“When it comes to my beliefs about God and religion, Omar is closer to me than anyone who goes to this church.” It was this sentence, Mona Adel* says, that finally convinced a certain celebrity priest — especially revered among upper- and middle-class urbanite Copts — to supply her with an “absence of impediment to marriage” document.
Adel, in her early 30s, was raised in an upper-middle class Coptic Christian family in Cairo. Her mother, she says, had originally pushed her to meet with the priest, hoping that with his oratorical prowess, he would dissuade her from getting married to Omar Nour, a Muslim man whom she had met through shared activism in 2011.
“I had been chasing my family priest for months to provide me with the ‘absence of impediment to marriage’ document,” says Adel. “He refused to give it to me unless I assured him of Omar’s conversion to Christianity, which would have to be done in secret. But we both refused to do that on principle of refusing the interference of religious authority in our marriage.”
Ishaq Ibrahim, a researcher on religious freedoms at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) explains that, “The ‘absence of impediment to marriage’ document is mandatory for the civil registration of any marriage which involves a Christian party, even if it’s to a non-Christian. It can only be procured through the diocese which the Christian party is affiliated with.” He says that it acts as a statement from the Coptic Church that the person meets the criteria for marriage set by the Coptic Church in its code of personal affairs.
In Adel and Nour’s experience, the document is extremely hard to obtain for a Christian woman planning to marry a Muslim man. “Only one other couple we know managed to procure it,” says Adel, “and that was through the woman’s family’s personal connections within the church.”
“Marriage in Egypt is essentially religious,” Ibrahim says. “In practice, this translates into the possibility for a Muslim man and a woman belonging to any of the Abrahamic faiths to get married and register their union with the state. A Muslim woman, on the other hand, cannot get married to a non-Muslim man, even if she holds another passport, as it contravenes Islamic Sharia, and therefore it is not possible for such a couple to get married in Egypt, nor to get the marriage recognized by the state.”
“It was not easy for either of my parents to accept my decision to marry Omar,” Adel recounts. “For both of them it was a betrayal. For my father, it was not about religious belief per se but religious identity, and his experience of alienation as a Copt. During his military service in 1973, he recounts several incidents where fellow soldiers would frequently fall to the floor on occasions of victories for the Egyptian army against the Israeli enemy, with shouts of ‘Allah Akbar.’ His comrades attributed the country’s success to God and would often whisper about him being a Copt among themselves.” This alienation, Adel says grew over time, as he became estranged from several close friends who had shared his leftist leanings and who had gone on to embrace radical Islamism.
Adel got married in the end and while her father did not approve of her choice, he attended their wedding. Her mother, however, refused to attend.
“There remains a large segment of Christian society who perceives such marriages as a source of shame for the woman’s family,” researcher Ibrahim says. “Converting to Islam further deepens the stigma attached to such a marriage.”
William Bekheet*, a lawyer and Coptic activist who helps families in Alexandria locate their ‘missing’ daughters by checking the conversion lists in Al-Azhar, states that in most of the interreligious marriage cases he has been involved in, the woman has legally changed her religion. Bekheet adds that such marriages reflect badly on the family’s social standing within their local Christian community. “A daughter marrying outside of the faith is perceived as a moral failing on the part of the parents to raise their daughters piously, and may consequently affect other siblings, particularly sisters’ chances at marriage.”
Ibrahim believes that families often say that their daughters were kidnapped or tricked as a strategy to avoid being ostracized, presenting themselves or their daughters as victims rather than having to bear the shame and blame of failing to raise their daughters. “In my experience, it is seldom the case that a Christian woman is physically kidnapped, and then coerced into marriage.” Many Christians do, however, genuinely believe that Christian women are kidnapped and compelled to convert.
Bekheet, reflecting on his experience dealing mostly with families from lower middle-class and working-class neighborhoods in Alexandria, sees that marriages often offer the women a chance to improve their living standards and class position, or to cover up the shame attached to being involved in a premarital relationship with someone from a different religion. “Many women enter such marriages willingly, but in a social environment where agency is negotiated within a framework of oppression on account of poverty, as well as gender and religious identity.”
For Hala Boules, being unable to procure a divorce, which is very difficult for Coptic Christians, was her first step toward marrying a Muslim.
“I talked to my confessing priest several times about wanting to get a divorce from my husband. I told him that my Muslim neighbor had told me that if I converted to Islam I would be able to get a divorce and that I was so desperate I was considering it. He told me it’s your life, do whatever you want,” says Boules.
Boules, in her early 30s, hails from an urban working-class neighborhood. She had been living with her mother for almost a year on account of irreconcilable differences with her then-husband, who is also her first cousin.
“I went home distraught after my conversation with the priest. I was not expecting him to say that to me. My neighbor again offered to help me with the conversion process. She told me that nobody would help me but myself,” continues Boules. She had taken to spending time with her neighbor Madiha Ahmed*, and Ahmed’s son Taha Hamed* who volunteered to take her to his father’s house in another governorate and help with the conversion paperwork.
Hamed took Boules to stay with his father’s family, while they traveled to Cairo almost every other day to finalize the paperwork. “After I finalized the paperwork that would effectively grant me a divorce from my first husband, I asked to go back to my mother’s house. Taha said my family would never take me back after what I had done. He told me I had shamed them, and instead offered to marry me, and stay with him at his family’s house,” says Boules. After reaching out to her brother on the phone only to be met with verbal threats, she decided to marry Hamed and try to forget about her former life.
“Rumors of Muslim women being involved with Christian men are often the cause of conflict and violence as such relationships can be said to be a source of shame for the female party’s family,” says Ibrahim. Consequently, he states, often the man’s family, extended family and even non-familial Christian neighbors are subject to violence as collective punishment for one member of the group’s perceived transgression.
The two most common triggers for sectarian violence are rumors of interreligious romances and Christians building churches or using their homes for prayer.
In May 2016, in Karm village in Minya, seven Christian homes were looted and burnt in the wake of rumors of a Christian man romantically involved with a Muslim woman, but it was the sight of an elderly woman — the man’s mother — beaten, stripped and dragged through the street that brought the incident to national and international headlines.
According to Ibrahim, in these situations the state is invested in maintaining an image of social stability, so usually interventions are aimed at soothing the majority, which in Egypt is predominantly Muslim, at the expense of the Christian minority. Usually the cases do not reach court and reconciliation meetings occur in which it is generally agreed on to displace the family of the Christian man.
Some Muslim clerics charge that there is a Coptic plot to abduct Christian women converts to Islam to force them back to Christianity. These claims have been invoked in attacks on Coptic life, property and churches. They were repeated in a video released by the Islamic State in Libya, showing the killings of 21 abducted Copts. The video, released by the Islamic State in February 2015, and since widely circulated on social media, features a caption toward the end saying that the bloodshed was “revenge for Camelia and her sisters,” and referred to the hostages as “People of the cross, followers of the hostile Egyptian Church.”
In July 2010, Camelia Shehata, a Coptic woman married to a priest, disappeared from her home and a couple of weeks later she was returned to her family by state security. Salafi preacher Abu Yahya, who claims to have been personally involved with helping Shehata convert to Islam, contends she had been about to convert to Islam out of her own personal conviction before state security intervened to have her returned to the church. The official account, which is also endorsed by the church, is that she had been staying with her relatives due to marital problems, until State Security found her and returned her to her husband. In May 2011, she made an appearance on Christian satellite channel Al-Hayat with her husband and son, where she stated that she had left her home on account of a marital dispute. She denied claims that she had converted to Islam or been held against her will by the church.
“The cases of Wafaa Constantine and Camelia Shehata were of particular sensitivity, in that both cases involved wives of priests,” says Ibrahim, so the church became directly involved in the dispute. In the case of Constantine, she went missing from her home in late 2004 after which the church was notified by state security that she wished to convert. According to Ibrahim, the church applied pressure on the state to allow them access to Constantine for guidance sessions, and subsequently Constantine declared her wish to remain Christian to the prosecutor general and was returned to the church. She has not made any public appearances since.
“A few weeks after my marriage, my father-in-law offered to take me back to my family behind his son’s back,” says Boules. “He said my mother was asking for me, and that she was willing to do anything in exchange for my return. At first I was scared, I just wanted the past to be in the past. But he kept telling me just speak with her, she is first and foremost a mother.” Her father-in-law then arranged for her return to her family in exchange for money. Her family was so glad she had returned that they forgave her. Her husband, on the other hand, alerted local sheikhs to coerce his father into getting her back, to which his father responded by having him arrested for evading his military service.
Adel was estranged from her mother for a couple of years after her marriage. Their relationship began to heal after she gave birth to her first child. She speaks about how she and her husband agreed to have her children baptized, although their legal documents must follow the religion of their father. “To us, it’s a gesture of solidarity with my parents’ faith.” Her husband’s parents, who had not otherwise objected to their marriage, refused to attend the baptism ceremony.
“I was planning a surprise birthday party for my mother’s birthday. I had invited all her friends, including those from church, only to have one of her close friends call me to cancel it immediately”, recounts Adel. “It turns out, ” she says, “that she had only told one close friend about my marriage, and did not want any of her other friends from church to know that I was married to a Muslim.”
“Our old house was facing a mosque, if anyone from the neighborhood were to find out about me, they would take me away from my family, and I would never see them again,” says Boules. After her return, the entire family were forced to relocate fearing for their safety. Her husband refuses to divorce her, and arranged for thugs to beat up her brother. She is waiting for her khul’ papers to be finalized in the hopes of exiting her identitarian limbo, (on paper she is still a Muslim married to a Muslim), and moving on with her life. She is currently engaged to be married to a Christian man despite her previous experiences, she says. “Of course I want to get married again, I have nothing, my father is deceased and my mother is old and ill. My brother is married, and my sister is married. I don’t have anyone. Nobody carries anyone. Each one carries his own load. And you can see what the world we live in is like. If I can’t seek protection from a man, if there is no man to protect me, to carry me and put up with me, nobody will.”
Adel and her husband now live in an apartment in an upper middle-class neighborhood in Cairo with their two children. She credits the space opened up in 2011, not just as a physical space for meeting her husband, but as a space which opened up possibilities for imagining a different future, in which perhaps Christian-Muslim relations would be different than they were pre-2011. “The revolution played a significant role in making certain dreams seem more palpable, to me. Had it not been for that I would have maybe not decided to marry Omar. It’s not that I regret my decision to get married, but it’s hard to imagine taking the same risk of alienating my family members, if I hadn’t had such strong convictions that things could be different.”
*Names in this article have been changed to protect identities.