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Persecuted in Egypt, refugees move to Brooklyn

Egypt’s Coptic Christians seek solace in Dyker Heights

Brooklyn Daily

The congregation at Father Mina Yanni’s Dyker Heights church swelled in the two years since Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was forced from office, as Coptic Christians fleeing persecution have made their way to the place where so many refugees before them sought freedom — Brooklyn.

So on Sunday, there was a standing-room-only crowd at the Coptic Orthodox Church of Saint George at 67th Street and 11th Avenue listening to the pastor’s message of hope. God, he said, had blessed the Egyptian people, but it is sometimes necessary to relocate when faced with danger. That doesn’t mean you can’t go home again, and you must always keep the faith.

“Sometimes in our life, there is trouble, bad things happen,” said Yanni. “But we must be sure that the Lord will always be with us.”

Four-hundred refugees have joined the borough’s only Coptic church since the overthrow of Mubarak, which sent shockwaves through the Middle East. When the strongman fell from power, the Coptics lost the small measure of stability his regime provided — and anti-Christian violence and the threat of harsh Islamist rule pushed the sect to Dyker Heights, according to Yanni.

“People are afraid, and they want to come to a safer place,” said Yanni. “And the best safer place in the world is the United States of America.”

His congregants claim to be living proof.

Dr. Abd El-Mesih (the name he gave us, which translates to “servant of the messiah”) said Muslim extremists in his homeland attempted to take him hostage, which forced the orthopedist to close his clinic for three and a half months. When he finally thought it was safe to re-open, he quickly realized he was wrong.

Days after going back to work, his office was raided by men who stole valuable instruments and beat the doctor with their fists and sticks. El-Mesih claimed that he suffered multiple contusions, a concussion, a dislocated shoulder, and a fractured spine. That was enough for him. He closed his shop in March and fled to a land he became familiar with when he attended an orthopedists conference in Brooklyn last year.

El-Mesih said that the extremists are intimidating and extorting well-to-do Coptics, holding many of them for ransom.

Albert Assad, the son of a wealthy Coptic jeweler, came to Brooklyn with his wife and three young daughters two months ago after radicals repeatedly threatened to kidnap one the girls. Assad said three Christians near his township had been killed in the past year, and that radicals had snatched the son of one of his friends and held the 15-year-old boy, demanding $200,000 for his safe return.

Assad believes the failure to stop the chaos is a sign that the new leadership, headed by President Mohamed Morsi, is soft on terrorism.

“They see the threat, and they don’t do anything about it, so they are okay with it,” said Assad.

Former teacher Sally Amany said she and her husband — also a jeweler — brought their three daughters to Brooklyn in July 2012 after a friend was shot and robbed in his shop, causing the family to fear they would be targeted, too.

“My husband meets some bad people in his work,” said Amany. “And they aren’t going to kill a rich Muslim jewelry dealer.”

Still, the refugees said they believe that democracy will eventually bring peace to the nation, since they believe the majority of their countrymen don’t want an extremist government.

“The Egyptian people are smart,” said Assad. “We will return to Egypt once the situation improves.”

Until then, they have Brooklyn to keep them safe.

Reach reporter Will Bredderman at wbredderman@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260-4507. Follow him at twitter.com/WillBredderman.

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Reader Feedback

Johanna Elattar-Hill from Sheepshead Bay says:
I'm sorry to hear about all that is happening in Egypt. I'm an American-Egyptian Muslim woman who was raised here in Brooklyn and it saddens me that Egyptians who happen to be Coptic cannot stay in their own country because of thugs that have taken over. These terrorists are a cancer to Egypt. As a child, I had many Coptic Egyptian friends and their families always welcomed me into their homes. I never knew there was a difference between myself and my friends because I was not raised to hate by my parents. I hope that this situation will be rectified, but in the meantime, Brooklyn is a great place even if you are homesick.
Jan. 18, 2013, 6:30 pm

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