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Will Egypt's New President Sisi #BringBackOurCopticGirls?

Adjunct Fellow, Center for Religious Freedom
Egyptian Coptic Christians attend a Friday Mass at the Virgin Mary church on May 16, 2014 in Cairo's Road al-Farag district. (VIRGINIE NGUYEN HOANG/AFP/Getty Images)
Egyptian Coptic Christians attend a Friday Mass at the Virgin Mary church on May 16, 2014 in Cairo's Road al-Farag district. (VIRGINIE NGUYEN HOANG/AFP/Getty Images)

Now that President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has been officially inaugurated as Egypt's president, there are high hopes that he will bring stability to his turbulent nation and, perhaps, to the region.

Sisi's popularity is enormous. He won the election by a landslide. But the task before him is formidable.

Egypt has been exhausted by three years of upheaval following the demise of strongman Hosni Mubarek, and the subsequent ill-starred regime of Mohamed Morsi and his notorious Muslim Brotherhood.

The country's economy is in shambles, its cash-cow tourism industry has dried up, it continues to battle terrorists on a daily basis, and even essential supplies of food and energy are in short supply.

But one minority community's misery has truly surpassed all others: Egypt's Coptic Christians.

My Hudson Institute colleague Samuel Tadros reports that from April 2011 until just over a year ago, 59 Copts were murdered, 714 Copts were wounded, 114 Coptic families saw their property looted; and 112 families were forced to leave their homes.

At the same time, 24 churches were attacked, four of which were completely destroyed. And eight Copts, including three children, were imprisoned for "insulting Islam."

Thankfully, since Morsi's overthrow, the Copts have seen diminishing attacks on their churches and monasteries, villages and businesses. There are occasional flare-ups, but the flames of high-visibility persecution have largely been extinguished for the time being.

But another devastating assault on the Coptic community has silently increased: the kidnapping of young girls.

The dramatic Boko Haram abductions in Nigeria fixated the world's attention on the horror of some 250 girls who were violently captured and carried off in trucks and busses to parts unknown.

By contrast, with virtually no publicity, Coptic girls vanish quietly, one at a time, yet sometimes as many as two or three in a week's time. Their families are often poor and powerless. Police reports are filed, and sometimes the kidnappers are even identified.

But the girls are never seen again.

Terrasanta, a Catholic news service, says that many of these girls are compulsorily converted to Islam and forced to marry their abductors.

With agonizing attention to detail, the small cross tattoos they wear on their wrists as a symbol of their Christian faith are removed with acid during wedding preparations.

"The high number of missing girls," Terrasanta writes, "and the repeating identical operating patterns have convinced lawyers, activists and priests -- long engaged in the battle against the terrible practice -- that there is an organized network behind the kidnappings. According to some, there are Islamic cells dedicated exclusively to the abduction of Coptic women."

The hashtag #BringBackOurCopticGirls has been posted and tweeted repeatedly, especially since the Boko Haram kidnappings. And several Facebook pages, such as "The Free Copts" and "Association of Victims of Abduction and Forced Disappearance (AVAFD)" -- recount and update tragic details.

Everyone knows that young girls sometimes run off with their boyfriends. And in some cases, the potential social repercussions of a love affair between a Christian girl and a Muslim boyfriend might inspire them to run away together.

However, in an overwhelming number of instances, when the missing girls' parents seek police assistance in tracking down their lost daughters, the authorities turn a blind eye and refuse to be involved.

An article from Arab West Report, which examines Egypt's kidnapping phenomenon in detail, states that "Christians often accuse security of paying even less attention to crimes against their community. In cases of disappearance of minors, sometimes they fail to investigate at all. Is this due to individual fanaticism, institutional bias, or simply a common indifference?

Aid for the Church in Need, a Roman Catholic pontifical foundation, offers further details.

"Very young girls, such as 14-year-old Nadia Makram, are a particular target for radical Muslims. In 2011, she was kidnapped during a church service. Since then, her family has had no contact with her anymore.

"Although the family knows who did it, the police do not help them.

"'They even warned us not to pursue the matter any further. I must accept that my daughter has been kidnapped,' says Nadia's mother, filled with pain."

Will these disappearances cease after a Sisi election? Will the government step in, demand police cooperation, reunite grieving families and diminish the Christian minority's vulnerability?

Will President Sisi #BringBackOurCopticGirls?

Samuel Tadros isn't so sure how well the Copts will fare under a Sisi presidency.
Yes, he anticipates improvements in media discourse, because of the support the Coptic Church demonstrated during the overthrow of Morsi. This was appreciated, and should result in a decrease of high-profile incitement.

However, Tadros recently told me, "While Sisi is intent on fighting the Brotherhood, and regardless of his success in that, Islamism will not be rolled back in the public square.

"Overall, I think the Copts will be disappointed."

The jihadi slogan "First the Saturday People, then the Sunday People" has been acted out across the Middle East for generations. Egypt's Jews were driven out in the mid-20th Century and now only a handful remains.

Like the Jews before them, Egypt's indigenous "Sunday People" may well find themselves without their ancient homeland. There is no Israel for persecuted Christians -- no safe haven to which they can flee.

Unless President al-Sisi surprises the world by providing peace and security to his Christian minority, there will soon be millions of poverty-stricken refugees. And they will have no place on earth to call home.