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Coptic Christians keep eye on change in Egypt

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Dr. Sherif Z. Kaiser, a Coptic Christian from Egypt, practices at the Berryville Medical Center. Dennis Grundman/Daily

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Local doctors part of religious sect facing increased persecution

By Sally Voth -- svoth@nvdaily.com

Whether Berryville doctor Sherif Z. Kaiser ever returns to his homeland hinges on how the future of one of the world's oldest civilizations unfolds.

The physician was born in Egypt in 1965, and grew up mostly in Cairo until his family emigrated to the U.S. in 1980.

"Part of it is escaping persecution of Christians in Egypt," Kaiser said Tuesday.
Kaiser's family -- both of his parents were doctors -- is Coptic Christian, in the minority. He believes the Copts make up 15-20 percent of the population, the Arab world's largest concentration of Christians. His parents were pursuing the American dream, he said.

Kaiser remembers harmony among Christians and Muslims in Egypt as a child. That has changed in more recent years, according to Kaiser, who was last in Egypt two years ago.
"Over the last two years, there's been burning of churches, lot of Christian girls getting raped, forced marriages," he said.

Additionally, Copts find themselves being held back in their careers, Kaiser said, and many have since left. And, there was last month's bombing of a Coptic Church in Alexandria, Egypt.

But, when it comes to Egypt's long-time president, Hosni Mubarak, many of the nation's people -- a lot of them secular -- are united in wanting him gone, Kaiser said. This is due to corruption, which has left the country with no middle class, he said. And young people, with the help of Facebook and inspired by the fall last month of Tunisian president Zine Abidine Ben Ali, are leading the uprising, Kaiser said.

"Everyone wants the change [of leadership]," Kaiser said. "[If] the change is going to mean a good, democratic, peace-promoting, non-religious secular government, then that's great."

But if, as some fear, the movement is captured by Islamic extremists, such as those in the Muslim Brotherhood who want to establish Sharia law, he said, the opposite is true.
"That's what the Christians probably fear the most and also the more secular, democratic people," Kaiser said. "We don't want Egypt to become more like Iran."

If Sharia law is established, women will lose their freedoms, he said, as will non-Muslims. According to Kaiser, Mubarak cracked down on militant Muslims when they attacked the government, but often appeased them when it came to attacks on Christians.

"Every time I come back from there, I say, 'I'm not going to go back again because the Egypt that I knew and grew up with is less and less what I remember,'" Kaiser said. "You feel like you're a second-class citizen when you're there as a Christian. You hear about kids at school not playing with Christian kids in school because ... they're infidels. That's not how I grew up. When I grew up, my best friend was a Muslim."

Meanwhile, Kaiser is in contact with uncles and cousins still in Egypt.

His wife's cousin and other men "kind of took shifts with sticks and whatever they could put their hands on to try to defend the girls, the women and their houses from being [looted]," he said.

Another local doctor keeping tabs on the situation in the Middle East is James Nashed, an obstetrician and gynecologist. Nashed was born in the U.S., but his father is Egyptian.
"I think it's great that people are protesting to get President Mubarak out because I think he's certainly been very hostile toward a lot of groups," he said. "It was a bad place for Christians to be for many, many years."

Nashed's father was a physician, "but there was no way he could really make a good living in Egypt because he was Christian."

"It's hard to say where it's going to go, but it has the [chance] of going the way of Iran," he said.

As a professor, Liz England has had the opportunity to live in Egypt twice, from 1984 to 1986 and 2001 to 2005. Now, she runs the Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages program at Shenandoah University.

"I had a very positive experience," England said. "I was always safe. Life was easy and good. It was a wonderful place for me as a young professor to learn how to work with colleagues from other countries."

She, too, had criticism for Mubarak, who she said has "driven [Egypt] into the ground."
"I think the Egyptians watched the Tunisian situation very closely," England said. "The Egyptians got a look at that and said, 'We need to stand up straight and stop kneeling to this man.' It doesn't look like the Egyptian people are going to accept anything other than Mubarak stepping down and leaving."

England thinks fear of the Muslim Brotherhood's influence is "completely misplaced."

"The Muslim Brotherhood is part of the society," she said. "The Muslims and the Christians in Egypt are shoulder to shoulder on this one. They're all against Mubarak."

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