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Coptic Christians fleeing Egypt find safety, support at Tampa Bay churches

TAMPA — In a room hazy with incense, Father Moussa Saleh paused the liturgy on Sunday and asked his Coptic Christian congregation to pray for Egypt.

In Arabic, they sang a hymn for a country in turmoil. Men sat on the left, women on the right. Tears streamed down faces on both sides.

The revolutionary violence in Egypt has consumed the minds and conversations of many at St. George Coptic Orthodox Church in Tampa, which has helped about 50 Egyptian Christian immigrant families this year. They have poured into the United States since January, when large crowds started protesting against then Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi.

Though Christians were not the subject of recent sectarian violence in Egypt, Coptic Christians, which make up about 10 percent of Egypt's population, have come under fire since Egypt's military deposed Morsi on July 3. The Christians support his ouster, and the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist organization that supported Morsi, partly blames them for the military takeover.

Coptic churches have been attacked. Christians do not feel safe walking alone. Some move between houses, afraid they are being stalked.

The Coptic Orthodox Church is the largest Christian church in Egypt, and its members believe in the Holy Trinity and in Jesus as their savior. It is theologically similar to Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy.

Dozens of Coptic Christians have landed in Tampa this year, brought here by friends, family or word of mouth — they are told that if they find a local Coptic church, its members will help.

Remon Ayad, 32, fled several months ago with his pregnant wife. He says his wife had received threats from Muslims who accused her of trying to convert a woman to Christianity.

Stepping outside the chapel during Thursday's liturgy for the Feast of St. Mary, a church holy day, he said he has no idea what his future holds. For now, he has a visitor visa. His lasts until next month, his wife's through October.

Like many new immigrants, he hopes to get asylum. His wife, Noha Moneer, says she's terrified about being forced to return.

Ayad also cannot imagine moving back to Egypt, where he wore long sleeves to cover a tattoo on his forearm that reads "Jesus."

There, he would get in trouble for the tattoo, he said. Now, he feels safe.

A fellow churchgoer, Fady, does not. He declined to share his last name, saying he fears radical Muslims will track him down.

In Egypt, Fady, 49, was a police officer until he retired in 2008. This year, he says, he was stalked and once attacked. He points to a small scar on top of his head. It is retribution, he said, by the Muslim Brotherhood for a police investigation Fady helped with more than a decade ago.

When he flew to Tampa on June 27, he left everything in Egypt, including his police retirement fund, mother and adult son.

He last spoke to them about a week ago. These days, he cries a lot.

Others left Egypt because they lost their jobs. Many worked in the now-suffering tourist industry, running boat tours in Luxor and working in hotels near the Red Sea.

Dozens have been moving to Nashville, lured by the promise of hotel jobs. In Tampa, many who recently arrived do not have work visas and are unemployed.

St. George's congregation helps with the rent and passes along donated furniture. The church is running in the red, Saleh said, but it refuses to turn away fellow Coptic Christians.

Other churches are helping, too. Florida has 16 Coptic churches, including four in the Tampa Bay area. In addition to St. George, a nondescript beige building on Busch Boulevard, there are churches in Wesley Chapel, Clearwater and New Port Richey.

Father Matthew Morgan of St. Reweis Coptic Orthodox Church in Wesley Chapel said the families who have come to him do not ask for money.

"They just need help getting situated," he said.

Christine Eid, 28, received furniture from St. George's church about a year ago, when she and her husband left Egypt. They fled because she felt intimidated by the Muslim Brotherhood, which gained power with Morsi's 2012 election.

Normally, Christians and Muslims live peacefully together, she said. The problem is not Muslims, but the Brotherhood, she said. She and others at the Tampa church do not understand why President Barack Obama and other U.S. officials do not condemn them and support the Egyptian military.

Some have called it a coup, but those at St. George say it was the will of the Egyptian people.

"In 2011, the Muslim Brotherhood started to scare people," she said. "They have guns and RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades)."

Just last week, Eid says, her former church in Egypt was attacked. Now, her family can only attend church during the day. Nighttime services have been canceled for safety reasons.

It is hard for her to picture a future in America, though she and her husband are trying to build one — for themselves and their 1-year-old son.

"I miss my country," she said. "I miss my family. I miss my church."

Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report, which used information from the Associated Press. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3433.

Coptic Christians

Copts are ancient Egyptians, and the Coptic Orthodox Church is the largest Christian church in Egypt, making up about 10 percent of the country's population. They believe in the Holy Trinity and in Jesus as their savior. Their churches are often filled with elaborate icons and their services are highly formal.

In Egypt, Christianity predates Islam, which did not arrive until the 7th century. As Islam became the majority religion, Christians often found themselves subjected to discrimination, though outright persecution was not common, said Duke University religion professor Lucas Van Rompay.

Coptic Christians have peacefully lived with Muslims for centuries, but, today, they consider a particular faction of Islamists — the Muslim Brotherhood — to be a terrorist organization.

Though not the reason for recent sectarian violence in Egypt, Christians have come under fire since President Mohammed Morsi was ousted in July, sparking anger led by the Muslim Brotherhood.

Coptic Christians fleeing Egypt find safety, support at Tampa Bay churches 08/22/13 [Last modified: Thursday, August 22, 2013 11:29pm]
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