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LEICESTER, United Kingdom – Across the world, girls and young women from Christian families are forced into sexual slavery and religious conversion.
This is one of the most underreported examples of the persecution of Christians, usually in Muslim-majority countries with significant Christian populations, such as Egypt and Pakistan.
Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) documented first-hand accounts of kidnappings, forced marriages and forced conversions in its Hear Her Cries report, presented in London on Nov. 24.
The pontifical charity was marking Red Wednesday, an annual event meant to draw attention to the plight of persecuted Christians around the world.
The report noted that examining the topic of sexual violence and persecution of faith minorities is far from straightforward.
“While there is growing consensus about the need for research into the nature and scale of religious and sexual coercion of women, the challenges of setting about the task have been consistently highlighted in studies on the subject. One report described the matter as ‘complex, violent and hidden.’ Social pressure, including the fear of casting shame on the family, and the threat of reprisal from abductors and their accomplices, are among the factors commonly cited in explaining the difficulties of investigating the issue,” the report said.
The Hear Her Cries report noted that incidents of Christian women being forced to marry against their will were reported as present in 90 percent of the 50 countries included in the 2021 edition of Open Doors’ persecution World Watch List, and that the situation had worsened over the past year.
ACN noted that among minority faith groups as a whole, Christian girls and young women are particularly susceptible to attack, giving the example of Pakistan, where Christians could comprise up to 70 percent of minority faith girls and young women forcibly converted and married every year, despite the existence of other significant minority religious groups.
“Another key finding, frequently emerging in research on the topic, is that there is a higher incidence rate of sexual and religious persecution of women in situations of conflict. This was evident especially during the Daesh (ISIS) military takeover of parts of Syria and Iraq where there was ‘an organized system of sexual enslavement of minorities’,” the report says.
“The Daesh example also points to perhaps the most significant long-term factor of concern regarding forced marriage and conversion of Christian girls and women, namely evidence that the perpetrators’ motive is to limit the growth, and sometimes the very survival, of that particular faith group. Forcing a woman to abandon her Christian faith not only wins a convert to the predator’s religion; it also ensures that any children born, including through forced marriage, are claimed for that new faith too,” it continues.
ACN says the evidence in the report indicates that instances of systemic abduction, sexual violence, forced marriage and conversion of Christian women in many countries “can be categorized as genocidal by nature.”
The organization says underreporting is a huge problem, mainly due to the fear of shame for the victim, family, or community. However, they noted victims and their families also fear reprisals and the “institutional resistance from police and courts in following up cases of missing girls and women.”
One of the speakers at the launch of the document was Professor Michele Clark, who has done research into the kidnapping of Coptic Christian women in Egypt.
She told Crux that the phenomenon was a “war of attrition” meant to “eliminate a minority religious group.”
“In the case of the Coptic women, they are targeted because it is a way to slowly eliminate the Coptic population,” Clark said.
She noted that in many cases, when a woman would be able to return to her community it would be impossible for her to regain a Christian identity card.
She recounted stories of young women disappearing off of trains, buses, and even physically taken from the streets in Egypt, often in “violent and aggressive” attacks.
“There is a general sense that this is an approved practice. I have talked to young Coptic women who have come back from an abduction, and they would say that as soon as the Coptic girl was married to her Islamic abductor, the whole family would receive a new apartment with new furniture, so there was some kind of compensation to families of abductors,” she said.
In the Hear Her Cries report, ACN says only “fundamental and strategic approach to tackling systemic religious and gender discrimination will deliver the changes that are so sorely needed to enable Christian and other minority faith women and girls to be freed from the threat of sexual and religious persecution.”
“We need to act for the sake of the girls, the women, persecuted for their faith and sexually targeted because of their gender. We need to champion their cause; we need to hear their cries.”
Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome