It's a fearsome prospect: Christian proselytizing may have caused the murders of four Coptic Christians slain last month in New Jersey. Relatives of the murdered family, as well as key figures in the American Coptic community, think so -- and believe the brutal slayings were a warning not to proselytize Muslims. They say that the body of the 15-year-old daughter, Sylvia Armanious, was the most viciously attacked in the killings. Was it because she was too vocal in sharing her faith or was it a robbery gone bad?
"Sylvia talked about Jesus to everyone," her uncle Ayman Garas said. "She was extremely religious."
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 in February when the relatives of the victims went to Washington to meet with lawmakers and hold a press conference to put an end to rumors about why the family was murdered and to ask for a fair investigation.
"We aren't looking for trouble, we are just looking for the facts," Emil Garas, an uncle of one of the victims, said.
This week, Hudson County Prosecutor Edward DeFazio told reporters that someone using Hossam Armanious' debit card removed thousands of dollars from several of his accounts during a string of ATM visits in the days following the murders. Yesterday, DeFazio announced that it may be unlikely investigators will be able to decipher the license plate of the car used to make the ATM withdrawals.
Many Copts believe that conversion sparked the murders. 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 common for the denomination of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church that Sylvia attended in Jersey City. Congregants at this church call themselves "born-again."
A number of Sylvia's friends interviewed at the Mid East Evangelical church, said that tension ensued after Sylvia befriended the Muslim daughter of a Halal butcher and encouraged her to convert to Christianity. They said they fear Sylvia's Christian influence on this girl may have provoked the killings that followed.
When asked today about the progress of the case, the Hudson County Prosecutor said: "We believe based on our investigation that it's a financially motivated crime of robbery and greed. We doubt that it has to do with extremism. Nothing is being discounted, but it does not appear to the various law enforcement agencies working on the case to be religiously motivated."
But according to Robert Spencer, the director of JihadWatch.org, terrorism and plunder often go together under Islamic law. "It isn't necessarily an either or proposition," Spencer says. "It is lawful under Islam to kill and seize the property of those who war against Islam."
Spencer says he obtained information, from sources close to the murders, that the Halal butcher had planned the killings for months and that several of his accomplices are still in the country. Spencer says police are investigating. But when DeFazio was asked about the information his office was provided, he said: "None of that was given any credence by any law enforcement agencies. Our office has not received any names." But Spencer gave the Hudson County Prosecutor's office very detailed information (names, locations and phone numbers) of the alleged murderers and their accomplices. When reminded of this, DeFazio then said that he did receive this information, but he appeared uncertain if all those named were questioned before this avenue of investigation was closed.
DeFazio is certain about one thing. All talk of religious extremism is off limits. "This case has nothing to do with religious extremism," he said. "And if you keep asking these questions, I won't continue with the interview."
Friends of Sylvia and fellow churchgoers say that though they are grateful for the investigators on the case, they are still convinced that conversion is the motivating factor for the Jersey City murders and fear this will encourage an increase in the persecution of converts (and those who convert them) in the U.S., as is the case in Egypt.
Freedom House, a Washington-based nonpartisan organization that monitors the global spread of democracy, says Coptic Christians in Egypt live in oppression and fear. "While Egypt has no explicit law against apostasy, the influence of Sharia law on the civil code is creating a de facto law," which sanctions intolerance. Each year thousands of Copts convert to Islam, many under pressure, and Christians have an emigration rate three to four times that of Muslims due to religious persecution, Freedom House reports. Coptic church sources estimate that more than a million Copts have left Egypt in the past thirty years.
Egyptian Muslim leaders in Jersey City, however, insist that such persecution in America is not likely. Hamed el Shenawany, the president of Jersey City's Al Huda Islamic Center, says that though it is possible that a "crazy fanatic" could have sought retribution against the Armanious family, Christian proselytizing is fully accepted by 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, a senior terrorism analyst at the Washington-based Investigative Project, a terrorism research center, disagrees and says this hatred has crossed international borders. "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." There is little data, he adds. But he notes that "At least ten cases since the mid-1990s 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."
It's not hard to find such cases. A former Muslim from Egypt, who wouldn't give his name for this article for fear of retribution, 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 website 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.
Last month Ahmed Mohamed, 36, a former Muslim in Colorado, who converted to Christianity, discovered that his photo and contact information were posted on another radical Islamic website, Barsomyat.com, along with accusations that he'd been debating Muslims on PalTalk. He says that since his information was posted, he has received numerous threats on the phone, in person and in letters he has received in the mail.
Whether robbery or extremism is the motive, family members of the Armanious family in New Jersey live in inconsolable grief and continue to hope that the murderers will soon be identified.
"I think of Amal, Hossam, Sylvia and Monica all the time," Sylvia's grandmother Ferail Garas said. "Like a movie, their deaths keep playing over and over in my mind. Whenever I am alone, I cannot stop crying."
"I just want the killers of my family found."