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

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


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

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On Monday, Coptic Christians will celebrate Christmas and many of them will do so outside their native Egypt. Copts have practiced their faith there for nearly 2,000 years, but with the recent revolution, their future in the country looks uncertain. Many are resettling in the United States, where analysts estimate the population has grown by nearly 30 percent since the Arab Spring began. Reporter Bruce Wallace has the story of new immigrants flocking to a church in Queens, New York.

BRUCE WALLACE, BYLINE: Cymbals keep time with chanting at a recent service at St. Mary and St. Antonios Coptic Orthodox Church in Ridgewood, Queens. It's the end of Kiahk, the Coptic month before Christmas. A priest coaxes clouds of incense out of a golden censer. People file in and out. Children shuffle between moms sitting to the right of the church and dads across the aisle to the left.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER: They used to live in Nazareth. Because of the census they went to Bethlehem.

WALLACE: In the basement, a church elder walks 60 college-age churchgoers through stories of Jesus' birth. The small room is overflowing. So is the church.

FATHER MICHAEL SORIAL: I would say probably in the last two years our community has, if not doubled, quite possibly more than doubled in size.

WALLACE: Father Michael Sorial says the small church now has over a thousand members, its numbers ballooning with new arrivals from Egypt. [POST-BROADCAST CLARIFICATION: The church's membership is actually more than 1,000 families.]

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, home to a big concentration of Copts. Her father was a victim of this violence.

MARIANA BOLIS: He was a priest and he was killed at home. So after this accident I decided to leave Egypt and to go anywhere.

WALLACE: 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 the middle of October. Like many of the new arrivals, they came 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'. Gameel Gergis is her husband.

GAMEEL GERGIS: The rent is very high here in New York, yeah. Around 80 percent of my savings will go to the rent. So it's a big problem for me.

WALLACE: He needs to get recertified to work as a pharmacist. Many other new arrivals end up taking jobs delivering food or stocking bodega shelves. The church expects a spike in immigration on the heels of a new constitution in Egypt that many say leaves Copts and other minorities unprotected. Ashraf Aweeda is a lay leader at St. Mary. He says his phone is ringing off the hook.

ASHRAF AWEEDA: I don't even know these people who call us. They getting the numbers from people they know in Egypt. And, yes, they calling to 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 want to know everything about living here.

WALLACE: The church is beefing up efforts to help people resettle, solve visa issues, get work and find housing. No small feat in this 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.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER: She gave birth in Bethlehem and then the angel appeared to her to go where? Egypt.

WALLACE: Escaping 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. For NPR News, I'm Bruce Wallace in Queens.

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