WHAT IS IN A NAME ?

Dr Moheb Ghaly

WHAT IS IN A NAME?

By Dr Moheb Ghaly

“Martha is Christian; she will always remain so.”

Of course, it came as little surprise to me that, because of this simple but clear testimony, Martha, a medical student, was failed.

Dr Moheb Ghaly is a specialist general surgeon who has been practising for 27 years in Taree, Australia. In 2012, he was awarded

an Order of Australia Medal for his services to medicine and the community. He is a proud Australian and Coptic Christian. Dr Ghaly contributed this brilliant essay to our book ‘Free the Copts’.

Ein Shams University, Cairo, Egypt, 1967

Notable Copts, there are many—for instance, esteemed Emeritus Professor Dr Emil A Tanagho, a urologist, and Professor Sir Magdy Yacoub, a cardiothoracic surgeon knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1991. But what do these two Copts have in common? Both were denied the opportunity to work in Egypt—on religious grounds—and both left for the United Kingdom and the United States, respectively, where they have achieved international recognition for their work. Perhaps one exception to this is the Egyptian urologist and Egyptologist Wassim Al-Sissy. Unlike many doctors who have left Egypt, he advocates for Copts in situ.

There are, of course, many other renowned Copts in various fields. For example, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the famous Egyptian politician and diplomat, was the sixth Secretary-General of the United Nations during the 1990s. And, closer to home, Nick Kaldas, APM, holds the position of Deputy Commissioner of the NSW Police.

What is common in these cases, and also in my own, is the flourishing  that happens upon leaving Egypt. The act of leaving triggers this flourishing. It seems a great shame that to flourish one has to leave Egypt and seek a better life in the West. But this opportunity is reserved for those who are fortunate enough and have the means to leave in the first place. The fate that befalls those who are not given this choice cannot be overstated, particularly with the current political climate in Egypt.

In remembering my own experiences, I am struck by the systematic institutional discrimination that blights Egypt—and how that led to my journey as a doctor, starting in England and ending in Australia.

Martha

I was born in Cairo in 1950, and lived there until I was 25 years of age. I graduated from medicine in 1974 and worked in Egypt for two years, before leaving for England to work and continue my training. I obtained the Fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons (FRCS) four years later. After returning to Egypt in 1979, knowing the Egyptian Army would be looking for me, I completed the compulsory army service and arrived in Australia with my wife, Mona, in February 1981.

Discrimination occurred in the Egyptian education system. First, there were more opportunities for Muslim students to enrol in their own university, Al-Azhar University, where Christians were forbidden. During my studies at Ein Shams University in Cairo, I witnessed discrimination against Christians, especially in oral and clinical exams. I recall a student by the name of Boulos Boulos, who was told by the professor conducting the oral examination, “I usually fail one Boulos.

And you, well, you are two!” He ushered him out of the room without examining him and then failed him. This is just one example of the blatant institutional discrimination resulting from the name “Boulos”, or “Paul” in English, which is a Christian name.

Later, when I was working in England and preparing for the final examinations, I bumped into the same Dr Boulos Boulos while he was lecturing at the Royal Free Hospital in London. I was reminded of the discrimination he faced in his own country many years earlier and compared it with his achievements in this new country.

I also recall the story of a student named Martha. When an examiner mockingly asked her, “Martha, is that name Christian or Muslim?” she replied, “Martha is Christian; she will always remain so.” After I reviewed the examination results on the board, I noticed that Martha had passed all her subjects with high grades—but failed the subject involving the oral examiner who mocked her religion. So moved was I by her brave testimony, we named our first child Martha.

It is a common custom for Coptic Christians to be identified by their name or a cross tattooed on the wrist. Because I lack a tattoo and my name is neutral, neither Muslim nor Christian, a lecturer infamous for failing Christians did not know how to categorise me. I recall, in an oral examination, this examiner asking me to show him the structures on the front of the wrist—and, naturally, he insisted I show him my right wrist. Looking for the cross tattoo, while I presented the structures of the wrist, and finding nothing, I assume he resolved that I was Muslim. And that is why I passed and received a distinction. This shows that institutional discrimination can be overt or subtle.

Although this institutional discrimination occurred in the 1960s, today there is not even a question of name origins. It is visual; female Christian students are unveiled. Recently, I read in a newsletter about the charity Coptic Orphans. This charity described a Christian girl too terrified to attend school—even fully veiled. She has to brave the bullying at her school and is mistreated, because she is Christian.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Christians left Egypt to improve their standard of living and to avoid more discrimination; now, they are leaving because they fear for their safety and are terrified of losing their lives.

We hear of kidnappings, killings, and attacks on properties and Coptic Churches all over the country. Neither justice nor security exists.

I have returned to Egypt twice, primarily to do some volunteer work and to accompany my daughters so they could experience their cultural background. During these trips, I saw extreme poverty, lack of infrastructure—and even worse institutional discrimination against Christians in the hospital setting than in the past. Copts study and work hard, but are not offered jobs because of their religion.

Talk on the streets

My experience suggests that mainstream Australians are unaware of the suffering of minority religious groups around the world, such as the Copts in Egypt. Take Taree, Australia. It is a predominantly secular community in my experience, and only a few people show interest in

overseas religious conflicts. So human rights issues for Egypt’s Copts are not at the forefront.

Although the media coverage of the Arab Spring sparked some interest, even then it was clear most people were quite unaware of the complexity, context, and consequences of the situation. The Australian public was also unaware of the concern and scepticism that the Copts expressed in the wake of the Arab Spring.

Many Copts understand the events of recent years must be viewed in the context of centuries of violence, martyrdom, and persecution against Coptic Christians. Reverend Dr Mark Durie describes this in his book, The Third Choice, which explains the Islamic concept of dhimmitude and what it means for non-Muslims, especially Jews and Christians. Without grasping this concept, mainstream Australia will be inflicted with the same short-sightedness as the mainstream media.

The discrimination against Martha in the late 1960s because of her name is a mild example, by today’s standards, of the daily suffering experienced by Coptic Christians living in Egypt.

Working and living in a small Australian country town gives me an opportunity to represent Copts positively and to educate the public about the human rights of Egypt’s Christians. I am proud to be Egyptian—but even prouder to be Australian.

I share the feelings of many Copts in the diaspora, who fear for the fate of Egypt’s Copts in the wake of the Arab Spring. The Australian Coptic Movement Association’s efforts and commitment to Coptic Christians in Egypt is commendable.

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