Local Coptic Christians fear for persecuted Egyptians

By MICHELLE BEARDEN | The Tampa Tribune

As soon as news broke in January 2011 of the uprising that eventually would topple Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, Amira Salama began getting calls from friends.

You must be so happy, they said to the Egyptian-born woman, now an American citizen living in Oldsmar. Life is going to be so much better for your people.

Salama knew otherwise.

A year later, her fears for her homeland in the post-revolution era have been confirmed.

“All it’s been is an opportunity for the Islamic extremists to take office,” she says. “Because of what I’ve seen over the years, I knew things would only go from bad to worse.”

Salama is a Coptic Christian, a form of Eastern Orthodoxy established by St. Mark the Evangelist, who introduced Christianity to Egypt in the first century.

It’s a minority religion in the mainly Muslim country, followed by 6 percent to 11 percent of the population of 80 million.

Persecution against Coptics has always existed, she says, particularly in the past several decades. But now, as political instability increases and Islamic fundamentalists gain power, “it is getting out of control. The stories we are hearing are horrendous,” she says.

Conditions were not ideal under Mubarak’s 30-year reign, she says, but at least Islamic fundamentalist parties were banned.

Simply put, she says, it’s not safe to be a Coptic Christian in Egypt. She has lived in the United States for 35 years and used to make regular trips to her homeland to visit family and friends. That has changed.

“It hurts that I’m too scared to even visit,” she says. “I own land there that I may never see again. I worry for my family. It’s something you can’t stop thinking about.”

Once-sporadic reports of turmoil are accelerating. Assaults, car and church bombings, sniper attacks and arson fires have left hundreds dead. Wearing a cross around one’s neck, displaying a crucifix on the front door of a home or going out in public bareheaded turns Copts into targets. Accounts of mental torture and physical abuse are being recorded by human rights organizations. On Oct. 9, a clash between Christian Egyptians and military police left 24 dead in Cairo.

Salama gets her information firsthand. She is the executive director of Coptic Orthodox Charities, a Clearwater-based nonprofit organization that assists immigrants with asylum, family unification, legal issues and social services.

She is juggling about four cases a month — a 50 percent increase over a year ago. Except for a few federal grants to resettle refugees, she is dependent upon donations.

“Sometimes, when I’m not sure how to pay the next bill, the Lord provides. It comes out of nowhere at the right time,” she says. “Every time someone comes through the door with yet another story, I know I can’t give up.”

With his beard, black cap and cleric’s robes, the Rev. Moussa Saleh of St. George Coptic Orthodox Church in Tampa looks very much the part of an Orthodox priest.

Every week, he leads services steeped in ancient language and rituals for his 300-member congregation. Men and women sit on opposite sides of the aisle. Elegant icons detailing Christ’s life line the walls. They are bound by their culture and their faith, a close-knit congregation that gathers after Sunday worship to eat and socialize.

While Saleh is committed to maintaining the traditions of a faith with a 2,000-year history, he is faced with a modern problem: taking care of newly arrived Egyptians fleeing persecution in their homeland. Churches such as his across the country often are the first place they seek refuge.

Some come with just the clothes on their backs — no money, no household items — and limited, if any, English language skills. Church members step in to help with housing, food, translators and, if possible, a job. Every Sunday, volunteer doctors and nurses from the congregation provide free health care to the needy — a service open to the whole community — in a clinic behind the church.

Saleh considers it “miraculous” that his religion has maintained a solid and faithful presence in Egypt for as long as it has. But a Coptic’s devotion comes with a price, including being locked out of certain professions and being treated like a second-class citizen. As tensions elevate, it has become more than an inconvenience. It has become dangerous, he says.

“Being a Christian in an Islamic country is not very accepted,” says Saleh, a native of Egypt. “Not all Muslims feel this way. But most view you as someone on the other side. You are not us, is how they think. You are not one of us.”

On Sunday, St. George will host a prayer vigil to observe the anniversary of the revolt and memorialize victims of the persecution. Church member William Assad, a radiation oncologist at Hyde Park Cancer Center, acknowledges that it’s not always easy to get Americans interested in the plight of Coptic Christians halfway around the world.

But what is happening in the Middle East very much affects people here, he says.

“If we don’t deal with the fanatics over there, they will definitely come here to hunt us down,” Assad says. “Remember 9/11? It could happen again.”

Assad left Egypt in 1981, the year then-President Anwar Sadat was assassinated by Islamic fundamentalists. His two brothers and their families still live there.

After Mubarak was overthrown and the military took control, he says, Americans believed that peace would be restored and a new democracy would emerge, allowing freedom of speech and religion.

His family has told him horror stories. They were afraid for their lives, unable to leave their homes after dark. They triple-locked doors and kept their children out of school for three months. A year later, they still won’t go out in public alone, traveling instead in twos or threes.

“There is no security anymore. The thugs are controlling the streets,” he says.

For Assad, these are heartbreaking times. His homeland is always on his mind.

“Egypt is not just a country to me. It’s every breath I take,” he says. “Egypt is my high school sweetheart; America is the one I married. I love them both.”

mbearden@tampatrib.com, (813) 259-7613