A rumour has spread in the Upper Egyptian city of Kom Ombo that a divorced Muslim woman in her mid-30s has been kidnapped by the Coptic Church and converted to Christianity. In an area socially divided across tribal loyalties and religion, the story managed to fuel violence against the area's Christian minority.
The city's most central and largest church, Mar Girgis, has been under attack for the past three days from what residents described as "unknown assailants." Mostly in their teens, hundreds of young boys and men have been surrounding the church, showering it with rocks and Molotov cocktails.
With Central Security Forces (CSF) trucks and soldiers fighting the assailants with teargas grenades, the church was relatively protected, although Molotov cocktails and rocks managed to reach its roofs and its open central courtyard.
A field hospital was set up in one of the corners of the courtyard while many of the injured sat inside the church resting, others praying. One young man in the church had obviously burned skin on his arms and back, which he said he suffered from one of the Molotov cocktails thrown at the church.
"The missing woman is not in this church as you can see … Her family never claimed she was," Priest Abanob Wahid of the Mari Girgis Church of Kom Ombo told Ahram Online.
The violence is not only limited to the church. Seventeen-year-old Copt Abanob, whose arm was covered with medical bandages, explained he was attacked by a young man also in his teens who had first asked him whether or not he was Christian.
"'Yes, I am a Christian! What's your problem?' I exclaimed before he followed me accompanied by a friend of his and took out a pocket knife. He aimed for my face but cut my arm instead, which I quickly raised to cover my face in an attempt to protect myself," Abanob told Ahram Online.
...Despite denials made by the family, church figures, and influential men of both religions that the woman had been kidnapped by the church, violence continues against Kom Ombo's Copts for a third day.
Since the missing woman disappeared a week ago, rumours have continued to spread and change without their sources ever being confirmed.
The latest widespread belief was that the room of the missing woman, who is also a well known school teacher in the area, was left full of crosses and Christian texts. Some say her ex-husband has kidnapped her; others claim she escaped with her Coptic lover and converted in a place far from Kom Ombo.
In recent years, Egypt had witnessed several attacks on churches, especially in Upper Egypt where sectarian tensions are more commonplace.
Clashes over alleged forced religious conversions have also been common in recent years. Most alleged instances centred on Christian women converting to Islam and believed held captive by the Coptic Church. The best known case was that of Camelia Shehata, the wife of a Coptic priest who was allegedly detained by the Church after she converted to Islam.
Copts have frequently complained that young Coptic women have been kidnapped by Muslim men and forced to convert for the purposes of marriage.
While conversion from Christianity to Islam is legally recognised, the opposite is not.
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