Evangelical Christians in the U.S. have reason to keep an eye on the murder investigation of four Coptic Christians slain last month in New Jersey. Family members who viewed the bodies say they suspect that the brutal slayings were a warning not to proselytize to Muslims. They say that the body of Sylvia Armanious was clearly the most viciously attacked in the killings, causing them to wonder if it was because she was too vocal in sharing her faith.
On Jan. 14, the bodies of Amal Garas, 37, her husband, Hossam Armanious, 47, and their daughters, Sylvia, 15, and Monica, 8, were found in their home bound and gagged, with puncture wounds to their throats. The unsolved murders were thrust into the spotlight again earlier this month, when the relatives of the victims went to Washington, DC to meet with lawmakers and hold a press conference on their concerns about the case.
“We aren’t looking for trouble, we are just looking for the facts,” Emil Garas, an uncle of one of the victims, said.
While Dr. Monir Dawoud, the acting president of the American Coptic Association, says that proselytizing is not a common practice among Coptic Christians, it is quite common for the denomination of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church Sylvia attended in Jersey City. Congregants at this church call themselves “born-again.”
A number of Sylvia’s friends, who attend the Mid East Evangelical church, say a problem ensued after Sylvia befriended the Muslim daughter of a Halal butcher she encouraged to convert to Christianity. They say that they fear Sylvia’s Christian influence on this girl may have provoked the harsh retribution that followed.
Fellow churchgoers say they are worried that the Jersey City murders will encourage an increase in the persecution of converts (and those who convert them) in the U.S., as is the case in Egypt.
According to Freedom House, a nonpartisan organization that monitors the global spread of democracy, Coptic Christians in Egypt live in fear and subjugation. “While Egypt has no explicit law against apostasy, the influence of sharia law on the civil code is creating a de facto law.” Each year thousands of Copts convert to Islam, many under pressure, and Christians have an emigration rate three to four times that of Muslims. Coptic church sources estimate that over a million Copts have left Egypt in the past thirty years.
But Hamed el Shenawany, the president of the Al Huda Islamic Center in Jersey City, says that though it is possible that a “crazy fanatic” could have sought retribution for this kind of thing, this is not the case with most Muslims in the U.S. “America is the land of the free and Muslims are free to convert to any religion they want,” el Shenawany says.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, senior terrorism analyst at the Washington, D.C.-based Investigative Project, a terrorism research center, disagrees. “It’s an unfortunate fact that even in the West many converts from Islam to Christianity are driven underground in the practice of their new faith because they fear retaliation,” he says.
“A number of converts in the U.S. have received serious threats, particularly if they’re outspoken in their new faith. Although obtaining information on these threats can be difficult, because they’re generally under-reported, without digging too deeply I can think of at least ten cases since the mid-1990’s in which apostates from Islam living in the West have reported threats, in places that include Chicago, Los Angeles, New Jersey, Britain and the Netherlands. In some cases, the apostates have reported actual physical violence.”
Mohamed Saleh (who changed his name for this article for fear of retribution) is a former Muslim from Egypt who says he fled to America in 1992, after he was severely beaten for converting to Christianity. He says he was threatened in 2001 when he began discussing his faith with Muslims on PalTalk, a New York City-based Internet chat service. Though Saleh admits that his debates were often too fervent on the net, he was shocked to find photos of himself and family members, along with all of his contact information, on a radical Islamic Web site called Gegadeath.com. Below Saleh’s picture was a statement of warning. After he appeared on Gegadeath, Saleh says he received numerous death threats on the phone and quickly moved to another state.