Copts in the diaspora: Physically distant but emotionally close

Dina Samir, Monday 17 Oct 2011

Coptic Diaspora shaken by violent attacks on fellow Coptic Christians in Egypt; fear revolution won't change deep-rooted discrimination against Christians

Copts protest in Holland protesting the Maspero clashes that left at least 25 copts dead (Photo by:
Coptic Christians in Holland protest the Maspero clashes that left at least 25 Copts dead (Photo: Mariam Wadie)

“Even if you are a Christian, you should cover your hair,” Rania Assad, an Egyptian Christian living now in Oman, was told by a professor at the Cairo University School of Medicine 12 years ago. Assad explained that despite living for six years in another Muslim country, she had never experienced inequality similar to what Copts endure in Egypt. “Any country prefers its citizens over foreigners in a way; and foreigners are free to leave if they do not like that. Yet, the problem is that foreign countries treat us better than our homeland does,” Assad said.

Thousands of Copts have emigrated from Egypt annually during the last few decades. A study entitled, ‘Integrating into a Multicultural Society - The case of the Copts in the US’ by Fouad and Barbara Ibrahim, indicated that the size of the Coptic Diaspora was nearly one million in 2008, three quarters of them in the USA. In addition, seventy-five percent of all permanent Egyptian emigrants in the period 1990-1996 were Christians; meaning the emigration rate among the Copts was thirty times higher than their Muslim counterparts.

Nevine Amin, a sociology Ph.D. student at the University of Texas at Austin who has researched Copts living in the US, explained that among the main causes of the spike in Christian emigration from Egypt and other Arab countries during the last 30 years was their exclusion from senior positions in academia, government, and medicine; and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism.

Like Egyptians around the world, the Coptic Diaspora followed the January 25 Revolution with a mix of feelings. “I was excited, proud, and concerned; democracy is usually very expensive,” said Ragae Ghabrial, who immigrated to the US with his parents 15 years ago.

The series of recent attacks against Copts, as well as the current turbulent situation in Egypt, has shaken the hope for a better Egypt among the Coptic Diaspora. “The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has neither been responsive to the legitimate demands of Egyptians nor wise in dealing with the violent attacks against Copts,” said Shirin Emil, 28. Emil, who initially planned to return to Egypt with her family after her husband finishes his job assignment in Italy, is now unsure whether they should go back home.

Echoing similar discontent, Rafaat Said, who emigrated from Egypt to the US 14 years ago, asked, “How come the army that should be prepared for fighting our enemy on the borders cannot protect churches or peaceful demonstrators.”

However, those attacks are no surprise to Said, “There is a culture of hatred and exclusion rooted in Egypt. The revolution’s success will not change some people’s fanatic attitudes,” he explained.

Throughout history, the Coptic Diaspora has sought to support their co-religionists in Egypt against discrimination. “Since the early seventies, Copts abroad have been lobbying societies to press the Egyptian government for more religious freedom and rights for non-Muslim minorities,” Youssef Zaki wrote in a paper entitled, A Theban Legion on the Banks of the Potomac: Coptic Political Activism in the Diaspora, the US, and the Egyptian Polity. The best example, Zaki presented, is Coptic associations’ campaign calling for the release of Pope Shenouda during his exile during Sadat era.  

However, the political movement of Copts in the Diaspora has been criticised at various levels. “There is an absence of an organised political system to which all Coptic Diaspora associations are affiliated,” William Weesa, a Coptic intellectual residing in France, said at the International Coptic Conference in Chicago in 2007. On the local level, Egypt’s Coptic clerical institution under Pope Shenouda’s leadership has publicly denounced Coptic political activism abroad, “insisting on a national discussion and solution to any Coptic problem in Egypt,” Zaki wrote.

The Maspero clashes have stirred fear among Copts in the Diaspora, who stayed on top of the event through the Internet and social media, but they cling to their faith in the future. “I feel confident that God will not forsake us,” said Ragae Ghabrial.

Trying to stand by their co-religionists in Egypt, Copts abroad joined the three-day prayer and fasting event called for by churches in Egypt, claimed Said. Also, the Dutch Coptic Association organised a protest against the Maspero killings on Sunday in Amsterdam attended by around 300 Copts.

A democratic Egypt that gives equal rights to its citizens is the common dream of Copts in the Diaspora. Said puts it simply, “I dream that when I come back to Egypt, nobody will treat me differently after glimpsing my Coptic hand cross tattoo.”

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