Toronto Copts’ future remains in Egypt

  • October 31, 2011

TORONTO - While Toronto’s Coptic Catholics drive their kids to school each morning, show up for work every day and go home to their families in the evening, part of them is living in the Shubra district of Cairo.

They fear for families back home in Shubra. They say relatives they left in Egypt are by turns fearful about the future and their personal safety or marching in the streets. But none predict a refugee crisis on the scale of Iraq’s exodus of Christians.

An Oct. 9 army attack on Coptic demonstrators that killed 26 and injured more than 300 Shubra residents hasn’t really changed the situation, Toronto Copts told The Catholic Register after Mass at Holy Family Coptic Catholic Church Oct. 23.

Nelly Danial complained the Canadian embassy in Cairo is making it unreasonably difficult for Copts to obtain visitor visas. Many Egyptians in Canada would like elderly parents to visit them for a few months to escape the demonstrations and political uncertainty, she said. But these older Copts have been denied visas, she claimed.

Yolanda Kalisse worries about her parents and in-laws.

“The situation is very bad there,” she said.

An estimated 100,000 Copts (about 90 per cent of Copts are Orthodox Christians) have left Egypt in the last six months. Canada has taken in about one-sixth of them.

With between 11 and 14 million Egyptian Christians, it’s simply not possible for any significant proportion to leave the country, Maged Nashed said.

“Nobody can imagine they will leave Egypt,” he said.

The Christians in Egypt have to play their part in forming new political parties and pushing for an open, secular democracy, said Nashed, who returned from a visit to Egypt in mid-October. While working as a mechanical engineer in Toronto, Nashed oversees a family business in Egypt.

“We must be more and more involved in politics in order to encourage moderate people,” he said.

Farid Danial, who taught engineering at Baghdad University for four years, said Egypt and Iraq are vastly different.

“Iraq is totally different from Egypt in one way,” Danial said. “Iraq was broken into tribes.”

Absence of an underlying set of tribal allegiances in Egypt makes the Iraqi scenario of militias ethnically cleansing neighbourhoods unlikely, according to Danial.

The retired professor is more worried about outside influences — Saudi and Iranian — trying to push the Egyptian revolution in the direction of an Islamic state. Salafist preachers with the backing of Saudi mosques are particularly effective in preying on the discontent of uneducated, poor Muslims, telling them that a Christian elite with backing from a Jewish-Israeli conspiracy are their oppressors.

“Democracy is going to prevail,” said Danial. “But we’re going to pay the price. We (in Canada) can do nothing. We are 7,000 miles away. Who is going to pay the price is the people there.”

Democracy is the best hope of Christians in Egypt, said Hanaa Khozam. Though she works in real estate in Toronto, in Cairo she was an opposition journalist for Al Ahrar, an organ of one of Egypt’s tiny liberal parties.

“With some love all these problems are going to disappear. Right now, they are not thinking,” she said. “We need to spread the Tahrir Spirit.”

The Jan. 25 to Feb. 11 Tahrir Square revolution which deposed 30-year president Hosni Mubarak demonstrated Egyptians have a national identity independent of their religious affiliation, she said.

“Muslims and Christians were killed in Tahrir Square. Where is the difference?”

Khozam’s husband Sharif believes Copts in Egypt should forget about street demonstrations and concentrate on political organizing and alliances.

“Copts, they have to be wiser,” said the former political activist and youth organizer in Egypt. “They don’t have to go to the streets. There will always be some people who try to hurt us on the street... We have to wait until we have a government, until we have a parliament.”

The Egyptian engineer who runs a commercial cleaning business in Toronto immigrated to Canada 17 years ago. Today, he puts his hope in young Egyptians.

“The future of Egypt belongs to young people,” he said.

While attention is focussed on the divide between Christians and Muslims, it’s the generation gap that has been the engine of the revolution, said Khozam. A government of 70-year-old ministers was trying to rule over a country where half the population is under 24.

Rafik Khouzam, a Toronto Transit Commission computer systems manager, likens the Egyptian revolution to the Occupy Wall Street movement — leaderless and arising in reaction to the divide between rich and poor. A vast and uneducated mass of Muslim poor has become a card the Muslim Brotherhood is willing to play, said Khouzam.

“It’s so easy to drive them in whatever direction you want, as long as you tell them it’s for the good of Islam,” he said.

Christians in the West can help the Copts not by insisting on rights for the Christian minority, but by demonstrating how an open, democratic society works, said Hanaa Khozam.

“Muslims need a good example,” she said.

When Catholic schools are open to Christians and Muslims it demonstrates what a unified, democratic Egypt could be like, said Khozam. If Canadians want to help, “Why not sponsor 10 kids to go to school, regardless of religion?” she asked.

The Christian minority with its international connections can blaze the trail to democracy, she said.

“We’re all like yeast in the dough,” she said.

It will take a generation for the demonstrators of Tahrir Square to become the leaders of a democratic Egypt, said Nashed. But a Christian exodus from Egypt is not an option.

“We have to stay there,” he said. “We think it is our land from the beginning.”

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