Cairo – Abeer Fakhry, a young Christian woman, had only wanted to live with a man who would love and respect her, and not with her abusive husband. But within months of trying to escape her marriage, and her faith, Abeer finds herself chased by her family, by the Orthodox Christian Church, by the fundamentalist Islamic Salafi Group and, lately, by Egypt’s top army generals.
“I just wanted to be happy,” said Abeer, who is now known by her first name, in a Youtube video that made her story famous in this country.
Abeer’s story has come to underscore the conditions of Orthodox Christian women who are subjected to domestic violence and who seek protection elsewhere, but find that the teachings of their church keeps them in permanent, and often intolerable, wedlock.
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While the Church itself complains of discrimination by the country’s Muslim majority, this case also highlights denial of freedom practised by the Church itself against its own members.
In several television and press interviews from secret locations, Abeer described how her marriage to a fellow Christian man in the village Kafr Shehata in Assiut province, in the south of the country, quickly turned into a nightmare.
Her husband verbally abused her and beat her up routinely, she said. Abeer, who suffers a kind of anemia that requires blood transfusion every three months, begged for divorce but the powerful Orthodox church led by Pope Shenouda III, who has been running the deeply conservative church since 1971, refused her request.
“I was told I can get rid of this marriage only if I changed my religion,” she told a talk show on Egypt’s Christian-owned OTV. “I then thought about becoming a Muslim.”
So when a Muslim passenger bus assistant named Yassen came her way during her daily commutes to an Arabic calligraphy school, and treated her with respect, she quickly fell in love with him.
On Sep. 23 last year Abeer thought her life would turn for the better when she walked into Al-Azhar mosque, one of Egypt’s oldest, to convert to Islam and to marry Yassen. Both had decided to leave their village behind for good.
Her happiness was short-lived. She was forced to change her location several times because her family was chasing her around the country.
Many Orthodox Christians worry that the number of the church followers is on the decline, and that many of their children are becoming Muslim at a pace they can’t tolerate. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life in the U.S says Egyptian Christians were once the majority, but now count only 4.5 percent of the country’s 86 million people. And that includes all Christian denominations such as Catholics and Protestants.
The regime of former president Hosni Mubarak looked the other way as the church chased converts to Islam in a bid to bring them back to Orthodox Christianity.
Influenced by Pope Shenouda’s ultra-conservative views, many Christian families, who often leaned left and formed liberal school of thoughts, have recently accepted the notion that conversion is apostasy and a capital crime despite the fact that such views have often caused frictions with the country’s Muslim majority.
Days before Abeer’s story broke, Salwa, another young Christian mother of three who had converted to Islam seven years ago, was killed by members of her Christian family. One of her children was also killed. Her Muslim husband was injured.
Fearing a similar fate, Abeer found a hiding place near Benha, 40 kilometres north of Cairo. But a Muslim neighbour soon alerted her family.
In March, her family seized her and kept transferring her to different churches. She ended up in a church in the low-income Cairo neighbourhood Imbaba, where fanaticism and poverty mix, leading to frequent violent flare-ups.
Abeer eventually managed to find a cell phone to call her husband.
Feeling helpless and alone, Yassen turned to a new rising power in Egypt for help – the Muslim fundamentalist group called the Salafis who, after the fall of Mubarak’s draconian secret police, have shed years of fear and became publicly active.
Dozens of the Salafis quickly congregated outside the Mar Mina church in Imbaba. Clashes erupted between Muslims and Christians at the church that left eight Muslims and four Christians dead. Some 210 were injured, and two churches were burned down.
The clashes have been the worst Egypt has seen in years. Many fear that the Jan. 25 revolt that toppled Mubarak is being undermined by religious tensions.
Thousands of Christians, carrying crosses and pictures of their saints, rallied in Cairo the next day, with many chanting for Mubarak’s return and asking for protection for their churches from the Salafis.
Mubarak had kept Muslim groups such as the Salafis in check through police brutality. He also gave Pope Shenouda a free hand in controlling the Orthodox Christian minority in return for backing presidency later for Mubarak’s son, Gamal.
Pope Shenouda barred Christians from taking part in the uprising that started Jan. 25 and ousted Mubarak in February.
Egyptian media, still run by executives from the Mubarak era, immediately sought a scapegoat for the bloodshed in Imbaba. They blamed Abeer. Newspapers began calling her “the cause of all troubles” and many columnists asked whether she is a worthy enough person.
She escape from the church during the clashes, but the country’s army generals tracked her down, arrested her and have accused her of stoking religious strife.
Now Abeer is behind bars in the infamous Qanater women’s prison, and blamed by almost all – including human rights organisations that have often adopted the cases of converts to Christianity from Islam but have been hesitant to come to her defence.
In her last phone interview to a local TV station last week, Abeer’s voice sounded broken when she spoke of a future she had hoped would be better.
“I do not know what my fate will be now. I do not know what will happen to me. All I really wanted was to have a normal life – just like everybody else.”