The line is long outside Father Luke Awad’s office after the Saturday morning children’s service at St. George Coptic Orthodox Church; the wait can stretch for hours. Almost always among those waiting patiently to see their “Abouna,” or Father in Arabic, are new immigrants from Egypt.
The Copts are native Egyptian Christians. They trace their roots back to just years after the death of Jesus, when St. Mark brought the Christian Gospel to Alexandria. In modern Egypt, they comprise 10% of the population and are the largest Christian group in the Middle East, but those numbers are shrinking.
As minorities in predominantly Muslim Egypt, Copts have long suffered discrimination and violence. They are excluded from prominent positions in government and society, face many hurdles in building or restoring their churches, and have been the victims of deadly attacks.
Many Copts initially supported the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. After the fall of President Hosni Mubarak, however, their place in Egyptian society grew more precarious. The U.S. State Department reports at least six major incidents of sectarian violence against Copts in 2011, and a death toll of close to 90. In the wake of the Revolution, fearing increased violence and political uncertainty, thousands of Copts have fled their country.
“Some have had family members who have suffered persecution,” explains Father Michael Sorial of St. Mary and St. Antonio Coptic Church in Queens. “Some have had personal death threats. Some are wealthy and are getting out to protect their money. Most are just looking for safety.”
Those who land in New York, even if they were middle-class in Egypt, often arrive needing everything from immigration assistance to food. They seek their help at one of the four Coptic Orthodox churches in the metro area. “The Church is a family away from family,” explains Father Michael. “Yes, we live in a melting pot in America, but we also look for familiar faces, so it’s important for these new immigrants to have a place to go where they can find that.”
Churches like St. George Coptic Orthodox Church in Brooklyn are playing a role that faith communities have filled throughout New York City’s history: offering new immigrants everything they need to gain their footing in their new home.