Coptic Christian emigres fear for Egypt’s future
Even Egyptian Christians living in America are afraid of what will happen to their beloved home land with Morsi in power. One said, “No matter what they say, the future is going to be darker and darker. They may not continue burning churches, but there will be a war of attrition against us, and Egypt will go towards a total Islamic state.”
By Pamela Constable
07/01/2012 Washington, D.C. (TheWashingtonPost)- In a summer camp playroom at St. Mark Coptic Orthodox Church in Fairfax, several dozen teenagers shrieked and giggled as they scrambled playing musical chairs. Then they gathered for a patriotic hymn in their native Arabic. “God save our country,” they sang. “Protect us from evil. . . We have no hope but You.”
Merna Towfaq, 15, knew all the words, but after a few verses her voice trailed off, and her shoulders heaved with sobs.
“I miss my friends. I miss my country. I want to go home, but I can’t,” she blurted, clutching a tissue in her fist. “I love Egypt, and I feel so bad for everyone there. I just feel so bad.”
Despite the upbeat camp spirit, the mood last week at St. Mark, a spiritual and political nerve center for the region’s large Egyptian Christian community, was one of deepening gloom and rising panic in the wake of elections in Egypt that propelled a member of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, Mohamed Morsi, to the presidency. He was sworn into office Saturday.
Everyone at the church seemed to have friends and relatives who were trying to leave Egypt. Parents picking up their kids said they were bracing for an Islamic takeover of their homeland. Church officials said there had been a steady stream of newcomers seeking help or coming to Arabic Masses. One man who arrived from Cairo three weeks ago, reached by a church counselor on a cell phone, nervously told his story through an Arabic translator.
“I am going to apply for asylum and get my family out as soon as I can,” said the man, 34, who gave his name only as Zekry. “The Islamists are taking over, and disaster is coming very soon.”
In the past several months, he said, he had been threatened for sheltering Muslims who converted to Christianity, and his wife had been harassed for not wearing a veil when she went to pay their Internet bill. “The clerk told her, ‘Next time come back with your head covered. Your time is over,’ ” he said.
The choice, many Coptic Christian immigrants said, came down to the lesser of two evils. One of the final candidates was Ahmed Shafiq, a former cabinet minister for the ousted regime of President Hosni Mubarak that had oppressed religious minorities for 30 years. The other was Morsi, a conservative member of the Muslim Brotherhood, which had been an aggressive anti-Christian force in Egypt for just as long.
Among exiled voters in the United States, Shafiq won with 75 percent of the ballots. But in Egypt, Morsi won with more than 51 percent.
We don’t hate Morsi, but we know the Brotherhood and its history,” said Magdi Khalil, one of the conference organizers, who is based in Virginia. “No matter what they say, the future is going to be darker and darker. They may not continue burning churches, but there will be a war of attrition against us, and Egypt will go towards a total Islamic state.”
At the conference, angry Egyptians in the audience accused State Department officials of abandoning their cause and supporting the Muslim Brotherhood.
Michael Posner, an assistant secretary of state, tried to reassure the group, saying the Obama administration shares the Copts’ concerns. He said U.S. officials are pursuing a dialogue with Morsi “not because we agree, but because he is part of power now. The conversation is not light.”
“I voted for Morsi, even though I am not an Islamist, because I could not vote for the past,” Elmenshawy said. “The revolution was about change, and this was an historic moment — the first real election ever held in Egypt. In the past, Mubarak always got 99.9 percent of the vote. It was new for us not to know the outcome in advance.”
Elmenshawy acknowledged that he, too, was worried about the Brotherhood’s intentions, given its historic ambition to bring sharia rule to Egypt. But he also noted that 80 to 90 percent of Egyptians are Muslims, and most of them are poor. Morsi, who comes from a modest economic background and whose wife wears traditional Muslim garb, offered them an appealing contrast with the modern, secular elite that allowed the country to languish in poverty and dictatorship.
“This is about class, too,” he said. “The other evil was really evil.”
The Copts have particular reasons to fear for the future. For more than 40 years, their sect, the largest Christian group in the Middle East, was led by Pope Shenouda III, a conservative figure who preached patience and pacifism to his minority flock of about 8 million. Shenouda died in March, at age 88, leaving the Copts without a unifying and protective figure at a time of uncertain change.
Some Coptic activists here said they were afraid the leaderless Christians will not be able to withstand the uglier manifestations of rising Islamist ambition among Brotherhood supporters and others. A number of Copts interviewed at St. Mark and elsewhere described relatives and friends back home being harassed by crowds outside churches or pressured to abandon their faith.
Coptic Christian emigres fear for Egypt’s future