Egyptian Christian Fights 'Contrived' Criminal Charges

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Postponed hearing is set for February 20.

by Barbara G. Baker

CAIRO, February 16 (Compass) -- The criminal trial of Egyptian Christian Shafik Saleh Shafik, begun in mid January, has been ordered postponed until February 20 by the presiding judge, who accepted defense petitions to summon key witnesses and police reports related to the case.

As the director of a home for troubled Coptic girls, Shafik faces criminal charges of holding Magda Refaat Gayed, 16, against her will and without her parents’ permission, beating her and attempting to rape her.

The defendant dismisses all the charges as “contrived” attempts to halt his recovery ministry among young Coptic girls, who he says are being enticed to leave their families and convert to Islam.

Magda had escaped from Shafik’s “safe-house” residence for girls in Cairo last September 6, the day after she arrived. Her parents had placed her there under Shafik’s guardianship when the girl was returned home by police, who located her living with an Islamist group two weeks after she had disappeared from home.

Even though Egypt’s state security police had bowed to the family’s demands to return her home after she disappeared, they now appear to be cooperating with an extremist Muslim group holding Magda in an unknown location for the past five months. Local authorities have refused to return her to the custody of her parents, declaring she has chosen to convert to Islam.

“This is absolutely illegal,” Shafik told Compass last week. “She is not yet 18. According to the law, they are obliged to follow Articles 12, 13, 15 and 46 of the Constitution.”

Egypt’s family law statutes do not allow minors to marry, convert to another religion or transact any legal action without their father’s permission. But Magda’s parents have not been allowed to even see their daughter since the September incident, let alone regain legal custody of her.

The girl’s father and brother were forced to sign a paper at the El-Selam police station on September 9 stating that Magda had been returned to their custody. Despite their protests, they were then sent home without the girl.

As the defendant in a criminal case, Shafik told Compass he was locked into a barred cage in the courtroom during the first few minutes of the hearing on January 16. Noting the defendant’s discomfort, a police officer allowed him to be released from the cage for the remainder of the hearing.

Shafik’s defense lawyers, led by attorney Naguib Gabriel, petitioned the court to summon a number of witnesses to the next hearing, including the doctor who signed Magda’s forensic report, the police officer who returned her to her family, and the Coptic priest who brought the girl to Shafik’s safe-house last September.

According to Shafik, it was physically impossible for the girl to have jumped three meters without breaking one or both legs when escaping from the safe-house, if her hands and legs were chained as claimed by the prosecution. “So we want to question the forensic doctor,” Shafik said.

The defense also asked the court to provide copies of the police reports filed on Magda’s case when she was first recovered and returned to her family’s custody. While the presiding judge accepted the defense petitions, stating he would forward their requests, he said he “could not be sure” that all the witnesses and reports would be produced.

The judge has ordered that the case be heard in closed court. Although Magda’s father and other male relatives were present at the January 16 hearing, the girl herself, who is now 17, did not appear.

Shafik told Compass that he got an anonymous call from someone two weeks ago, asking him to accept into his care a Muslim girl who wanted to convert to Christianity. “This was clearly a set-up,” he said. “The fanatic groups have my phone number, and I sense they are trying to find out where my new safe-house is located.”

Shafik, 57, holds both Egyptian and American citizenship. After retiring from his U.S. business four years ago, he and his wife returned to Egypt to minister among poor and disadvantaged youth in the Coptic Christian community. Coptic Christians comprise more than 10 percent of the Egyptian population.

In a rare public statement on March 16, 2004, Coptic Orthodox Pope Shenoudah III publicly condemned the kidnapping and forced conversion of Christian girls to Islam.

“I see that what is happening will create a religious clash in the country,” Pope Shenoudah said. “I’m urging the police to take serious action against [this.] … This matter should not be taken in a careless way as if nothing happened. I know how dangerous the situation is.”