The Copts flee Egypt


Rumours of a Coptic exodus from Egypt have been circulating by word of mouth and on the Internet, but the truth may be less dramatic than the reports have made it appear, writesMichael Adel

The exodus of the Copts from Egypt is revisited every time there is political or sectarian turmoil in the country. The first wave of emigration to the US, Europe and Australia occurred after the nationalisations and land seizures that took place under the agricultural reform law after the 1952 Revolution. Thousands more Copts left during the regimes of former presidents Anwar Al-Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, and there was a wave of Coptic emigration before the 25 January Revolution after the events in Kosheh, at the All Saints Church in Alexandria, and in Omraniya.

Then there were the clashes at Maspero in Cairo, which led to a spike in the numbers of Copts leaving Egypt, especially to the US, where some 900,000 Copts are now living according to the latest figures.

After the Islamists rose to power in Egypt and took control of the state institutions, Coptic fears multiplied, and the number of Coptic emigrants rose to nearly 100,000, according to Dennis Ross of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Ross said that no fewer than 100,000 Copts had left Egypt since the Muslim Brotherhood came to power, a fact confirmed by human rights groups although the Egyptian churches have not been able to verify the figure and have described it as exaggerated.

“I want to leave, to emigrate, to leave this country altogether,” Mina S, a young man standing outside the Dutch embassy in Cairo, told Al-Ahram Weekly recently. The 28-year-old had gone there to apply to emigrate to Holland after the Dutch government agreed to allow Copts to emigrate to the country without their having to prove that they were being persecuted in Egypt.

“I would have loved to continue to live in my country, but circumstances are against me,” Mina said. “Egyptian society is full of social, political and economic contradictions, and it is unstable. As Christians, we are scared of what is happening in terms of harassment and other matters and the humiliation of young women in the streets. I can’t find work either, and for all these reasons I want to emigrate.”

More recently, Israeli radio has reported that some Coptic families have even emigrated to Israel, sparking a broad debate in Egyptian political and religious circles. The reports said that Israel would allow Copts to emigrate to the country if they could show that they were being persecuted in Egypt. The Arab and Egyptian media reported that Israel had received 237 Coptic families after US President Barack Obama visited Israel last month, though the Coptic Church and several Coptic political activists have rejected these figures, viewing the reports as distorting the image of the Copts and harming national harmony.

Senior Church sources told the Weekly that the reports were untrue and aimed to strain the relationship between Christians and Muslims in Egypt. “Even if Israel opened its doors to us, we would never go there because we refuse to immigrate there on principle,” the sources said.

A conference was held recently at the Coptic Cathedral in Abbasiya in Cairo to discuss the reports. According to Emad Gad, deputy director of the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies and a speaker at the conference, the reports had been spread by the Muslim Brotherhood in order to lump Christians and Jews together. Gad said that Israel only covered an area of some 20,000 square kilometres and had a population of seven million. As a result, it could not possibly absorb more people.

Kamal Zakher, a Coptic intellectual and the founder of the Coptic Secular Front, said that “everything that has been reported about Coptic emigration to Israel is false,” adding that the reports aimed to divide national ranks and to lead to the expulsion of the Copts from their homeland.

However, as soon as the Dutch government took the decision to facilitate the immigration of Egyptian Christians to Holland, the number of applicants quickly rose for those claiming religious and political asylum, especially after the condition of proving persecution was removed.

Dutch ambassador to Cairo Gerard Steeghs has met with many Copts to discuss the issue, and he said that the embassy had recorded several instances of persecution against Copts in Egypt without due protection being provided for them by the Egyptian government. He said that these instances had been reported in many international reports, and that they had caused the Dutch government to change its requirements for granting political asylum for Copts from Egypt to Holland, no longer requiring applicants to present proof of persecution.

Steeghs said that political asylum seekers from Egypt did not have to prove that they had submitted a request to the Egyptian government to protect them against persecution. All an Egyptian Copt needed to do was to prove that there was abuse or persecution that violated the European Convention on Human Rights, he said, a change that had been introduced for Egypt and no other country. Asylum seekers are supposed to submit requests for asylum while in Holland, but they do not have to reside there in order to do so.

Bahaa Ramzi, chair of the Dutch Coptic Association, told the Weekly in a telephone interview from Holland that the policies of successive Egyptian governments had been a main cause of trouble for the Copts. “I do not trust the promises of the Muslim Brotherhood that it will solve the problems of the Copts,” Ramzi said. “There are now expedited procedures for residence in Holland for those who come to us because of certain types of persecution. We do not want to embarrass Egypt in front of the world, but we do want to seek asylum for Copts everywhere in Europe and not just in Holland.”

Copts and Church sources confirmed to the Weekly that Coptic emigration from Egypt had risen after the 25 January Revolution, especially after the outcome of the parliamentary elections which gave the Islamists the upper hand. The sources said that some Copts feared they could suffer the same fate as the Christians in Iraq and Lebanon. Even more Copts had sought to leave after Mohamed Morsi became president in June last year and the Muslim Brotherhood came to power.

Large numbers of Copts, especially young people, then lined up outside the Dutch Canadian, Australian and Swedish embassies in order to try to escape what they perceived as the Brotherhood bogeyman. Some families even sought the assistance of the Church by beseeching it to send them overseas. Parishes and churches across the country received letters addressed to bishops and priests asking for financial or social assistance to send families to a Western country.

According to some Coptic organisations and the Egyptian Union for Human Rights, some 100,000 Egyptian Christians have applied to emigrate to the US and Canada, 10,000 of them after Morsi won the presidency. A senior Church source said that no fewer than 30,000 Christians had left Egypt over recent months, emigrating to the US, Canada, Italy, Australia and the UAE. He said that the Church could not reveal the exact number of Coptic emigrants, however.

Some Copts have also been directly or indirectly displaced, as has happened in Al-Amreya in Alexandria and in Atfeeh and some other villages, a phenomenon which has worried many Egyptians, especially the Copts. Video footage of a Salafi leader has been uploaded on social networks and on YouTube showing him declaring that the “Copts must emigrate and leave the country. If they don’t like being here, they should leave the country. The US is waiting for them.”

Some Coptic young people have responded to these issues of displacement and emigration by producing a song highlighting the suffering of the Copts in Egypt, and this is now frequently broadcast on a Christian satellite TV channel. Coptic families and young people talk openly on this channel and elsewhere about why they want to emigrate, saying that emigration was necessary because of the country’s economic problems and because they do not feel safe under Morsi’s rule.

The Weekly spoke to one Coptic jeweller from the village of Dahshour who refused to give his name for fear of retribution since the Copts had been chased out of the village because of a sectarian clash triggered by a quarrel over a burnt shirt belonging to a Muslim by a Coptic ironing business. The man had applied for asylum at the Dutch embassy. “I am worried that the same thing will happen again,” he said.

“Some people are still harassing us and telling us we can never escape them. That is why I feel I am being persecuted in my own country. My jewellery shop was attacked and robbed during the clashes in the presence of the police who did nothing. I filed a police report, but so far I have not seen justice.”

Raymond Adel, a Copt, said that “emigration is now the dream of any young Egyptian, and some even resort to illegal means to flee Egypt. Unfortunately, Egypt is regressing.” Another Copt, Theodora William, said “I am opposed to the idea of marrying someone who emigrated overseas just to leave Egypt, but I could marry a young Egyptian and travel overseas to start our lives again there. We all love Egypt, but the Brotherhood and the future of my future children have made me want to emigrate.”

Marianne Youssef, also Coptic, said that “I have started to think about emigrating, not because I hate my country, but to save myself. The future under the Brotherhood will do away with freedom and enlightenment. Egypt, the land of liberty and civilisation, is now acting against its own people.” But according to Vivien Fakhri, also Coptic, “this is our country, and we will never abandon it. We are willing to starve rather than do so. I am not going to die in any other country than my own.”

Nermine Adel said that “Egypt is full of blessings, but we don’t realise its true value or how to best use its resources. Some girls use marriage as a means to leave, but there are not that many of them. Things won’t be bad forever. We just have to be patient and we will be rewarded.” According to Sally Shaker, “many Christian girls are thinking about marrying men who have emigrated to European countries, especially since they don’t feel safe and have been harassed on the streets in Egypt.”

The Church has warned Copts not to give out information about emigration websites because these could be used for gathering information. Messages have been sent to Copts by e-mail and Facebook saying that emigration to Canada is now for Christians only, which is why so many Coptic young people have been flocking to the country’s emigration offices and embassies. One young man submitting an application to the Canadian embassy said that Canada was a primary destination for Copts because there had been rumours that the embassy was approving large numbers of applications.

“Everyone must understand that Egypt is everyone’s homeland and that there is no difference between Muslims and Christians as long as they respect each other and respect each other’s faiths,” Bishop Basanti of Helwan said, adding that the Church rejected the exodus of Copts from Egypt or their fleeing the country out of fear of the Islamists.

“I tell them that the people of Egypt are blessed,” the bishop said, but added that the Coptic Church abroad could be willing to assist emigrant Copts seeking jobs or housing. “It is natural for Copts to seek the Egyptian Church in a country they don’t know, and the Church will never turn its back on its sons,” he said.

Mounir Hanna, primate of the Episcopal Province of Jerusalem and the Middle East, said that he doubted there was a plot to force Coptic emigration from Egypt. “What happened in Sudan is very unfortunate, where nearly 4.5 million Christians were displaced,” Hanna said. “Young people emigrate because they feel Egypt’s future is unstable, and this exodus of Christians from Egypt does not serve the interests of Muslims.”

However, Eissa Saleh, spokesman for the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, accused Israel of trying to force Christians out of the Middle East, saying that Christians were being harassed in Jerusalem and churches torn down. A document published by the Middle East Churches Council said that Eastern Christians were “an integral part of the Arab nation” and that Christians in Arab states would not leave their homelands because they were scared about rumours of Islamist threats, even though there had been “increasing Coptic emigration in terms of type, scale and volume in recent years”.

Medhat Kalada, chair of the Union of Coptic Organisations in Europe, does not believe there has been more real Coptic emigration. “The issue of emigration is nonsense,” Kalada said. “Although expatriate Copts have left Egypt and succeeded abroad, Egypt remains part of them and they always return there.” He added that emigration was often the dream of young Egyptians and not just of the Copts. “It is ironic that many of the Muslims who are calling for a new caliphate are located in the West,” he said. “There is a plot to scare the Copts by the political Islam groups.”

Andre Zaki, deputy head of the Anglican sect and director of the Anglican Coptic Association, said he had met with the US consul-general to discuss US visa laws, the US official saying that the Church should not write letters supporting visa applications without verifying the identity of the applicants. He also said that emergency requests could be handled by the US consular service and that there was an official embassy website for urgent cases.

The consul-general said that Egypt was once one of the bottom 20 countries applying for US visas, but in 2012 it had risen to be number three in the world.