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ICC NOTE: More than 600 Coptic families have settled in Houston because of persecution in Egypt . One man says: “He said the persecution Copts faced in Egypt was a unifying factor that helped keep the community together”.

Egyptian Coptic Christians find a quiet place to worship and succeed in Houston after so much strife back home

Houston Chronicle

Dec. 26, 2006

Egyptian Coptic Christians find bright future in Houston When Marise Saweris left Egypt for the United States , she was a 19-year-old newlywed who didn’t speak English or have a college degree. She considered herself fortunate to find a job in the Merrill Lynch mailroom.

Today she is a senior marketer at the AIG insurance company in Houston . And that’s not all. Her daughter is a pediatrician, her eldest son is a project manager and her youngest boy is getting ready for law school.

So it’s no wonder that Saweris believes the future is bright for the growing number of Egyptian Copts who are moving to Houston and other parts of the United States to get free of Egypt ‘s rising sectarian tensions and chronic economic woes.

” She and her husband were pioneers when they moved to Houston in 1977, but today a sizable Egyptian Christian community calls Houston home. More than 600 Coptic families have settled here since the first handful arrived in 1968.

The Coptic community in Houston is somewhat insular even though most of the children are educated in the public schools and exposed to American television and movies from an early age. Young people are expected to live at home with their parents until they are married, except for their time in college, and often they marry other Copts.

Pierre Ghattas, at 29 already a practicing dentist, said he assumes he will marry a Coptic woman. He is committed to the idea that he and his future wife will teach their children to speak Arabic and to observe the traditions of the Coptic church.

“I haven’t closed the door on others, but I recognize it would be easier on me, easier on her and easier on the family, and those are the people that are important in a marriage,” he said of his desire to meet and marry someone with Coptic roots. “I would feel I have more of a connection with someone similar to me.”

He said Copts participate fully in American life but try to act within the strict guidelines set by the church, which puts limits on dating, prohibits premarital sex and frowns on heavy drinking and other aspects of what Copts view as an extremely permissive culture.

“I didn’t date in high school,” he said.

An absence of hostility

Coptic church leaders concede that they do not mingle easily with the rest of the large Christian community in the Houston area, in part because they are not used to speaking freely about their religious beliefs because of the problems they faced in Egypt .

Father Younan Labib, the priest at the St. Mary church, said this reluctance to reach out is keeping the Copts isolated despite their many successes here.

He said the persecution Copts faced in Egypt was a unifying factor that helped keep the community together. In the United States , where there is no external threat to Copts, he said the danger is that people will wander from the church because of the temptations of secular life.

“In Egypt , nobody doubts the existence of God,” he said. “It would never happen that a young person would come to you and say, ‘Does God exist?’ Here you have to prove it, one way or another. In Egypt , everybody believes that God exists. Here, it is not something that people will take for granted. Here, some people say God does not exist.”

On a more practical level, he said, some Copts in Houston question the need for a four-hour Sunday service when other denominations have services that last about an hour.

The biggest change for Copts who move here after facing religious pressure in Egypt is the absence of hostility they face as Christians. Many are grateful simply for the chance to worship without fear or intimidation.

Edward Abdelsayed, who runs a flooring store in Sugar Land , said he decided to leave Egypt after a teacher forced his son to recite Muslim prayers even though she knew the boy was a Christian.

“The teacher said she was teaching him the word of God,” he said. “They want our kids to lose their identity as Christians. So I said I’m not staying.

” America has offered us freedom. You apply for a job, and they look at your credentials; they don’t ask your beliefs. No one is trying to change your ideas, and no one is trying to convert you.”