|Egypt’s minority Coptic community says it faces official discrimination from authorities in the country [GALLO/GETTY]|
Protests have erupted in Egypt over the mysterious disappearance of the wife of a Coptic priest that has sparked tension between the country’s Muslim and Christian communties.
Camellia Zakhir went missing in July from the city of al Minya, prompting the Coptic community to allege that she was kidnapped and forced to convert to Islam. Others say that “domestic problems” with her husband were behind her sudden disappearance.
But the Muslim community says that Zakhir converted to Islam freely, and was then arrested by Egyptian police and returned to the custody of the Coptic church, where they say she is being held against her will.
Photographs of Zakhir wearing a traditional Muslim headscarf appeared in Egyptian newspapers, fuelling both sides’ accounts of what happened to her.
On Sunday Muslim worshippers took to the streets in protest against her treatment, calling for her to be allowed to appear and give her side of the story.
“If she was forced, then okay, no problem if she is still a Christian,” said Ahmed Abdel Rahman, one of the protestors. “She can just go on TV and on the news and say ‘I’m a Christian’. They shouldn’t abduct her and then say ‘she was forced’, by any logic. So let her appear and end the matter.”
But Coptic authorities have so far refused to let her speak in public. The church says that it plans to present a case to Egypt’s parliament next month to prove its version of events.
Meanwhile church lawyers are playing down the impact of the incident. “Many a time it’s happened where a Christian will convert to Islam or vice versa,” said Ramsees Naggar, a lawyer for the Coptic church. “In the end, this will have no impact on Coptic-Muslim relations.”
The case mirrors a similar incident in 2004, when the wife of another priest converted to Islam only to be taken by Egyptian police and returned to the Coptic church, who have kept her in hiding ever since.
Tensions between Egypt’s Copts and Muslim conmunities are nothing new. Copts complain of routine discirmination by the state. But Muslims argue that the Coptic church is above the state law, enjoying protections and safeguards not extended to society at large.
Occasionally ill-feeling between the communities spills over into violence. In January, six Copts and a Muslim guard were killed by Muslims in a drive-by shooting outside a church after attending Christmas Mass in the southern town of Naji Hammadim, sparking days of rioting and fears of wider unrest.