How Christian girls in Egypt face an epidemic of grooming and kidnapping

Christian girls in Egypt are being targeted for kidnapping, forced marriage and conversion, according to Release International, which supports persecuted Christians around the world.

Release describes an epidemic of grooming, forced conversion and kidnapping, believed to be funded by religious leaders with cash from Saudi Arabia.

Release believes this is a deliberate strategy of persecution and is urging Egypt to protect its vulnerable Christian minority.

Hundreds of Coptic Christian girls in Egypt have been kidnapped, forced to convert and marry their captors, according to both Egyptian and western sources.

Many abductions take place in Upper Egypt, a poor, rural area many miles from Cairo where attitudes are ultra conservative and the persecution of Christians is most severe. Militants set fire to many churches here during the Islamic revolution.

Names have been changed to protect those working in Egypt.

'Kate Ward' works with UK-based Release. She says their Egyptian partners are in direct contact with 2,500 families who daily face the problem of kidnapping.

'Our partners are dealing with this problem all the time. The kidnappers target girls as young as nine and develop friendships with them. They offer gifts to them and groom them until they are considered sexually mature, from the age of 14.'

Release partner 'Abouna' works in communities where kidnappings are taking place and supports the victims. He says young women and girls are targeted as part of a deliberate strategy to convert Christians to Islam.

'They start with seducing the young girls, especially the non-educated girls by telephone calls – mobiles are now in every hand. They start to have affairs with them. And after a while, they convince them to marry and the girl finds herself trapped.'

'Frances Windsor' has lived and worked in Cairo for many years. She believes vulnerable girls living in poverty make the softest targets for seduction and conversion.

'It happens mostly when families are losing hope, because of poverty. A young girl will be targeted by a slightly older, handsome, charming young man. He will make friends with her and treat her with great respect, and be kind to her and offer her romance and excitement and promises of riches.

'And then he'll seduce her and she will marry him. Then the situation dramatically changes and she effectively becomes a slave and is mistreated by the wider family.'

Time and again, Release International is hearing that local men are being offered money to target Christian women.

'There are rewards for every young man who can seduce a girl to convert to Islam,' says Abouna.

Adds Kate Ward: 'He will be paid, according to our information, £1,500 for a non-educated woman or £3,000 for an educated woman. After that, he might divorce them. She then goes back to a life of shame. The money is coming from religious leaders, who many believe are paid from Saudi Arabia.'

The girls are often told that when they have children, they will be able to bring them up as Christians. But this is a lie, says Kate Ward:

'He will say, "Don't worry, you'll be able to stay Christian. And when your children are born, we'll decide what we can do." But in practice, these wives are now considered to have become Muslims. And even if they leave, their children will be forced to remain.

'Our partners have spoken to families who have had letters back from their daughters saying, "Take care of our sisters, we are now in a trap." If they do manage to escape, often many years later, they lose their children.'

Abouna has managed to help some of these girls to get away. Some apply for refugee status overseas. 'But we prefer the majority to remain in Egypt,' he says, 'as society has to face this one day.'

One of the biggest problems facing kidnap victims and their families is the shame attached to the sexual compromising of the girls.

'All of the girls are injured inside,' says Abouna. 'The feeling of shame and infamy is very strong. So, the girl may be afraid to turn back to her family.'

He says many of the girls are young and illiterate and fear their families will reject them or harm them if they return.

Abouna says the Egyptian media has been reluctant to report the outbreak of grooming and kidnapping. And others say that reluctance is shared by the police, because of the religious dimension to the crime.

But the evidence is mounting up from Release partners and others who are dealing directly with the victims. Release contact Frances Windsor says many in the church are now having to address the problem:

'I know heartbroken families who have seen this happen to friends of theirs. Priests and monks and pastors have people in the flock that this has happened to. And many families live in fear this will happen to them.'

Release partners say they have also spotted a new and disturbing trend within Egypt, says Kate Ward: 'They are beginning to target boys and young men.

'We're hearing of Christian mothers who are invited to bring their boys to the mosque to get Islamic teaching. They will get paid 300 Egyptian pounds when they take their sons to be educated at the mosque.' Extreme poverty makes them easy targets, she says.

But the militants are combining this with another strategy, she believes, of targeting strong Christian families. 'They aim to bring shame on these families and lead to the destruction of the family itself.

'We are talking about the intentional destruction of strong families by targeting the most vulnerable. Thirty years ago, they had heard nothing of this. This is new.'

Egyptians trace the rise of kidnapping back some 50 years. But the problem grew to epidemic proportions during Egypt's revolution, when the Muslim Brotherhood came to power. Foreign money poured into Egypt – cash from militants available to anyone who would kidnap Christians and force them to convert.

Kate Ward describes the assault on Christians as 'a deliberate attempt to rid Egypt of its Christian minority by militants, who refuse to tolerate any other faith or any other people in their land.'

She adds: 'This grooming epidemic is a tool and strategy of religious persecution. We urge the authorities to protect their most vulnerable citizens – the Christian girls and women of Egypt.'

Release International is working with partners in Egypt to help Christian communities reduce the risk of grooming and kidnapping, and to support victims. Release is helping develop spiritual resilience, tackle the lack of education and respond to the oppression and poverty that lie at the root of the problem in Egypt.

Through its international network of missions UK-based Release International serves persecuted Christians in more than 30 countries around the world, by: supporting pastors and Christian prisoners, and their families, supplying Christian literature and Bibles and working for justice.