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Coptic Christian deportations underway

By David F. Dawes


THE DEPORTATION of 20 Egyptians from Canada has begun, and advocates for the group insist that they will be placed in severe danger if they are returned to Egypt .

The deportees, all of whom are Coptic Christians affiliated with the Church of Virgin Mary and St. Athanasius in Mississauga , tried unsuccessfully to obtain refugee status in this country.

Meanwhile, some Canadians have taken up their cause. They insist that the claimants will be subjected to discrimination by Egyptian authorities, and will be targeted by some of the country’s Islamic extremists.

The case has drawn some prominent media coverage. According to the January 4 National Post, the claimants maintain they are facing a perilous future: “Mina, a refused claimant who asked that his real name not be used, said he was stabbed multiple times in a 1998 confrontation with a group who later burned his welding shop in Alexandria.”

A group of Muslims, Mina told the Post, “called me at home, and they said: ‘We’re going to kill you.'” Further, “[They] told my brother-in-law, ‘We know he’s coming back soon, and we’re ready for him.’ I don’t know what’s going to happen to me, but I know I’m not going back to my home.'”

Such fears are confirmed by Majed El Shafie, who heads the Toronto-based One Free World International. A one-time Muslim, he maintains that he was tortured by Egyptian government authorities some years ago for advocacy on behalf of persecuted Christians.

In a report issued to immigration authorities, El Shafie declared: “I have no previous or direct personal knowledge of any of the Claimants. The facts as provided to me are credible and consistent with the treatment of Coptic Christians in Egypt and indicate a well-founded fear that the Claimants’ return to Egypt will result in the possibility of torture, risk to life, or risk of cruel and unusual treatment or punishment.

“In all of these cases, the threats and violence against the Claimants was instigated or perpetrated by various Islamic fundamentalist individuals or groups and, with the exception of one case implicating the State Security Intelligence of Egypt (SSI), do not involve violence perpetrated directly by government agencies.

“The threats faced by the Claimants are no less real for the lack of government involvement as government agencies and police are often complicit or choose to close their eyes and ignore the ill-treatment of Christians. Moreover, as a result of the Claimants’ attempts to obtain asylum in Canada , they now face the possibility that the government itself will take deliberate action against them.”

Several organizations have expressed concerns about the mistreatment of Coptic Christians in Egypt , including Amnesty International, Christian Solidarity Worldwide and Compass Direct. Further, lists four dozen instances of violence evidently suffered by Coptic Christians over the past three decades.

“The Canadian government through the years has accepted people who later turned out to be terrorists, that don’t deserve to be in this land,” El Shafie told “Here we have people in serious danger of persecution. They are really facing torture and persecution if they return. They are innocent people. Every one of them was working, and ready to be useful to this society. They were involved in no illegal activities.” also spoke to Robin Seligman, a Toronto lawyer working on behalf of the claimants, about her strategy. “I’m trying to deal with this as a group case,” she said, “but we’re getting nowhere.”

Asked to speculate on why it was so difficult, she cited the fate of Judy Sgro. The former Citizenship and Immigration minister, who had helped a Romanian woman obtain a residency permit, was immersed in controversy because the woman in question was an exotic dancer. Sgro resigned last January.

“In my opinion,” said Seligman, “ministers are hesitant to intervene” in refugee cases. “As a result of what happened to Judy Sgro, everybody’s afraid to help anyone. They don’t want to run the risk of the opposition making it look like they’re granting favours. I can’t really blame them.”

Referring to El Shafie, she said she had “an expert opinion” affirming the Coptics’ fears of persecution. “In all 20 cases, each of these people had a story of persecution — life-threatening kind of stuff, including a shop being burned down, physical attacks, and Muslims aggressively attempting to convert them.”

Seligman cited a recent incident in Egypt as a particularly troubling event. “At the end of October, there was an attack on Coptics in Alexandria , by a large crowd of Muslims.”

The claimants, she said, originally came to Canada through the United States ; hence, they are being deported to the U.S. So far, “a couple have gone back — and they’ve been detained.”

Seligman said the members of the 20 families “are very stressed. They’re petrified. Some have gone underground.”

Some of the claimants, she asserted, believe they “detected a pattern of bias” against them. She said they maintained that some of the board members had consistently turned down an extraordinary number of Coptic applicants. “It appears that there’s no rhyme nor reason as to who’s getting accepted and who’s getting refused,” she told the Post. “In terms of the integrity of the system, I think it’s important to ensure that there’s no inherent bias.”

The decision to deport the Coptics, El Shafie alleged, was severely flawed. Three of the refugee board judges, he claimed, “are always refusing the refugee claims of Christians.” Further, “one has an Iranian Muslim background. We have no problem with the board having Muslim judges. But we have a problem with a Muslim judge deciding a case involving Muslims against Christians.”

The judges in question, he contended, “need to be investigated.” He added: “Nobody is above the law.”

Regarding concerns generally expressed about possible dangers facing failed applicants who are returned to their home countries, he said IRB decision-makers “will weigh the evidence, and evaluate the objective circumstances. Each person’s risk is assessed individually. We don’t make any blanket determination concerning members of particular religious or national groups.”

Regarding the allegations of bias, Hawkins said the judges are “very carefully selected and trained, and [evaluated] to determine if there are any biases.” Regarding the fact that one or more judges could be Muslims, he said this was not anything unusual. “They’re chosen from a variety of backgrounds, to reflect the diversity of Canadian society.”

He added: “There is a mechanism at the IRB for addressing complaints about board members. Failed refugee claimants do have a means of challenging decisions.”

Seligman said she hopes there will be sufficient public response to persuade the government to defer further deportations until the case is investigated much more thoroughly. Meanwhile, she said, “The more public it is, the more chance there is [for the claimants].”