In 2011, Nadia Makram, 13, was walking home from church near her working-class Cairo neighborhood when she vanished.
Her mother, Martha, went to the police, who refused to file a report. Soon after, Martha received a call demanding $15,000. She went back to the police, who registered a complaint but noted only Nadia's disappearance.
When the police did nothing, Martha gathered money from family and friends and traveled to a village 65 miles south.
Martha met Nadia's 48-year-old kidnapper in the home of the local mayor. After she handed over the money, the men showed her what they called a "marriage certificate." Nadia, they said, had converted to Islam and married her abductor. Martha left empty-handed—an increasingly common story among Coptic Christians. Abductions have increased sharply in the past few months.
Nadia's case is being followed by the Association for Victims of Abductions and Enforced Disappearances (AVAED), which has documented 500 similar cases since the 2011 revolution. Hers appears to be a straight kidnapping, but AVAED says these are only a small proportion of disappearances. Sixty percent of them begin with a love relationship built on false pretenses.
"The girls are told, 'What will your family do to you if you go back to them? Convert to Islam so we can be together,' " said Ebram Louis, founder of AVAED. Kept against their will, Louis says, some of the girls are later found in brothels.
But some kidnappings turn out to be runaway stories instead. If a young Copt has found a Muslim lover, her shamed family may invent a tale of kidnapping by Muslim extremists.
Still, no matter the reason for the disappearance of a minor, says Cairo pastor Rifaat Fikry, "The state must investigate with complete neutrality."
But some feel police response is professionally lacking, due to sympathy with or fear of fanatic Muslims. "We file an official police report, though it is often ignored," said Louis. "They say, 'There are a million girls missing. Why should we go after yours?'"
One Islamist indicated that certain groups do target Copts. According to the Middle East Christian News, Mostafa Kamal Issa, governor of Minya, admitted the presence of a gang that kidnapped Copts for ransom. He claimed they were too well armed to be stopped.
Since the state is perceived as doing nothing, Christians often just pay the ransom.
Coptic bishop Kyrillos of Nag Hammadi, 300 miles south of Cairo, recently held a press conference to complain of 34 kidnapping cases in his diocese since the revolution. Of these, 11 were returned after ransom payments, which totaled $435,000.
Hany Hanna's family pooled its money for a ransom to free his kidnapped uncle, but the abductors killed his uncle before the family could pay. "Within a system that does nothing to prevent kidnapping, I say yes, to purchase back his humanity, it is worth it," said Hanna, a professor at the Evangelical Theological Seminary of Cairo. "Paying the ransom can communicate that I am rewarding the criminal for what he has done. But God has paid our ransom, and he is not rewarding sinners—he is taking upon himself the consequences of restoring the relationship."
Still, the relationship between Coptic families suffering kidnappings and the state remains fractured. When Martha went back to the police with the order from the public prosecutor to retrieve Nadia, she was detained and interrogated for six hours. Her trip was fruitless, and local Islamists harassed her. She now resides outside Cairo, driven from her home, she said.
In July, the Egyptian cabinet established the Ministry of Transitional Justice, appointing lawyer, judge, and human rights advocate Mohamed Amin al-Mahdi at its head. Some wonder if the ministry is only for appearances. But given consistent failures to achieve justice through the police or the judiciary, some Coptic Christians sense a new opportunity to address past wrongs.
"The Ministry of Transitional Justice is the ministry of hope," said Hany Gaziri, a veteran Coptic activist who met with al-Mahdi to discuss the kidnappings and other issues. "If I know my daughter has been taken, I can go the Ministry of Transitional Justice and prove my case, and he will order the Ministry of the Interior to return her. If we can arrest even one or two, I think these kidnappings will come to an end."
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