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Egypt's Coptic Christians say they are 'no longer safe'

Amr Nabil / AP file

Egyptian Muslim women hold a cross in support of Christians during a memorial march in Cairo for Christians who were killed during deadly clashes with Muslims in April.

CAIRO – Thousands of Egypt’s Coptic Christians are fleeing to Europe, the United States and elsewhere rather than face mounting discrimination at home.

Copts, Egypt’s ancient Christian community, are the country’s largest minority, making up nearly 10 percent of its 85 million people. 

But clashes between Christians and Muslims have become more frequent since the ouster of longtime authoritarian ruler Hosni Mubarak in the 2011 uprising – some say due to a breakdown of government security. Many Copts feel Egypt's Islamist-led government is not doing enough to protect them from religious hate crimes and inflammatory rhetoric – so many are leaving.

“My sister in California wanted a better life for her and her two daughters,” explained Marianne Aziz, a 25-year-old pharmacist. “There was a big fight between us and our Muslim neighbors over our parking place ... . They cut my brother-in-law’s face with a knife.”

Aziz said that after that incident, “My sister felt she was no longer safe anymore. She got a hospital report on her husband’s injuries and a police report and when they went to the U.S., she immediately [applied for] asylum.” 

Egyptian now ranks as the second highest nationality to receive asylum in the United States – although it is uncertain how many are Copts because immigration statistics do not include religious affiliation, many of the asylum seekers are believed to be Christian.

The number of Egyptians receiving asylum in the U.S. has jumped more than five-fold in recent years. In 2010, the year before the revolution, just 531 Egyptians received asylum in the U.S.; in 2012, that number jumped to 2,882, according to the Department of Homeland Security’s statistical data for 2012

Georgia, the former Soviet republic, has also become a popular destination for Egyptians because it’s relatively easy to obtain residence. A Georgian consular officer said that about 150 Egyptians apply for asylum every week.

And the Netherlands has made it easier for Copts to claim asylum by no longer demanding proof that asylum seekers have sought official protection from persecution. The Dutch ambassador said in a TV interview that his government was prompted to make the process easier because of reports of persecution of Copts and a lack of adequate government protection.

Eight people were killed in sectarian violence between Christians and Muslims in April, including attacks on Cairo’s St. Mark’s Cathedral, prompting rare criticism of President Mohammed Morsi by the Coptic Pope Tawadros II for not protecting the church.

Khaled Elfiqi / EPA file

Pope Tawadros II, head of the Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church, leads the Easter Mass at the Coptic Cathedral of Saint Marcos in Cairo on May 4.

Heba Morayef, Regional Human Rights Watch director, worries that extremists are now free to encourage discrimination on TV. “It’s very scary because of the sudden uptick in violence, compounded by the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood has in no way tried to reign it back and has at times participated.”

Controversy ensued earlier this year after the Muslim Brotherhood’s leading cleric advised Muslims to refrain from wishing Christians a Happy Easter, saying the holiday is un-Islamic.

Brotherhood leaders have also continued to be promoted in the government, despite clearly anti-Coptic rhetoric.   

“You share this country with us,” Brotherhood stalwart Safwat Hegazi threatened Copts after anti-Morsi demonstrations turned violent last December. “But there are red lines, and one red line is the legitimacy of Dr. Morsi. Whoever splashes water on that, we will spill his blood.”

Despite his provocative language, Hegazi was recently appointed to Egypt’s National Council on Human Rights.

The government has also halted any spread of Christianity. Only the president has the right to grant permits to build churches in Egypt, yet Morsi has given permission for just one new church to be built during in his first year in office. By comparison, in 2010, former President Hosni Mubarak allowed 16 new churches to be built. 

Ishaq Ibrahim researches religious freedom for the well-respected Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights organization. He warned of a growing trend where Christians are brought to trial for insulting Islam because there is a lack of clarity around the laws. As a result, he pointed out, “There were 36 cases during 2011 and 2012: 35 for insulting Islam and one for insulting Christianity.”   

The latest U.S. Report on Religious Freedom admonished the government for failing to provide security to Copts. 

“While…religious minorities mostly worshiped without harassment, the government generally failed to prevent, investigate or prosecute crimes against members of religious minority groups, especially Coptic Christians.” 

Marianne Aziz has drawn the same conclusion. She looks forward to the day when she can join her sister in the California. Aziz turned down a good job with a pharmaceutical company because it would have required travel to remote areas and she feared kidnapping, a growing phenomenon according to Coptic activists.

“If I had to work in a far-away place, I might not come home again. I can’t live in a country that is not safe,” Aziz said.

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