House Members Press White House to Confront Egypt on Forced Marriages

Joseph Abrams  - - April 21, 2010

Bipartisan group of lawmakers tells State Department to act on the “grim reality” faced by Coptic Christian women in Egypt

Seventeen members of Congress are pressing the State Department to act on the “grim reality” faced by Coptic Christian women in Egypt, who frequently are coerced into violent forced marriages that leave them victim to rape and captive slavery.

The bipartisan group of lawmakers wrote on April 16 to Ambassador-at-Large Luis CdeBaca, who heads up American efforts to thwart human trafficking around the globe.

In their letter, they exhort the State Department to confront the “criminal phenomenon” of forced marriage they say is on the rise in Egypt, where the 7 million Coptic Christians often face criminal prosecution and civic violence for their rejection of Islam.

“I think it is about as bad as it can be” for Copts and other religious minorities in Egypt, said Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., who penned the letter. “It is very tough to be a Coptic Christian.”

The official communication to the State Department outlined just what women face when forced into marriages with Muslim men: “physical and sexual violence, captivity … exploitation in forced domestic servitude or commercial sexual exploitation, and financial benefit to the individuals who secure the forced conversion of the victim.”

Wolf and the other lawmakers say this bears all the hallmarks of human trafficking and want the State Department to include reports of the abductions in their next Trafficking in Persons report, which is due in June.

“Keep in mind that we have given Egypt about $53 billion since Camp David” — the 1978 peace accords between Israel and Egypt that were arranged by the U.S. government — “so we’re actually funding them,” Wolf said.

The State Department’s 2009 report on trafficking singled out Egypt for its Level II Watchlist, noting that the government made only “minimal efforts to prevent trafficking in persons” last year.

But while it notes the plight of Sudanese women and others in bondage in Egypt, it does not mention Copts once — nor does the report mention Christians anywhere in its 324 pages.

A State Department spokesman said that violations of religious rights are covered in the annual reports of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. But the most recent report from the commission made no mention of forced marriages or forced conversions targeting Copts in Egypt.

The eight-page section of their report covering Egypt conveys the bleak conditions Coptic Christians face, noting that “the government has not taken sufficient steps to halt the repression of … indigenous Coptic Orthodox Christians, or, in many cases, to punish those responsible for violence or other severe violations of religious freedom.”

Human rights groups have outlined at least 25 known cases of abductions and forced marriages, though Wolf speculated that there may be many more unknown cases throughout the country.

“If it’s one, it’s too many,” he told

Representatives from the Egyptian Embassy in Washington did not respond to questions about whether their government considers forced conversions a problem or what it intends to do halt human trafficking within its borders.

The State Department said Wednesday that a response to the lawmakers’ letter was being crafted, but offered no word on whether the abduction of Copts would be included in the forthcoming report for 2010.

Wolf, however, does not expect to see much action from the State Department, which he criticized for failing to fill key human rights positions including the ambassador at large for religious freedom — a position mandated by law.

“I expect the State Department to do nothing,” he said, “because that’s the way the State Department has been responding.”

Wolf was joined by 16 other members of the House in signing the letter, including: Reps. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., Chris Smith, R-N.J., Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., Donald Payne, D-N.J., Dan Burton, R-Ind., Rep. Albio Sires, D-N.J., Trent Franks, R-Ariz., Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., Joseph Cao, R-La., Aaron Schock, R-Ill., Bob Inglis, R-S.C., Michele Bachman, R-Minn., Joe Wilson, R-S.C., Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., and Ted Poe, R-Tex. The delegate from Washington, D.C., Eleanor Holmes-Norton, also signed the note.

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