Coptic Christians torn over Egypt’s future


Copts in the United States worry that Islamic intolerance will rise in their homeland and that they will be viewed with suspicion in their adopted land.With a new doctoral degree from Harvard and a stint at the World Bank behind her, Iris Boutros was mulling job offers in the international development field a few months ago.

But last week, she boarded a jet and headed instead into the maelstrom of post-revolutionary Egypt. She is jobless but determined to make a difference in her parents’ homeland, which shaped her identity as a Coptic Christian.“I felt for the first time in my life that I had a chance to affect change,” Boutros said, sipping wine in an Adams Morgan cafe one evening shortly before leaving for Egypt. It would be her first visit to the country. “Many of our elders are afraid, and even some of my friends say I am insane to go back, but what’s the point of having all these fancy degrees if I don’t use them to help my own country?”

Boutros, 36, is on the far edge of an uneasy change that is sweeping the Washington region’s Copts as a swirl of horrific and hopeful events shakes their homeland. Over the past 30 years, the area’s Copts — a proud but insular group of about 3,000 Orthodox Christian immigrants from Egypt — have worked hard, educating their children, building quiet, mostly suburban lives, and establishing a solid niche in government and professional work.

Close-knit and church-centered, they have clung to an ancient faith and bewailed the suffering of family and friends back in Egypt, where Copts have long been a harassed minority in a nation that is 95 percent Muslim. At the same time, the community has faced new fears of persecution in the United States, from Islamic extremist groups and from suspicious Americans who might mistake them for Muslims.

After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, officials at St. Mark Coptic Church in Fairfax covered its Arabic sign so the church would not be confused with a mosque and targeted. After a Coptic church was bombed in Egypt in January, holiday worship services here were held under tight security because of fear of a similar attack.

Until recently, Copts have largely kept a low profile, avoiding politics and policy debates, cautiously watching from a distance.

Now, however, the growing tumult in Egypt has made it impossible for many to remain aloof. Outraged by the Egyptian church bombing that killed 23 worshipers on New Year’s Eve, and galvanized by the generally peaceful pro-democracy rebellion that erupted in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the community has found itself plunged into heated debates over where Egypt is headed, whether to join the fledgling local protest movement and how much the United States should intervene.

Some in the Coptic community, particularly the younger generation, envision a bright future for their ancestral homeland with the chance, at last, for true freedom.

Steve Messeh, 26, a financial analyst in Fairfax who grew up in the Washington area, has become an active member of Coptic Solidarity, a two-year-old movement that presses for the rights of Copts in Egypt.

“Growing up in America, I heard about how Copts were persecuted through history, but I never really empathized until now,” Messeh said. “In our community, reaction to the revolution here ran the gamut from anger to fear. We have no idea where it will lead, but we have to take a stand.”


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