CAIRO — During the 92 days Wadie Ramses was held captive in the Egyptian desert, blindfolded and handcuffed, the most terrifying moments came when he could overhear his radical Muslim kidnappers debating whether to behead the Christian doctor or keep him alive to collect a ransom.
“We can’t cut off his head,” the 63-year-old Ramses remembers one of the kidnappers saying. “There are many more Christians. We need money, and the families will only pay if they know we’ll give their relatives back.”
Ramses, who spoke to Crux in a June 28 interview at his office in a small clinic operated by the Coptic church of St. Mark in Cairo, said that another kidnapper pressed to execute him as a statement about how Christians aren’t welcome in their area. But eventually the profit motive prevailed.
The exchange came in a tent where Ramses was “stored,” as he puts it, for three agonizing months. He suffered two broken ribs and a fractured arm, inflicted during beatings in which his captors would shout insults by calling him an “atheist” and a “pig”.
He was forced to lay bound all day on rocks and sand, he said, eating nothing but three small loaves of bread a day and a few cups of dirty water. Periodically, Ramses said he would be put in a car and driven for hours to another location to make phone calls negotiating his freedom. During those drives, he said, his captors would read aloud verses from the Qur’an and whip him for refusing to accept them.
“They’d tell me that we [Christians] had re-written the Bible, that we got it wrong by removing verses,” he said.
“They’d ask me how, as an educated man, I could believe that God had a son,” he said. “Then they’d ask me if I believe in the Qu’ran, and when I said I didn’t because that would make me a Muslim, they’d use a plastic whip.”
Through it all, Ramses, an orthopedic physician, said he remained calm.
“I was at peace during the whole ordeal, [because] I had my faith with me,” Ramses said.
Ramses is merely one of hundreds of Christians who have been kidnapped in Egypt in recent years, generally by various radical Islamic movements, and often with the aim of extorting a ransom payment.
Ishak Ibrahim, a researcher with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a Cairo-based NGO, told Crux that despite the promise of greater protection for minorities under Egypt’s new government, such anti-Christian assaults are actually on the rise today.
Ramses was grabbed on June 14, 2014, at the door of a small hospital he owned in Al Arish, located 190 miles northeast of Cairo. At the time, he was also running a charitable school and consulting at the local military hospital.
A year later, he’s still uncertain exactly who his captors were or where he was held, saying he can only guess they were Bedouins and that he was held in a desert location.
However, he knows one thing for sure: “They kidnapped me because I’m a Christian,” he said. “There’s no other reason.”
According to Ramses, there were wealthier and better-known Muslim doctors in Al Arish who could have paid substantially more than what his family was able to scrape together, with the help of the community, to buy his freedom.
The final ransom, he said, came to roughly $200,000. That wasn’t his only loss, since death threats forced him to abandon his clinic and school without any compensation, and he also lost his income from the army.
While primary blame obviously lies with those who carried out the kidnapping, Ramses is equally angry with the local police for failing to do anything about it – a common experience when Christians are victims of a crime, he said, especially in more rural areas of Egypt.
A week before being taken, Ramses said, he wrote a letter to the local police station complaining of a lack of interest in rescuing another Christian man from Al Arish who, like him, was held for over 90 days.
He says it’s not just that the police were inert, claiming that some actively participated in his suffering.
“I know some of the men who beat me were members of the security forces,” he said.
He insisted that if the police genuinely wanted to liberate him, they had every opportunity to do so. Every eight to ten days, he said, he was driven to see the “big boss,” at which time he’d speak on the phone with his son to discuss ransom arrangements. It was always the same number, he said, and often these calls would last for two hours.
“My son was able to track down the place, because I always called from the same location and the same phone,” Ramses said. “The police had at least 13 opportunities to rescue me, so how is it they never found the place?”
Shortly after his release, Ramses said, he recounted his experience in an interview on Egyptian TV. Afterwards, he said, he got an ominous phone call warning him to be quiet, and said he still fears retaliation either against himself or his family.
Ramses insists that his personal story is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of anti-Christian hatred.
As part of the fallout from the “Arab Spring,” he said, radical Muslims are trying to turn Egypt’s Sinai region into an Islamic province, kidnapping Christians who are then forced to leave after buying their freedom, or simply killing them in the street.
He ticked off a series of grim examples.
“There was a priest who got nine gunshots on the right side of his body, beginning from his ear down to his feet, in a perfect line,” he said.
He told the story of Abdul, who owned a knife-sharpening store and was killed one day as he was closing it up, and Magdy, another local Christian who was beheaded. In a chilling final insult, the executioners placed his head over his torso with a sign in his lap reading, “Let Pope Tawadros help you now!”
Pope Tawadros II is the head Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church, the largest Christian denomination in a country in which Christians form ten percent of a population of almost 90 million people.
“They were killed for only one reason,” Ramses said. “It was because they were Christians.”
In other cases, he said, Christians suffer lower-level forms of discrimination and harassment. He told the story of a Muslim woman who refused to take a sandwich from a man sporting the tattoo of a black cross that Copts wear as a symbol of identity, demanding her money back.
When a cashier refused, Ramses said, the woman tossed the sandwich into the garbage in a gesture of disgust.
Asked for his forecast about the future for Christians in Egypt, Ramses didn’t mince words: “Very bad,” he said, predicting things will become steadily worse.
The police won’t apprehend those who hurt Christians, he said, judges won’t prosecute their persecutors, schools won’t educate their children, and the government considers Christians second-class citizens.
Remarkably, Ramses told Crux that he regards the period he spent in captivity as “the best thing that ever happened to me” and “the best 92 days of my life.”
He says that before the kidnapping, his faith was a mere routine rather than a personal relationship with God or a way of life. For instance, he said he used to believe that if someone insulted him, it was perfectly acceptable to strike back physically.
“I realized this wasn’t very Christian of me,” he said. “I had forgotten how to pray, how to talk to God, and [the kidnapping] proved a good time to do this.”
He spent the first 60 days, he said, reviewing the flaws and failures in his life. The last 30 days, he said, he spent asking God for the opportunity to live long enough to confess his sins and to attend Mass again.
“God allowed for me to go through this so I could become a better person,” he said, while conceding with a smile that the self-improvement he vowed to carry out in that desert tent hasn’t always held up now that he’s back.
“I’m still human,” he said, “so I’m still sinful.”