The dispute began on Sunday as news circulated that two young Christian women and medical graduates named Marianne Makram Ayad and Teresa Ibrahim disappeared a few days ago and were forced to convert to Islam. Immediately, hundreds of Christian men carrying crosses gathered at St. Georgious church in the city of Assiut, south of Cairo. They demanded for the women to be returned to their community.
On Monday, several hundred agitated young Christians held a sit-in protest inside Mar Girgis church in al-Fayyum governorate, south of Cairo, chanting slogans against the conversions. A number of top Egyptian security officials had travelled to al-Fayyum in an attempt to investigate and resolve the dispute.
Later in the day, the Egyptian security officials released a statement saying, "(Official) measures proclaiming them Muslim have not been taken." Security sources said the two girls converted to Islam voluntarily and authorities notified the church in line with the law.
When the security officials confirmed this, the protestors agreed to end the sit-in demonstration.
In fact, this is the second case over the last three months over a conversion incident. In December, the decision of the wife of a Coptic Christian priest to embrace Islam triggered angry reactions from the community in Egypt. After discussions with the authorities, she renounced her decision.
During that incident, Christians had a sit-in protest and clashes with police at Cairo's main cathedral. The Egyptian Coptic Christians' spiritual head, Pope Shenouda III, had secluded himself inside Wadi al-Natrun church after the arrests of some protestors. The controversy persisted until the woman was returned to the Church and the detained protestors released.
Conversion is a sensitive subject in Egypt. Coptic Christians are free to convert to Islam while Muslims cannot convert to Christianity. Muslim men can marry Coptic women but Coptic men cannot marry Muslim women without converting.
To address Christian concerns, the Egyptian authorities often insist that potential converts discuss their motives with priests before their decision becomes irrevocable.
Christians were the majority in Egypt until several centuries after the Islamic conquest of the 7th century. Coptic Christians and other minorities constitute about 6% of the population of predominantly Islamic Egypt nowadays.