On March 28th 2014 Mary Sameh George, a Coptic Christian in Egypt, was reportedly beaten, stabbed, and shot by an Islamist mob. Reports claim that they shouted “alahu akbar” as Mary was shot in the back and her car was set on fire. Mary’s religious affiliation was enough to lead to her death. Mary’s murder was not a random act of violence, but one connected to a broader violent trend against Copts in Egypt. Amid the political crisis and instability, Copts throughout the country have been on the front lines of legitimate security concerns. As hundreds of thousands of Copts flee out of the country seeking refuge, an influential community abroad gains traction as a potential prominent player in creating reform. A unified collective voice of Copts worldwide is more urgent now than ever. Increasing the sense of communal ties and support between the Copts in Egypt and abroad would undoubtedly foster the bond necessary to achieve various common goals. Although the concerns faced by this community need urgent international attention, various reforms can also be accomplished internally within the broader international Coptic community as well. Copts in North America can be more supportive of Copts in Egypt by spreading awareness of the issues at home, providing additional resources and financial support, and fostering a deeper involvement of Coptic youth and non-Egyptian Copts. The internal support is crucial at a time where the community’s historical presence in the country is at great risk.
With a wave of emigration of Copts out of Egypt, a larger community of Copts abroad must adapt to additional roles and responsibilities. Copts in North America can be supportive of Copts in Egypt by clearly expressing various demands. Political activism and engagement from the Coptic community abroad must organize and adjust to the new changes and challenges faced. Of approximately 350,000 Copts in the US, approximately one third of them came after the uprisings of January 2011. With more than two hundred Coptic churches in the US alone, the population of Copts in North America has grown exponentially, restructuring the community as a whole. This new voice can influence policy makers both at home and abroad by increasing awareness and dialogue on issues and demands. Efforts should aim to include these demands into the foreign policy conversation. Should this voice be used strategically on a larger scale, political reforms in Egypt will be much more likely.
Shortly after Mohammed Morsi’s ouster last July, the Coptic community became the immediate scapegoat that resulted in deadly attacks countrywide. Heavy attacks on this community have been abundant long before Morsi assumed power, however. On October 9th 2011, a peaceful march from Shobra to Maspero TV headquarters demanding equal rights for Copts resulted in deadly violence. Protesters were met with live ammunition and army vehicles drove into and killed protesters in what became known as the “Maspero Massacre”. Once again, the state failed to investigate and hold offenders accountable, a customary habit also abundant in the Mubarak era. Mosaad Mahny Mosaad, son of a Maspero victim said, “What adds to our torture is that justice has not been served for those victims.” Another relative of a victim claims that his friends are considering emigration as a result. There is a vastly growing connection between this community’s plight in Egypt and the wave of immigrants coming to North America where neglecting the issue is no longer an option.
Support of Copts internally can also come through increased resources and financial assistance. Churches, homes, and businesses have been a target of religious attacks for years. Copts in North America can help the rebuilding process by providing the financial means to make this process a reality. Providing financial support to families that have been targeted by violent attacks is crucial in helping those families move forward. On a broader scale, employment and institutionalized discrimination on the basis of religious affiliation in Egypt are also concerning. In Egypt, national ID cards report religious affiliation, giving officials and employers discretion of its use. In a society where discrimination against Copts is plentiful, disclosure of religious affiliation only leads to greater alienation. Beshoy Tamry, a founding member of the Maspero Youth Union claims, “discrimination against Copts is an unwritten social custom. Right now, there are no laws that forbid either the government or private businesses from doing this.” Copts in North America can alleviate the financial burden placed on Coptic families and the Church. Logistically, the Coptic Church in Egypt cannot meet the vast demands resulting from violent attacks, discrimination, and increased poverty. Providing direct resourceful assistance in an organized fashion will undoubtedly help ease the repercussions of inequality, oppression, and violence faced by this community.
With a larger population of Copts in North America, diversity within the community includes Copts of various generational gaps, ideals, and differences. The Coptic community must find a way to integrate the differences within its community into the activism process on a larger scale. Coptic youth abroad face different experiences and challenges than their parents or grandparents. Different experiences and upbringings might result in feelings of detachment from the Coptic community in Egypt. Coptic youth in North America need to embrace a bigger role in raising awareness about issues facing Copts in Egypt. In a similar manner, bigger involvement by non-Egyptian Copts in North America can also considerably aid Copts in Egypt. Inter-marriage and assimilation of several generations of Copts gave rise to increased diversity within the Coptic community in North America. The resulting body of The Coptic Church in North America now includes a notable body of members who might not have a direct affiliation to the issues Copts in Egypt face. The body of The Coptic Church is diverse in essence but must embody a cohesive, unified, and organized voice in a time where the community’s broader well-being is at stake.
Last but not least, Copts in North America need to be a resource for Egyptian Copts seeking temporary asylum and refuge in Canada or the United States. This transitional support can greatly help the Coptic community get back on its feet as it struggles to find a new temporary home away from deadly attacks and violence that burden the community. Many Coptic immigrants might perceive the Coptic community abroad as the only familiar face to their homeland, often marking it their home away from home. Copts in North America can further support Copts in Egypt by aiding their assimilation and temporary transition through their networks, professional, and financial resources. The resources provided by Coptic families established in North America will undoubtedly aid recent Coptic immigrants into their temporary transitions in the United States and Canada.
In sum, the Coptic community in North America now takes a new form and must embrace new roles. The magnitude of the emigration of Copts from Egypt into the United States and Canada brings this issue home. The Coptic community abroad is now much larger and by default, much powerful as a result. The newly attained power must be used to aid the community in Egypt, one that is at risk of daily attacks, discrimination, and oppression. By raising awareness of the issues Copts in Egypt face, the broader international community of Copts can cause the global community to take stronger measures to protect the minority from further collapse. To do so, Copts need to present an organized and cohesive voice aimed at shifting international dialogue. This voice, if found and projected, could have fruitful implications.
Marina Shalabi is a Research Assistant for the Program on Arab Politics at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. This article is based on the paper by the author, which won the Coptic Solidarity Writing Contest for 2014