her privacy,” Gad seconded the motion.  

The Salafists believe that Shehata has converted to Islam and is locked up by the church to prevent her from practicing her new religion. They also allege that there are other women who were born Coptic and are now locked up in the church after converting to Islam.

Freedom of religion remains a sensitive issue in Egypt.

“I wonder why the freedom of religion only goes one way in Egypt: Christian converts are not treated the same way as Muslim ones,” said Nabil Ghobrial, rights lawyer for Maher El-Gohary, a Muslim who converted to Christianity.

El-Gohary was denied changing his personal documentations with his new faith, is subjected to several death threats and is now outside of the country, according to Ghobrial.

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