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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Fatah officials in Ramallah claimed over the weekend that Professor Sana al-Sayegh, who teaches at Palestine University in Gaza City, was kidnapped by Hamas militiamen who forced her to convert to Islam against her will.
The officials said the president of the university, Dr. Zaher Khail, had assisted Hamas in kidnapping the professor.
They added that senior officials in the office of Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh played a major role in forcing her to convert to Islam.
"She was forced to convert to Islam against her will," the Fatah officials said. "She was kidnapped and held for two weeks during which time she was not allowed to contact her family." Sayegh is the dean of the Science and Technology Faculty at Palestine University. She has represented the university at numerous conferences around the world over the past few years and is considered one of the most prominent experts in her field.
According to the Fatah officials, she went missing in late June. When her family's attempts to find her failed, they sought the help of Haniyeh's office.
Two weeks later the family was summoned to a meeting with some of Haniyeh's aides, who were accompanied by the professor.
At the meeting, which was held at the home of Hamas official Rafik Makki, the family was told that the professor had converted to Islam and married a Muslim man.
When the professor's stunned mother asked her if this was true, she nodded her head, murmuring: "Yes, God has guided me through the right path." The mother later claimed that her daughter made the statement under threats from Hamas gunmen who were in the room.
The Hamas officials are also reported to have shown the family a document signed by the professor indicating that she had converted to Islam and married a man named Izz al-Arab Awur.
But the family claims that the man told them that he never married the professor.
Several attempts by the family to arrange a meeting with Haniyeh to find out the truth failed. At one point, said a relative, they found the professor's car parked outside Haniyeh's office.
"When we told them that we wanted to see her, we were ordered to leave immediately," he recounted. "We were told that we could take her car and go away. But we told them that we didn't come to get the car, but Professor al-Sayegh." Leaders of the tiny Christian minority in Gaza City who requested a meeting with Haniyeh to solve the problem were also turned down.
Some 3,000 Christians live in the Gaza Strip. Following the Hamas takeover of the Strip, many of them have expressed their desire to leave.
The board of directors of Palestine University confirmed Sunday that Sayegh had converted to Islam, but denied that the university was linked to the case in any way. "We won't allow anyone to exploit our name in political disputes," it said in a statement, referring to the Hamas-Fatah power struggle. "The case of Professor al-Sayegh is a personal one and does not reflect the policy of the university."
Hamas officials strongly denied that they had forced the professor to convert to Islam and accused Fatah of spreading lies designed to undermine Hamas's credibility. The officials said that Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar met with Sayegh, who told him that she had converted out of her own will to marry her colleague, Awur.
Ala Aklouk, a senior Muslim cleric in Gaza City who was entrusted by the Haniyeh government to look into the case, said the professor converted to Islam of her free will. "She was too afraid to inform her family that she had converted to Islam," he said. "So she asked me and other officials to inform her family. She also made it clear that she had no intention to return home unless all her family members converted to Islam." Aklouk claimed that the professor did not convert because she wanted to marry a Muslim man, but because she "really believed in Islam." "If you sit with her, you will feel as if you are sitting with a devout Muslim woman and not a Christian," he said. "She abandoned a good and easy life for the sake of Islam. She challenged everyone and did what she was supposed to do - become a devout Muslim."
Hanan Matar, a female activist working for the Gaza-based Palestinian Center for Human Rights, said she met with the professor over the weekend and heard from her that her decision to convert to Islam was not related to her marriage to a Muslim man. She said the professor was wearing the hijab and "behaved like any religious Muslim woman would."