DETROIT – Egyptian Christians living in the U.S. said Monday that they are horrified by violence that has erupted against Copts back home, including a deadly assault on those trying to stage a peaceful protest in Cairo in response to an attack on a church.
Coptic Christians in Michigan and California were among those heeding the call of their spiritual leader, Pope Shenouda III, to participate in a three-day period of mourning starting Tuesday for the victims of the worst sectarian violence in Egypt since the uprising that ousted President Hosni Mubarak in February. The death toll Monday after a night of rioting rose to 26, and most were Copts.
"We're not looking for any revenge; we're looking for peace in Cairo and Egypt and everywhere in the world," said the Rev. Maximus Habib of St. Mark Coptic Orthodox Church and the St. Mary & St. Philopater Church in the Detroit suburb of Troy. Combined, the congregations serve about 600 families.
Habib said a close friend of his brother was among the dead.
Despite his pleas for peace, anger was evident among members of the U.S. expatriate community of Copts, who number about 300,000. The largest concentrations include communities in New York and northern New Jersey, Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, Houston and Cleveland.
The clashes Sunday night raged over a large section of downtown Cairo and drew in Christians, Muslims and security forces. They began when about 1,000 Christian protesters tried to stage a peaceful sit-in outside the state television building along the Nile in downtown Cairo. The protesters said they were attacked by "thugs" with sticks and the violence then spiraled out of control after a speeding military vehicle jumped up onto a sidewalk and rammed into some of the Christians.
Christians, who make up about 10 percent of Egypt's 85 million people, blame the ruling military council that took power after the uprising for being too lenient on those behind a spate of anti-Christian attacks since Mubarak's ouster.
Saad Michael Saad, an electrical engineer who lives in Palos Verdes, Calif., arrived in the U.S. in 1977 and still has family in Alexandria and Cairo. Saad, 66, has written hundreds of articles about contemporary Coptic history.
He said his relatives are terrified by the violence against the Coptic Christians.
"The thugs stop people on bridges and bottlenecks and they ask the person, 'Are you Christian?' If they are Christian, they smash his windshield and injure him," Saad said. "Even when they stay home, my relatives are saying there are mobs running around the streets and invading homes, occupying empty apartments. There is no law in the land."
Saad said he's participating in the period of fasting and prayer services despite having the flu. A peaceful protest is planned Sunday outside the federal building in Los Angeles.
"We need to conquer evil with good. ... We pray for the salvation of the world," he said.
In recent weeks, riots have broken out at two churches in southern Egypt, prompted by Muslim crowds angry over church construction. One riot broke out near the city of Aswan, even after church officials agreed to a demand by ultraconservative Muslims known as Salafis that a cross and bells be removed from the building.
"We never get any rights at all in Egypt," said St. Mark and St. Mary church secretary Susie Tawfek, whose family members participating in the protests were unharmed.
In the Egyptian enclave of Journal Square in Jersey City, N.J., home to a large concentration of Coptics, residents were glued to news from their homeland on televisions in convenience stores, cafes and phone calling centers. Atef Soliman, who is Coptic, said the hopeful spirit of the recent uprising had been canceled out by the ugly displays of religious hatred.
"What was it all for?" Soliman said. "There's no policing in the country, and just lots of gangs."
The Arab uprising in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East has been "a very worrisome thing" for Copts, descendants of one of the earliest branches of Christianity whose name comes from the Greek word for Egyptians, said Eliot Dickinson, an associate professor of political science at Western Oregon University.
"With all the instability going on in Egypt right now, it's kind of like the 'fog of war,' said Dickinson, who wrote the 2008 book "Copts in Michigan" while working a visiting professor at Hope College in Holland, Mich. "The Copts become easy targets. You can burn down churches."
For Dr. Ramsay Dass, a Detroit-area doctor and president of the American Middle East Christian Congress, the troubles extend to Christians across the Middle East. Iraqi Chaldean Christians already have fled in great numbers to the U.S., he noted.
"This is not a new problem," he said. "This is really a genocide in the making. They've already emptied (more than) half of Iraq and they're trying to do it now in Egypt," he said.
Associated Press writers Gillian Flaccus in Tustin, Calif., and Samantha Henry in Jersey City, N.J., contributed to this report.