Sunday, April 18, 2010

Conversion sparks Coptic unrest in Beni Suef

By Pakinam Amer
Reports of a 17-year-old Christian boy converting to Islam sparked protests in the province of Beni Suef, 155 km south of Cairo, on Sunday night, a local priest told Al-Masry Al-Youm.

Father George Wadie said that no less than a thousand Coptic Christians were demonstrating in front of the Somosta police station in a village in Beni Suef, wanting to know where the young man had been taken. Speaking from his cell phone at the site of the protest, Wadie said that people in nearby buildings were pelting Christian protesters with stones while police officers denied knowledge of the boy’s whereabouts. Voices and noise from the gathering could be clearly heard on the other end of the line.

Sami Aziz Fahmy, the young man at the center of the storm, is employed by a Muslim family in the same village. A day earlier, the family had taken him “on a work trip to Cairo,” according to the priest, after which his family was told by police that their son had converted to Islam and been removed from the village for protection.

The story has spread like wildfire among the Christian community in the village, prompting protests. As they stood around the police station, Christians could be heard chanting “We want Sami back!”

“The police are not responding to us. They have encouraged people in nearby buildings to try and drive us away by throwing stones at us, but we won’t leave,” said Father Wadie. “The boy is under-age. We just want to know where he is and be given the chance to talk to him. Security officials know where is, they know everything. But they’re being uncooperative.”

The incident recalls the case of Wafaa Constantine, the wife of a Coptic priest who had expressed a desire to convert to Islam in 2004.

Rumors abounded that she had been kidnapped and forced to convert as protests ensued and clashes with Muslims and the police spiralled out of control, leading to injuries and arrests. At the time, many Copts had gone on hunger strikes while others staged sit-ins for weeks near cathedrals and major churches.

Following that incident, in a form of silent protest against the subsequent arrest of Christians and against how the case was being dealt with by authorities, Coptic Pope Shenouda III went into seclusion in the Wadi el-Natroun monastery.

Coptic Christians, who constitute roughly 10 percent of the population, often complain that they are subject to discrimination, and even persecution, at the hands of the Muslim majority. Conversion from Christianity to Islam–and vise versa–is often a sensitive issue, especially since it is more acceptable for Christians to convert to Islam than it is for Muslims to convert to Christianity.

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