Christian fears persecution if sent back to Egypt

Toronto, Canada - He works as a security guard in Toronto, and has a Canadian-born wife who's expecting their first baby. He fears he won't be allowed to stay in Canada to see his child grow up.

"Staying for me is a kind of paradise. Going back is hell."

He's from Egypt -- a Coptic Christian who came to Canada in 2003 to make a refugee claim. He doesn't want his name used, because he's afraid his home country may punish him for speaking out.

He claims, as a young man in Egypt, he was beaten by Muslims because of his religion. His case was heard and decided by a Muslim member of Canada's Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB). She didn't believe he had a credible claim.

"She said that everything I said was almost a lie and she said that Egypt was safe for any Christian to live in," he said.

Coptic Christians are a minority group in Egypt -- roughly nine per cent of the population -- and experts say they do face significant discrimination there. They aren't allowed to build churches without permits, for example -- permits which take years to obtain.

Christians and their churches are sometimes attacked by Muslims. In October, 2005, thousands of Muslims descended on a church in Alexandria, protesting the distribution of a Christian play being distributed on DVD.

The U.S. State Department's 2005 Country Report on Human Rights says Egypt is responsible for "numerous human rights abuses" against its citizens, particularly religious minorities. The report cites numerous cases of "religious discrimination" against Coptic Christians and says there is widespread "torture and abuse" in Egyptian prisons.

Experts say Christians sent back to Egypt after making refugee claims in the west will almost certainly be detained when they arrive, and quite possibly tortured.

"Just being detained in a prison is probably intimidation enough," said Paul Rowe, political science professor at Trinity Western University and one of Canada's top experts on Christians in the Middle East.

"Anyone who is a dissident will also face a certain amount of torture or certainly degrading punishment of various different sorts," he said.

"For sure I'm going to go back to jail and I'll be in jail and that's it," said the claimant. "Believe me, I will not be able to talk. I will not be able to even open my mouth if I am in Egypt."

He is one of approximately 20 Egyptian Christians currently facing deportation from Canada. In his case, the IRB member's decision was overturned by the federal court, which allows him to have a new refugee determination hearing.

Other Coptic Christians haven't been so fortunate; however, and have exhausted all their appeals. They are now being sent back to Egypt the same way they came in -- through the United States.

Some have already been turned over to U.S. custody. At least one was sent on to Egypt last month and his supporters say they have no idea what has happened to him since.

"He's just disappeared. He's disappeared from the record since he arrived in Egypt. He's gone," said Majed El Shafie, an Egyptian-born Christian, who now lives in Canada and runs a Christian organization called One Free World International.

"How can we send them back to be tortured?" he asked. "I think there is something wrong with the system in the Immigration and Refugee Board."

The IRB doesn't comment on individual cases, but its statistics show that, since 2000, approximately half of the refugee claims heard from Egyptians were found to be credible, and the other half denied.

Those statistics aren't broken down to show how many of the claimants were Coptic Christians. El Shafie thinks the new Conservative government should take a closer look at those decisions, especially those cases decided by the Muslim member of the IRB.

"If there was a case of a Christian persecuted by a Muslim and the (IRB) judge was a Christian I would also disagree with that. I would disagree -- and I am Christian myself," he said.

"These cases need to have a judge that is not this side or the other side. Just someone who is fair."

A reading of the decisions shows IRB members often believe Christians do face discrimination in Egypt, but they stop short of calling it persecution.

Board members often cite efforts by the Egyptian government to protect minority Christians. In order to qualify as a convention refugee, a claimant must not only face discrimination, but must also show the state does not offer them protection.

Canada's new minister of public safety, Stockwell Day, said he doesn't think the IRB is biased against Coptic Christians. He also indicated he has faith that Egypt won't mistreat them when they return.

"When that country has made a commitment that there is not going to be torture or persecution then we expect that to be followed through with," Day said.

El Shafie said Egypt has been very effective at making westerners believe it protects its people from abuse.

"The (Egyptian) government is dealing with the West and the government is expecting money and support from the west and the west will not support the Egyptian government until they are sure there is complete human rights for everyone," said El Shafie.

On the other hand, he pointed out, "While we are in this nice place (Canada) there are between six and seven thousand Egyptian Christians in jail in Egypt because they are Christian."

Paul Rowe says people at the top level of the Egyptian government don't actively condone abuse of minorities, but, he says, local authorities are still often allowed to act with impunity. Rowe believes Canadians should debate whether keeping Egyptian Christians from building churches, for example, constitutes religious persecution.

Rowe also said his heart goes out to the rejected refugee claimants and their families.

"I think we should be very concerned for these people," he said. "I'm very sympathetic to their case."

The refugee claimant with the Canadian wife insisted, if forced to return to Egypt, he won't allow her to follow him. He would rather leave his wife behind than subject her and their child to life in Egypt as a Christian.

"She can't go," he said, as they looked at each other with tears in their eyes, "It will be the end of her. It will be the end of my son."

"Whoever says there is no Egyptian persecution (of Christians) they just don't know anything."