In Egypt, nuns' work of mercy rebuilds troubled lives

"Every year there are cases when a young Muslim sleeps with a Christian girl and records it on his mobile phone. He then threatens to release the video unless the girl converts."

By Oliver Maksan

NEW YORK—When Egyptian young Christian women get into serious trouble, society is harshly unforgiving. But in Upper Egypt, a group of Catholic nuns operates a home that provides a safe environment and tools to make a new start.

 “The girls and young women who come to us have big problems,” the nun who heads the home—whose name and location cannot be revealed for security reasons—told international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.

Sister Mariam (not her real name) explained that her charges have been rejected by their families anxious to protect their reputation. “Some have taken drugs or had an affair with a man. Some have even spent some time in prison. It is our job to steer their young lives back on the right track.”

Twelve girls ages 15 and up are currently full-time residents of the home, while 13 girls attend programs during the day. How long help is provided varies; it may be for several months, but it can sometimes even stretch out for years.

Sister Mariam explained: “The girls learn an occupation, such as hairdresser or seamstress. This ensures that the time they are with us is well spent. It also gives them a certain degree of independence later on.

“We also try to deepen their relationship with God. In our opinion, this is critical for the girls to regain control over their lives. Most of them held only superficial religious beliefs before.”

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The nuns also help the girls understand their social and family background better. “A problem within the family is usually hidden behind the girls’ behavior. We not only work with psychologists, but also have the parents get involved. We tell them, for example: ‘your daughter may not have felt loved enough and this is why she went looking for a relationship or started using drugs,’” Sister Mariam said.

The prerequisite for reconciliation with the family is that the cases of premarital intercourse, for example, have not become generally known. “When it becomes public that a girl has had intercourse before marriage, she is dishonoured. And then her family will no longer be able to keep her at home. In many cases this even results in honor killings—even within Christian families. This is not a rare occurrence in rural areas,” the nun said.

Things get worse, Sister Mariam said, “when a Christian girl sleeps with a Muslim and even gets pregnant; it ends up becoming a major conflict with a religious dimension.” The nun explained that interfaith marriages “are not accepted socially. The woman must convert.”

Then there are cases of blackmail. “Every year there are cases when a young Muslim sleeps with a Christian girl and records it on his mobile phone. He then threatens to release the video unless the girl converts,” said Sister Mariam.

A local priest said: “Over the last ten years, in our province alone, there were 70 cases in which a Christian girl was being blackmailed into converting. And these are just the ones we know about. The number of unrecorded cases is probably a lot higher.” 

ACN photo: young Egyptian Christian women at Mass

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