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“Children who have been converted by one of their parents have two choices,” explains Ishak Ibrahim. “They either go to court — and the court usually rejects the appeal — and they leave the country, or they continue to practice their religion — because no one will ask why they go to church — but they just don’t get married.” The older of the two girls, now 15, is contesting the legitimacy of her conversion in Egyptian court. However, at each of several court hearings thus far, the judge has postponed his decision.

As for Simone El Gohany, she was legally an adult at the time of her father’s conversion and so retained her Christian identity. Throughout the ordeal, she has served as a pillar of support for her mother and sisters.

“She’s the one who comforted me,” says her mother. “We turned that page in our lives. She told me, don’t lose another year of your life.”

The recent college graduate, with a degree in engineering, nonetheless suffers serious repercussions as a result of her father’s conversion. She keeps what happened a closely guarded secret, even from some of her dearest friends.

“If my Christian friends knew, they wouldn’t want to deal with me because they wouldn’t know if I’m a good person or not,” says the petite young woman, wearing fashionable glasses with purple frames. As she speaks, she touches a small golden cross she wears around her neck. Her fingernails are painted pink with tiny flower decals.

“For my Muslim friends, they would think I have problems at home. That’s how Egyptians are. I only told my best friend because she knows me. It wouldn’t just be difficult, but shameful.”

Simone El Gohany continues to practice her faith devoutly and is an active member of her parish, teaching Sunday school to children. In addition to her youth, beauty and education, her mother comes from a prominent Christian family that includes doctors and successful businessmen. Nonetheless, the stigma associated with her father’s actions makes dating within the Christian community a major challenge.

“Not every family would accept someone whose father converted to Islam,” she says. Not long ago, she was dating a young Christian man, who expressed an interest in marrying her. But when he learned the truth about her father, he ended the relationship and never spoke to her again

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“Conversion is considered a shame.”

As do all churches in Egypt, St. Mark’s in Samalut, a town in Upper Egypt, does all it can to prepare parishioners for and succeed at married life. Each week, it hosts a class on marriage and family life. Lessons include discussions on how to communicate with your spouse, deal with your in-laws and choose a suitable mate.

The classes attract men and women of all ages, though mostly young single women, couples and newlyweds attend.

Father Estafanos Shehata, St. Mark’s pastor, leads the parish’s efforts to help couples experiencing marital problems. For years, he has counseled couples on an individual basis and knows well the specific challenges many Christian women face.

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Tags: Egypt Cultural Identity Christian-Muslim relations Coptic Orthodox Church Women (rights/issues)