Coptic Christians in Washington area torn over Egypt’s future

September 18, 2011

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.”

As more local Copts become engaged in the political and religious power struggles unleashed by the Arab Spring, they have been drawn into controversy at home. Many fear Islamic fundamentalists in Egypt are poised to dominate the revolution and coming elections, exposing Copts to more persecution.

A few have called on Washington to intervene. Others defer to church leaders in Egypt, who oppose foreign interference as too provocative.

This spring and summer, several local Coptic groups joined forces with Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) in a legislative campaign to create a special Middle East envoy for religious minorities. The plan was highly controversial in Egypt, and its passage in August drew strong protests from Muslim groups and officials in Cairo, as well as reproaches from some Copts.

“The Christian envoy bill created a huge uproar. The government in Cairo calls us traitors and spies, and anti-Americanism is at an all-time high,” said Raouf Youssuf, a retired State Department officer who lives in Vienna. “Everyone in our community feels strongly about what’s happening in Egypt. We want the revolution to bring freedom and rights and jobs, but we fear it is going on the wrong track.”

Many of Youssuf’s peers, retirees with memories of persecution who are accustomed to deferring to the church, remain reluctant to get involved.

Copts in America have fiercely maintained their identity as Egyptian Christians, even while becoming U.S. citizens and often going to work for the federal government as engineers, diplomats or administrators. They know by heart their thousand-year history of suffering and survival in Egypt, where Copts once held power but now are a small and beleaguered minority.

The first wave emigrated from Egypt in the 1970s, and there are now more than 200,000 Copts living in a dozen states. They socialize mainly through their churches, and almost all marry within their faith.

Most Washington area Copts live in Northern Virginia. On Sundays, hundreds of families crowd into St. Mark for worship, Communion, lunch and child-centered socializing.

The Orthodox services are long and highly ritualized, with bearded, black-robed priests swinging incense and deacons chanting prayers in the ancient Coptic tongue.

In an adjoining basketball gym, children play while waiting for Communion, adults chatter in Arabic and English, and a young priest, Father Anthony Messeh, head of the youth ministry, delivers rousing, often hilarious sermons, illustrated with cartoons.

“Our faith comes from 2,000 years of history, and we want to teach our kids about the martyrs and the saints so they don’t take anything for granted,” said Claudine Hanna of Leesburg, a mother of three. Her husband, Ihab, an engineer, was working in the Pentagon on Sept. 11 and survived.

“We love Egypt, but we are Americans first,” she said.

To a growing number of ambitious young Copts who have spent their lives here, the struggle unfolding in Egypt has created a vital new link to a homeland they barely know and to a faith they once associated mostly with tortured Roman-era saints. Few have taken the plunge like Iris Boutros, abandoning a safe future at home for a risky ad­ven­ture abroad. But more and more are thinking about it.

“In the past, the Copts from my generation only went home to see their relatives or the pyramids, and the Copts in Egypt never came out of their churches,” said Nermien Riad, 35, who runs a nonprofit agency in Merrifield called Coptic Orphans.

Riad spent the summer in Cairo.

“Now you can feel enormous energy in both groups,” she said. “There is more violence, but there is also more hope. There is a huge opportunity for us, and the revolution has already done half the work.”

Pamela Constable covers issues related to immigration policy, immigrant communities and international figures and issues that crop up in our local and regional midst.
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