Watani has lately taken it upon its shoulder to open the files of some sensitive, searing problems that have become chronic among the list of Coptic grievances. One especially scorching issue was that of the disappearance of Coptic girls or young women who, when reported missing, are declared by the police to have married Muslim men and converted to Islam—and are thus practically forever lost to their original families. It used to be standard practice in such cases that the girl would be made to meet a priest, in the premises of the security directorate, in order for him to get to the bottom of the matter and make sure she was not converting under any sort of pressure.
It was lately brought to my attention that these meetings, termed ‘advice and guidance sessions’ have been cancelled. It is my opinion that these sessions have acted as ‘safety valves’ both for Christians and Muslims. Sheikh Sayed Tantawi, the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, has repeatedly said that converts who embrace Islam in search of material benefit or to escape some problem were no asset to Islam since they only augmented the numbers of Muslims not believers. On the other hand, the Church cares to investigate conversions to make sure, a priori, that the conversion decision was taken of a person’s free will. If the priest discovers, however, that the girl or young woman has converted not due to conviction but because of material or practical problems, he advices the girl of the short and long-term repercussions of the conversion, and of the Church’s pledge to help solve the problems. The advice and guidance sessions proved time and again to be instrumental in containing not a few problem conversion cases, returning girls to their original faith and families. Moreover, these sessions more often than not led to the solution of dire problems that had been left to swell uncontrollably until the only answer appeared to be the decision to convert.
It is obvious then that the advice and guidance sessions were never designed to confiscate an individual’s right to freedom of belief, or to hinder a person’s right to change religion out of full conviction and free will. All those concerned with this sensitive issue, and all those in the official and security apparatuses in charge of it know full well that the free will of the young woman—or man—of age was fully respected. As for conversions in cases of underage individuals, which have for the major part contributed to the current sore situation, Sheikh Tantawi has declared that young, inexperienced persons cannot be counted upon to take major decisions concerning faith, and their conversions were consequently neither adequate nor acceptable.
In many cases the advice and guidance sessions were instrumental in clearing the ambiguity which surrounded conversions, since the young woman or man, the family and the priest were brought together in a transparent meeting which frequently ended in peace. In other cases however, the situation turned into a bitter one when the security authorities procrastinated, delayed, then flatly turned their backs on arranging the hoped-for session. Which is not to say that these sessions were trouble-free. They lacked privacy, and were held under the sway of the security officials who frequently interfered negatively when the young man or woman appeared to be on the verge of reneging on their decision to convert to Islam, proving beyond doubt the bias of the security apparatus in favour of Muslims. Even so, this flawed situation that went under the name of the advice and guidance sessions must in all fairness be credited with saving many families and preserving social peace.
So the decision to annul the advice and guidance sessions was taken—like so many others—without any prior notice or discussion. We woke up to it one day; we know not who took it, why was it not transparently announced, why and wherefore it was taken, or whether or not the institutions concerned were consulted. The answers to all these questions appear to be negative, and whoever does not like it may go to court.