Coptic Christians, With an Eye on Egypt, Worry About Uprising

Census figures show about 50,000 people of Egyptian ancestry live in New York and New Jersey combined. Most Egyptians are Muslim, but about 10 percent of the country’s population is Coptic Christian. They are the largest minority group in Egypt and, in recent days, many in the New York metro area have been following news of Egyptian protests with less excitement than trepidation.

In a pharmacy on Seventh Ave. in Park Slope, Brooklyn, Ayman Tawadros, took a break from his role as supervisor to offer a quick tour of his mind and heart during this tumultuous time.

“For two weeks I’m not sleeping well,” he said. “I’m thinking about my parents ... my family, my sisters.”

Tawadros’ family in Egypt is all right, but he said he worries about whether they are safe in their home and will continue to have enough food, with banks and stores closed. He said on the first day of protest, he was excited and thought maybe Egypt could get its first civilian government.

“But a few days after that, the way I see the people react, make me get really scared,” he said.

As he watched reports of looting, stealing, burning and criminals being released from prison, Tawadros said he reconsidered.

“That make me feel like we not ready to lead our country the right way,” he said with a clear, identifiable Egyptian accent. “It’s like giving the driver’s seat to kids who don’t know how to handle it. I’d rather have a driver who is tough, but at least he knows how to drive.”

The tough – but experienced – driver to whom Tawadros was referring is the Egyptian President of 30 years, Hosni Mubarak, whose ouster Egyptian protesters have been calling for and who has now promised not to run for re-election in September. Still, protesters have continued to call for his immediate removal. To Tawadros and other Coptic Christians in the New York area, Mubarak is imperfect – but they fear his hasty replacement.

A few neighborhoods south from Maimonides Medical Center, Edward Tosson was serving customers in his deli. He said he sympathized with many of those taking to the streets in Egypt because for too long the interests of the poor and working class have been ignored.

“They have to do something,” he said. “Enough is enough.”

On the other hand, Tosson said, one of his sisters lives in Cairo and in order to feel safe this past week, she had to leave her first floor apartment and move in with her son. Tosson said he was completely surprised as he watched protesters take to Egyptian streets on the TV screen above his deli’s refrigerated sodas and juices. And he said he was conflicted about whether to support them.

“Yes, because they are looking for better future for the country,” he said. “No, because Mubarak -- if he left the country right now, God knows what would happen!" His fear, Tosson said, was of a takeover by Muslim fundamentalists.

Coptic Christians have been in Egypt for nearly 2,000 years, and as a religious minority they have experienced discrimination. At the beginning of the year, a Coptic Church in Alexandria was bombed. But Christians live relatively freely in Egypt – and Tosson fears the tolerance that exists could vanish.

“I fear another war between Israel and Mideast,” he said.

Tosson’s business partner – another Coptic Christian – spoke more vehemently of his desire for Mubarak to stay in power, at least temporarily. On the phone from his home in Staten Island, Albert Shenouda readily listed the things he said Mubarak has done right.

“Mubarak is no criminal,” he said. “He avoided many wars, he protected country from many invasions.”

At Coptic churches around the U.S., the leading Bishops asked congregants to fast and pray for the first three days of the week. Before service at the oldest Coptic Church in the United States, in Jersey City, Father Marcos Ayoub said 150 people showed up Monday – many more than usual for a week day. He said his congregants were praying for peace and normalcy in Egypt.

“If people cannot buy food, they will resort to other ways,” he said.

Back in Park Slope, at Ayman Tawadros’ pharmacy, the 37-year old Egyptian immigrant considered a question: was he was excited by the idea that Egyptians are taking their fate into their own hands? His answer was skeptical. In his view, democracy is not an overnight thing.

“The people need to be taught first how to think this way,” he said. “Then you put a democracy.” If you try to bring democracy before people understand how to be a part of it, he said, “Then you have a vacuum.”

That is the vacuum Tawadros said he worries about. He does not know what will fill it, and he said he is unsure it will be better than what came before.