Yuri Matsarsky meets up with Egyptian Christians who fled to Russia from the persecution of Islamist extremists.
“Late one evening I was walking home after a meeting with friends, when I stopped to have a cigarette at the Domodedovskaya metro station and saw a crowd of people with small children at the entrance. By their appearance, I realized that they were from somewhere in the Middle East. They were warming themselves behind the glass doors with a pile of things, looking absolutely lost. One of them spoke English and managed to explain me their situation: They were Christians who had fled Egypt. I took the women and children and took them with me, so as to go to the UN representatives with them next morning,” Karina, the Muscovite who discovered the Egyptian, told Izvestia. “The men spent the night at the metro station, most likely, but the children and their mothers I couldn’t leave on the streets.”
From the UN offices, where Karina took her guests in the morning, they were directed to other addresses several times, until they finally ended up at Civil Assistance, a charitable foundation that helps refugees. Now one of the organization’s rooms, comparable in size to an average Moscow apartment, hosts the ten Egyptian members of the Sh’hetamikail family: Three brothers, and their wives and children.
“Nowadays the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists run everything. It is dangerous to be a Christian in our city of Mersa Matruh: I know of several cases, in which young girls were stolen right out of their family houses, and forced to convert to Islam; our wives and our children have been attacked in the streets, insulted, and threatened to forcibly shave our girls unless they put on the hijab,” says Sameh, on the verge of tears. “They have gotten so carried away that they even demanded a headscarf be put on a two year old baby. We have forbidden our children and women from going out onto the streets at all. But this didn’t help.”
The brothers say that the Islamists, having failed to accomplish their goals, smashed up the family’s minibuses. This was a real tragedy for the Sh’hetamikails: All three men earned their bread as drivers, and left without their means of transport, they could no longer feed their families.
“We contacted the police, but they told us that we were being threatened by the Bedouins, and they did not wish to spoil their relations with them by opening an investigation. We went to our church, but they too fear the Bedouins. Then the people who were threatening us came to our house. There were fifteen of them. They told us that we have no choice. Either we accept Islam, or they kill us,” says the second brother, Viktor, emotively spreading his arms. “Then a member of our church hid us away. We lived with him for three months, while he sought ways to take us out of Egypt.”
The family refused to convert to Islam: For Egyptian Coptic Christians, who believe that they inherited their faith directly from the Apostles in the 1st century AD, rejection of their religion is considered to be a betrayal of their ancestors and people. Even during the revolutionary turbulence, Coptic women did not put on hijabs, while the men did not hide under their sleeves the tattooed crosses that religious Copts carry on their wrists.
The coreligionist who gave refuge to the Sh’hetamikail clan planned to send all ten to the US. But the Americans refused them visas. Then he bought a tour package to Russia, explaining that it also has representatives of international organizations that would help them obtain refugee status.
But the process has stalled.
I took them to a department of the Federal Migration Service, but they were far more interested in myself, than them. They demanded to see my residence permit, which they studied for a long time before finally getting round to the Egyptians,” says Basil, a Syrian helping Civil Assistance as a translator. He was astounded by the officials’ callousness. “They summoned the representatives of the tour firm that was supposed to meet these guys here, but they said that they were selling tour packages, not refugee statuses, and could do nothing but send them back.”
Nobody from the Sh’hetamikails wants to go back.
“If we were to return now, they would simply kill us. I do not feel sorry for myself, but the children, the children should live and should not have to experience constant danger,” says a teary Sameh, catching the two year old Zhimur who was running past him in his arms. The same one who was nearly stuffed into a hijab.
In the office settled by the Copts there are only a few chairs and a bookcase with old magazines. In place of toys there is a five liter bottle of water, which the laughing kids drag across the floor. Their mothers weep at the windows, while their husbands cluster by the photographer:
“We want to remain here. We are ready to do any job. If Russia doesn’t want us here, then at least please don’t send us back home. Let it give us an opportunity to take our families somewhere safe,” say all three. “Maybe the church will stand up for us. For we are also Orthodox Christians. The Christian world should do something already. We cannot survive in Egypt. If the Christians were allowed to leave forever, in a week not a single Copt would remain.”
In the office refuge it is warm, but all the Sh’hetamikail adults are dressed in sweaters and coats. They don’t even take off their hats – they are waiting to be taken to the Federal Migration Service. Or the UN. Or somewhere else, where they could get help.
But the translator Basil says that they cannot count on any help until Monday. Officials do not do receptions on Friday, and then there’s the weekend. Civil Assistance does not yet know where to house the ten refugees. For the time being, they say, the current office will serve.
The original publication: «Или мы меняем веру, или нас убьют» (Юрий Мацарский, Известия). 31 January, 2013.