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Prayers for Egypt – Coptic Catholics Recall Experience in Homeland

by Antonina Zielinska

Joseph Armanious reads in English during a Coptic Mass at Resurrection Coptic Catholic Church, Park Slope, three days after his return from Egypt.
Joseph Armanious reads in English during a Coptic Mass at Resurrection Coptic Catholic Church, Park Slope, three days after his return from Egypt.

As Christians in Egypt continue to face violent persecution, Catholic Egyptians in the Diocese of Brooklyn continue to take refuge in the protection of the Church.

When Father Francis Fayez offered Mass at Resurrection Coptic Catholic Church, Park Slope, he did so before American-born Egyptians, immigrants and religious refugees. Coptic Catholics are Catholics from Egypt in full union with the Vatican.

“In time of crisis such as we are going through, we have to prevail and show who we are,” said Deacon Ezzat Feltes. “We have to pray hard.”

Deacon Feltes said that Christians everywhere, including in Egypt, have a responsibility to always live the Gospel, despite the hardships.

Among the congregation in Resurrection Church was a religious refugee who was ready to put down her life and risk torture to be true to the Gospel.

Rita Aziz, 27, said she went against her family when she not only denounced Islam but also converted to Christianity. She was fully aware of the risks when she asked to be baptized, while still in Egypt.

“In Egypt, converts are treated as traitors,” she said.

She said an organization, called Social Security, imprisons converts and tortures them. Sharia law also requires that converts be killed.

Everyone around her also knew the risks. She was introduced to Catholicism from her Christian best friend; however, once Aziz decided to join the Catholic Church, it took her friend a whole month before she could find a priest who was willing to baptize Aziz. She first went to her Catholic priest, who would not do it. Then she asked other Christian ministers, who would also not do it. She finally came upon a Catholic priest who brought her into the Church.

Aziz said that the reason why priests would not baptize her is because they were afraid of the authorities, since it is illegal to baptize Muslims. She said priests are known to bring their fellow priests into Social Security for doing so.

Aziz was finally baptized in September, 2010, a year after she first expressed her desire to join the Church. It took her another three months before she told her family. She said she was afraid but remembered the Gospel. She did not want Jesus to deny her before His father because she denied Him here on Earth.

When she told her family, her mother and brother locked her in her room for two days and beat her; the community threatened to kill her. On the third day, the last day she had a chance to convert according to Sharia law, her mother called in a Muslim minister to exorcise her from the “Christian demon” that was possessing her.

Aziz said she would not deny her faith, and she was willing to die. In the end, her family showed her mercy. None the less, she became so psychologically drained from fear of death and torture at the hand of Social Security that she became paralyzed in her entire left side.

She eventually recovered and was able to find passage to the U.S. She told her mother on the day she was to leave. Her mother, who has political influence, informed her that she put her on the no-fly list. Aziz said it was only by divine intervention that she was able to board the plane. The lady who checked her passport at the airport became distracted and never checked the computer records.

Although Aziz was able to safely escape, her Christian friends stayed behind. Her mother began to threaten them with Social Security. So in an effort to save her friends, Aziz called her mother and established a civil, if shaky, relationship with her family.

“I cannot say I have the same emotion for them, but I still believe they will be saved,” she said.

Aziz was not alone in willing to stand up for her beliefs. Resurrection parishioner Joseph Armanious, 20, said he experienced the power of Egyptian determination while he was in Cairo for vacation a few weeks ago. When the military dispersed a protest led by the Muslim Brotherhood, people in Shobra, the neighborhood Armanious was staying in, knew what to expect.

Shobra is heavily Christian and is used to being the object of hatred. The neighborhood was already organized, and volunteers knew that the protestors would be coming in through a tunnel. So Muslims and Christians from the neighborhood stood together in defense of their homes.

Armanious said that although his parents were scared, he had total confidence that the protestors would retreat. Although he knew of other areas in Cairo where Christians are in danger, he said he felt safe in Shobra.

Armanious also said he noticed a huge difference in Egypt since his last trip in 2009. Four years ago, he said, Egyptians spoke nearly of nothing else but soccer and the World Cup.

“Now they have been politically awakened and religiously awakened,” he said. “People know what it means to be Egyptian.”

He said Christians and Muslims have in a way come closer together, because Muslims can now better relate to Christians. The Muslim Brotherhood accuses anyone who does not support them to be infidels. He said it seems that people rekindled their love for Egypt. The people, who wanted nothing more than to be able to leave Egypt in 2009, now want to stay and help make their country great.

Father Fayez, who came from Egypt three months ago, said his home country is on the verge of something good.

“This Islamist movement is a wave, and its almost over,” the pastor said.

He said he has hope that the military will be able to take control of the armed terrorists in his country, the ones who follow the Muslim Brotherhood, and bring about peace. However, Father Fayez said for now, Christians must be strong.

In Tahta, the city where he served last in Egypt, the Catholic Church cancelled services for three weeks for security because people are afraid to leave their homes.

He also heard news from the village of Arab Bekhog. There, the extreme Islamists surrounded the Catholic Church and did not allow anyone to enter. They also did not allow any Christian to enter or leave the town. Three couples have been reported to be murdered, he said.

“There is no real security,” he said. “These are hardships people have to learn to deal with.”

Father Fayez said Egyptians are strong enough to survive this, since they know how to deal with violence. He knows from firsthand experience what it takes to survive in Egypt. In the ’90s, when he was crossing the Nile River, he said the people on the other side would only service fully-bearded Muslims. Father Fayez was wearing a cassock at the time. They beat him and tried to drown him. He survived because the locals intervened.

The priest said the situation in Egypt is complicated and human rights organizations and television networks are not representing the situation fairly.

“The U.S. and European Union governments are playing with Egypt like a life-size chess game,” he said.

He said he is frustrated because many of the organizations in Egypt, that are meant to help people, are helping the extremists. Being in the U.S., he said he does not know which channels to trust.

He said the best thing for Egyptians abroad to do is to speak frankly about Egypt because people around the world, including in the U.S., deserve to hear the Egyptian point of view.

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