Copts Can Have Faith in U.S. Justice

The grisly murder Jan. 14 of an entire family of Egyptian immigrants in Jersey City, N.J., has had seismic effects on the United States' small community of Coptic Christians (search).

The family members, including two daughters, ages 16 and 8, were found bound and gagged in their home, their throats either slit or stabbed, according to somewhat conflicting reports.

By all accounts, they were devout Copts — a sect of Christianity that predates Islam in Egypt. Today, Copts make up about 10 percent of the Egyptian population and are often the targets of persecution and violence there.

The victims' country of origin, faith and manner of death immediately led to speculation that the killings may have been motivated by religion, their assailant possibly Muslim (search). When it was revealed that the father, Hossam Armanious (search), was an outspoken critic of Islam who made his views known by frequenting Islamist chatrooms on the Internet, the theory that the family's slaughter was a revenge killing with religious overtones firmly took hold. The story was quickly picked up by Internet blogs and became national news.

Local newspapers treated the family's funeral as a near riot. (While it was attended by thousands, a single person yelled anti-Muslim slogans before being stopped.) Meanwhile, investigators either do not yet have much information about the case or, quite possibly, are declining to make many details known. Either way, the case right now remains shrouded in mystery, fueling endless speculation and countless theories.

Much clearer, however, is the root of the massive outpouring of grief and solidarity from Copts, a little-known community of recent American immigrants.

Large numbers of Coptic Christians are able to immigrate to the United States on claims of asylum. Asylum claims by Copts are generally regarded to be credible by virtue of the State Department's country condition reports — meaning the U.S. government believes that Coptic Christians are subjected to a certain level of persecution and danger in Egypt.

It's difficult to find Copts among Egypt's power structure — in particular, in law enforcement — and though lethal incidents happen only every few years, there are instances of large numbers of Copts being killed by Muslims.

In 1997, a suspected Islamic militant gunned down nine Copts. The preceding year, Muslim militants ambushed and murdered eight Copts. In January 2000, at Al Kosheh, 23 people were killed in a riot between Muslims and Copts. Twenty-one of the dead were Copts.

Prosecutions, however, are rare.

"Every few years, a group of Copts will be massacred, and the Egyptian government does little about it," says one woman who attended the Armanious funeral. "Investigations usually stop with a closed police file, and are almost never referred for prosecution," she said.

Because a successful asylum claim requires the applicant to have some particular experience or rational fear of persecution, Copts who have immigrated to America are bound together by their common flight from religious persecution, and they bring with them a heightened awareness of persecution.

So, fears that this family has met a fate it fled Egypt to escape are understandable within the community. However, it seems that Copts are also beginning to fear that the American justice system will fail them as the Egyptian one did, a fear that is likely unwarranted.

Fortunately, however, while the investigation of the Armanious murders remains open, there are also signs of hope within the community that immigrant Copts have some faith that they will not repeat their Egyptian experience with law enforcement in the United States.

"We cannot speculate. We ask that the police and FBI, who we have great trust in, complete their investigations," said Bishop Anba David (search) of the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of North America, who conducted the Armanious funeral. "We hope that the people who did this will be found and brought to justice for this terrifying crime. God doesn't accept innocent blood. No matter what has been written or said, we want justice."

There's no question that Copts' experience in Egypt will color their perception of this investigation. But Bishop David's statement shows an abiding — and encouraging — belief in the American system. Hopefully, religion was not the motivation for these killings. Hopefully, too, whether it was a bias crime or not, these killers will soon be facing the full force of American justice.

Matt Hayes began practicing immigration law shortly after graduating from Pace University School of Law in 1994, representing new immigrants in civil and criminal matters. He is the author of the soon to be published, "The New Immigration Law and Practice."

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