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Amid Instability In Egypt, Coptic Christians Flee To U.S.

The St. Mary and St. Antonios Coptic Orthodox Church in the New York City borough of Queens has seen its membership swell over the past couple of years.
Shannon Stapleton
The St. Mary and St. Antonios Coptic Orthodox Church in the New York City borough of Queens has seen its membership swell over the past couple of years.

Coptic Christians will celebrate Christmas on Monday, and many will do so outside their native Egypt. Since the revolution there, their future in the country has looked uncertain, and many are resettling in the United States.

Their population in the U.S. may have grown by nearly 30 percent, according to rough estimates. One church that has felt its membership swell with new arrivals from Egypt is in the Queens borough of New York. St. Mary and St. Antonios Coptic Orthodox Church boasts more than 1,000 families, says the Rev. Michael Sorial.

"I would say probably in the past two years, our community has, if not doubled, quite possibly more than doubled in size," Sorial says.

The story is the same at churches around New York, New Jersey and Southern California, the centers of Coptic life in the U.S. since the early 1970s. Nationwide, researchers estimate that as many as 100,000 Copts have joined a pre-revolution population of around 350,000.

They're leaving continued instability in Egypt — uncertain economic prospects combined with ongoing violence.

Mariana Bolis is from Assiut, Egypt, home to a big concentration of Copts. Her father was a victim of this violence.

"He was a priest, and he was killed at home. So after this accident, I decided to leave Egypt and to go anywhere," Bolis says.

They call it an accident, but the family is clear about what happened: They say he was murdered by Muslims.

Bolis arrived in Queens with her husband and two children in mid-October. Like many of the new arrivals, they arrived on tourist visas and applied for asylum. In 2011, the number of U.S. asylum cases from Egypt doubled over the previous year.

Expenses here are hard even for well-off families like Bolis'.

"The rent is very high here in New York. Around 80 percent of my savings will go to the rent," says her husband, Gameel Gergis. "So it's a big problem for me."

He needs to get recertified to work as a pharmacist. Many other new arrivals end up taking jobs delivering food or stocking bodega shelves.

Fleeing Egypt

The Queens church is expecting a spike in immigration on the heels of a new constitution in Egypt that many say leaves Copts and other minorities unprotected. Ashraf Aweeda, a lay leader at St. Mary and St. Antonios, says his phone is ringing off the hook.

"I don't even know these people who call us — they getting their numbers from people they know in Egypt," Aweeda says. "They call and they ask us, 'How much money we should bring with us? What do we need to bring with us? What type of paperwork we need?' Everything. They wanted to know everything about living here."

The church is beefing up efforts to help people resettle — solve visa issues, get work and find housing, which is no small feat in New York City's tight real estate market.

Despite the challenges, most new arrivals plan to stay put. Many are from the educated middle classes that have traditionally anchored the community. But more and more are poorer, rural and less educated — facts that increase the struggle to start a new life.

At St. Mary and St. Antonios, the story of the Nativity has added poignancy this year. Fleeing danger, the story goes, Jesus, Mary and Joseph flee into Egypt. With a few days left before Coptic Christmas, many of these Copts are thanking God for helping them flee to the U.S.

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Corrected: January 7, 2013 at 10:00 PM MST
The audio version of this story, as did a previous Web version, incorrectly says that St. Mary and St. Antonios Coptic Orthodox Church has more than 1,000 members. The church's membership is actually more than 1,000 families.
Bruce Wallace