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Coptic Christian Emigrés Fear for Egypt’s Future

By Pamela Constable

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.

For Egyptian Americans, the turbulent election 9,000 miles away was far more than a subject of heated but theoretical debate. Highly educated and politicized, their community is deeply involved with homeland politics. On Arabic Dish channels, they have followed every twist of the turbulent 16 months since the popular uprising in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

Moreover, 27,000 longtime emigres are dual citizens or U.S. residents registered to vote in Egyptian elections. Last month, nearly half of them cast absentee ballots – about 3,000 at the Egyptian embassy in Washington and thousands more at consulates in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston.

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.

On Sunday, June 24, the results were announced in Cairo just as hundreds of people were arriving for the morning service at St. Mark. Suddenly, worshippers recounted, people in the pews started weeping or hugging. One man cried out, “Egypt is ruined!”

Area leaders of Coptic Solidarity, an exile movement that held a conference on Capitol Hill last week to assess the post-electoral situation and press for support from the Obama administration, were almost apocalyptic in their predictions of an increasingly bleak and suffocating fate for Copts and Egypt.

“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.”

Not all Coptic immigrants agreed with Khalil’s dire scenario. Some said last week that they were willing to give Morsi a chance, especially because he has been sounding magnanimous and inclusive in his post-election speeches.

Morsi, who once lived and studied in the United States, has promised to respect minority rights, penalize forces who killed unarmed protesters and appoint a Copt as one of his vice presidents.

Samia Harris, the principal of a private school in Woodbridge, said she decided to boycott the final election round because she was uncomfortable with both candidates. But she said she felt “better about Morsi’s intentions after I heard him speak. Now let’s see if he delivers on his promises.”

Harris, who is active in promoting U.S.-Egyptian relations, said she will be part of a delegation that travels to Cairo to meet with Morsi this summer.

“We want to offer our services, and we also want to keep him accountable,” she said.

Other Egyptian immigrants and analysts here, including moderate Muslims, offered a more sanguine assessment of the election results. Mohammed Elmenshawy, a fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, was one of the emigres who cast his vote at the embassy on Connecticut Avenue NW.

“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.

Abdul Malik, 24, is a Copt from a conservative family who initially opposed the uprising against Mubarak. But soon afterward, he joined a Coptic think tank and began to speak out for religious rights. Later he came to Washington, and while he was still here in October, security forces attacked a crowd in Cairo that was protesting some church burnings. At least 25 people were killed, including two of his friends.

“After that, I knew I couldn’t go back,” Malik said Thursday during a break in the Coptic Solidarity conference. “People used to think that Mubarak was the problem. But now I fear that sectarian hatred is becoming bigger than anyone can control.”

Shortly after the October massacre, Malik applied for political asylum in the United States. Two weeks ago, his petition was approved. He will soon start a new job as an aide at the Holocaust Memorial Museum.

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The Washington Post

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