US Egyptian Christians fear for faith under Morsi’s Islamist agenda

It seems like every Sunday, there's a new face sitting in the pews of the Church of Saint Verena and the Three Holy Youth in Orange, Calif.  Most are young professionals or families with small children and some have been living in the United States for a just few weeks.

“The first waves of immigration,” said Bishop Serapion of the Coptic Diocese of Los Angeles, Southern California and Hawaii.

These worshippers are Egyptian Christians, better known as Copts.  Their church is Coptic Orthodox, the largest Christian church in Egypt and the Middle East with services similar to other Christian faiths. They perform sacraments like the Catholics and recite prayers many faithful Americans would recognize, including “Our Father” and “Hail Mary.”  Mass is spoken in a mix of English, Arabic and the ancient Coptic language.

"We are Christians," said Bishop Serapion. "We believe in the Holy Bible as the word of God."

While small, the Coptic Christian population in the United States has been growing since the 1950s, particularly in Southern California, New York and New Jersey. But since the Arab Spring began in early 2011, Department of Homeland Security figures show the number of Egyptians seeking asylum has doubled. Unofficial estimates are that 100,000 Egyptians have so far sought refuge in the U.S. Many of them are believed to be Copts but there are no official statistics on their numbers.

"At the beginning, people thought that this revolution was very good, Muslims [and] Christians coming together," said Bishop Serapion. "But it turned in to be[ing] dominated by the systemic Selafis." Selafis are conservative Muslims who seek to convert everyone, including more moderate Muslims, to their hard-line, fundamental beliefs. "After that it was very clear," said Bishop Serapion. "We are moving toward an Islamic government."

Copts account for roughly ten percent of Egypt's mostly Muslim population. Under ousted President Hosni Mubarak's government, they were relatively safe. But with the Muslim Brotherhood now in power, they face growing threats of violence and persecution.

"You can make the argument that monarchies or dictators are often better for religious minorities then our democratic governments," said Professor Dyron Daughrity, who teaches religion at Pepperdine University.

"We are torn in the west in trying to comprehend this. On one hand we think that it is natural to long for democracy. But on the other hand, the statistics on the ground are showing us a different reality almost entirely."

Religious experts worry Christianity in Egypt will follow the same path as the religion in Iraq. After Saddam Hussein fell from power, attacks on Christians grew and many left in mass. Copts have faced a growing threat in recent years, most notably the bombing of an Alexandria church on New Year's Day 2011, which killed 21 people.

"Christianity begins in the Middle East, where all of these cultures have basically become Islamic," said Daughrity. "Christianity only accounts for three percent of the Middle East now."

The Coptic Orthodox Church is one of the world's oldest religions with roots dating back to the pharaohs.

"Coptic Christianity is from day one," said Professor Michael Saad of Claremont Graduate University's Council for Coptic Studies. "We take pride that our church was even the earliest based on our belief that it was established by Christ himself when he visited Egypt."

But while it’s one of the world’s oldest, it’s also faced repeated tyranny throughout history. The Coptic Church has a storied history of oppression, dating back as early as 451 A.D., when it was labeled heretical by other Christian faiths. But as Islam grew in region, Coptic Christians held on, despite dwindling numbers.

"How long will the Egyptian Orthodoxy continue?" asked Daughrity. “We don't know. A lot of it has to do with politics."

The government of Mohammed Morsi, Egypt's first democratically elected president and a staunch Islamist, recently drafted a constitution without support from the Christian and liberal factions.

"The rights of the Christian minority -- it doesn't look like it’s being addressed the way that we'd like to see it addressed," said Marian Bishay, a spokesperson and legal counsel for Bishop Serapion’s diocese. "The dialogue that the State Department has entered in with the Egyptian government since the revolution, that needs to continue."

On Nov. 22, Morsi drew ire with a decree giving him near absolute power, igniting violent and sometimes deadly protests involving tens of thousands of Egyptians. He has since amended that decree and has removed its most controversial element, which put his actions beyond judicial review. The president has not, however, cancelled a referendum on the new constitution scheduled for Dec. 15, despite calls by the opposition.

"That would be a dictatorship way of doing things," said Bishay. "To have democratic ideas and principles allowing majority rule but minority rights, those are things that the region isn't used to. Are the Christians going to be more protected, less protected? Are their rights going to be trampled on or not based on the fact that they are Christians and not Muslims?"

The majority of parishioners who attend one of the thirty-two churches in the Bishop Serapion’s diocese are from Egypt or have Egyptian roots. They, like other Copts around the United States, are not only concerned about the future of Christianity in Egypt, but for the country as a whole.

"The revolution in 2011 was about basic human elements," said Bishay. "We don't want a new dictator. We want democracy."

Bishop Serapion believes the core of the problem is that religion is too intertwined with Egyptian politics. He feels Egypt needs a separation of church and state like the United States. "So long as there's a marriage [...] between politics and religion, there's no way for a solution," he said. "We are going to aspire in the spirit in the United States. Everyone has the freedom to worship, to preach their faith, to defend their faith, to live in peace."