As a child in Egypt coming home from Sunday school, Khairy Gurgis remembers being taunted with verbal slurs, slapped or pelted with stones by Muslim kids. His crime: being a Christian.
He also recalls vandals painting a big, red cross on the sides of his uncle’s and neighbor’s house identifying them as the only two Christian families in the neighborhood.
Incidents like these were just a part of life growing up as a Coptic Christian. But it never caused Gurgis or his family to question their faith.
“In Egypt they accept whatever happens... saying, ‘God allows it to happen.’ It’s a different understanding of faith,” Gurgis said in an interview with Fox News.
Now 67 years old and a U.S. citizen, Gurgis operates a kiosk on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, selling seasonal accessories like hats, gloves and scarves. He fled his homeland 30 years ago after being arrested for what he says was standing up for his faith. But his extended family -- parents, uncles, aunts, brother and sister -- remain in Cairo.
Now, armed with a U.S. passport, he’s been able to visit them regularly. His family has grown to several dozen, including in-laws, cousins, nephews and nieces -- all Coptics, living a faith few in the West understand.
A few weeks ago, Gurgis made the decision to return to his native soil, this time to try to convince his family it was time to leave. His planned departure date was Feb. 10. As the date neared, and anti-government protests in Egypt escalated, he never wavered on his plans.
But the airline did. It cancelled his flight. As the protests climaxed, President Hosni Mubarak stepped down almost to the minute Gurgis’ flight would have landed.
Gurgis tried to find another way to Cairo, but couldn’t. Then his younger brother phoned to talk him out of the trip, saying he couldn’t pick him up at the airport. It’s just 10 minutes from the palace, and the area is surrounded by tanks and military.
Gurgis is in daily contact with his brother by phone, when possible, but also through Facebook. The brother's page is filled with pictures of mind-numbing atrocities inflicted on Coptic Christians over the past few months, and whose numbers are dwindling after being a part of Egyptian culture for 2,000 years.
Gurgis fears what may come next in Egypt: His first red flag? The return of Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, which had been banned for 30 years.
The Muslim Brotherhood is the Coptic community’s greatest fear. The most well-organized opposition group in Egypt, the Brotherhood has the support of some 20 percent of the population. It has a strong infrastructure, a kind of government within a government.
Of particular concern to Egypt’s Christians is the Brotherhood’s desire to adopt Shariah law as Egyptian law, which they fear would turn Gurgis’ childhood taunts into legal retribution.
Despite the gathering storm, Gurgis said his family’s faith has actually strengthened. The tempests have not stopped his mother from keeping active in her church working with orphans and the less fortunate.“They feel more safe, more protected in the Lord.”
His greatest pain, he said, was enduring the distance in being separated from his family. “I’m broken already.... that distance eats me up,” he said.
If they were all together, he says, it would be easier to endure. “Whatever happens to us happens all together. They keep repeating, ‘God will protect, God will protect. That’s what keeps me sane.”
In the meantime, he’s working on getting another flight to Cairo. If he can’t afford to get his family here to the United States, he’ll try Bali, or some other place where their lives won’t be in such danger. It’s his people, not politics, that concerns him the most now.