It seems like every Sunday, there's a new face sitting in the pews of the Church of Saint Verena and the Three Holy Youth in Orange, Calif. Most are young professionals or families with small children and some have been living in the United States for a just few weeks.
Pictured: In this Saturday, April 26, 2008 file photo, Coptic Christians take part in a midnight service to celebrate Christ's resurrection, at the Coptic Cathedral in Cairo, Egypt.
"The first waves of immigration," said Bishop Serapion of the Coptic Diocese of Los Angeles, Southern California and Hawaii.
These worshippers are Egyptian Christians, better known as Copts. Their church is Coptic Orthodox, the largest Christian church in Egypt and the Middle East with services similar to other Christian faiths. They perform sacraments like the Catholics and recite prayers many faithful Americans would recognize, including "Our Father" and "Hail Mary." Mass is spoken in a mix of English, Arabic and the ancient Coptic language.
"We are Christians," said Bishop Serapion. "We believe in the Holy Bible as the word of God."
While small, the Coptic Christian population in the United States has been growing since the 1950s, particularly in Southern California, New York and New Jersey. But since the Arab Spring began in early 2011, Department of Homeland Security figures show the number of Egyptians seeking asylum has doubled. Unofficial estimates are that 100,000 Egyptians have so far sought refuge in the U.S. Many of them are believed to be Copts but there are no official statistics on their numbers.
"At the beginning, people thought that this revolution was very good, Muslims [and] Christians coming together," said Bishop Serapion. "But it turned in to be[ing] dominated by the systemic Selafis." Selafis are conservative Muslims who seek to convert everyone, including more moderate Muslims, to their hard-line, fundamental beliefs. "After that it was very clear," said Bishop Serapion. "We are moving toward an Islamic government."
Copts account for roughly ten percent of Egypt's mostly Muslim population. Under ousted President Hosni Mubarak's government, they were relatively safe. But with the Muslim Brotherhood now in power, they face growing threats of violence and persecution.
"You can make the argument that monarchies or dictators are often better for religious minorities then our democratic governments," said Professor Dyron Daughrity, who teaches religion at Pepperdine University.
"We are torn in the west in trying to comprehend this. On one hand we think that it is natural to long for democracy. But on the other hand, the statistics on the ground are showing us a different reality almost entirely."
Religious experts worry Christianity in Egypt will follow the same path as the religion in Iraq. After Saddam Hussein fell from power, attacks on Christians grew and many left in mass. Copts have faced a growing threat in recent years, most notably the bombing of an Alexandria church on New Year's Day 2011, which killed 21 people.
"Christianity begins in the Middle East, where all of these cultures have basically become Islamic," said Daughrity. "Christianity only accounts for three percent of the Middle East now."
The Coptic Orthodox Church is one of the world's oldest religions with roots dating back to the pharaohs.
SOURCE: Melissa Chrise