[lg policy] Georgia: Land of Exile for Egypt=?windows-1252?Q?=92s_?=Coptic Christians
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Thu Aug 1 21:38:11 UTC 2013
Georgia: Land of Exile for Egypt’s Coptic Christians
June 11, 2013 - 2:51pm, by Regis Gente
Increasingly under pressure in Egypt, the Copts, one of the world’s oldest
Christian communities, are starting to migrate to Georgia, a bastion of
Orthodox Christianity in the South Caucasus. But the transition is not
entirely a smooth one.
In Egypt, violent clashes between Copts and Muslims have been on the rise
since the 2011 ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak, with many
Christians reportedly preferring to leave than experience continuing
harassment and discrimination. Earlier this month, the US Commission on
International Religious Freedom announced that Egypt “is failing to meet
international religious-freedom standards.”
Copts, who classify themselves as an Orthodox Christian denomination, say
that Georgia’s strong Orthodox Christian heritage – Eastern Christianity
took root here in the 4th century – motivated them to make the move. The
country’s relative proximity (Tbilisi is roughly a two-and-a-half-hour
flight from Cairo) and reputation for relatively lax business and visa
regulations also played a role.
Around 2,500 Coptic Egyptians currently live in Georgia, according to the
Ministry of Justice’s Public Service Development Agency, which manages
residence data. Most arrived this year and live in the Georgian capital,
Tbilisi; a few hundred have settled a few hours’ drive to the west in the
parliamentary seat of Kutaisi.
The focal point for the Coptic community has become a Catholic church in
downtown Tbilisi that allows the Copts to use its sanctuary. Each Wednesday
morning, hundreds gather for a two-and-a-half-hour mass, rich with the
smell of incense, the sound of cymbals and the haunting melody of songs in
Coptic and Arabic.
“We came here because in Egypt there were a lot of commercials saying
‘Welcome [to] Georgia,’” explained Samir, a young father of two, who moved
to Tbilisi from Alexandria four months ago. “As it is also an Orthodox
country, we thought it was the right decision to move here.”
Many more Coptic Egyptians may opt for Georgia in the near future,
predicted Father Johan, a priest from Egypt’s Saint Anthony Monastery who
came to Georgia in May. Land has been purchased on the outskirts of Tbilisi
for a Coptic Orthodox Church, he added.
But not everything has proven to be easy.
First, there are matters spiritual. While the Copts consider themselves to
be an Orthodox denomination, the leaders of the Georgian Orthodox Church do
not. Theological differences separate the two, explained Father Iakob
Tchitchilidze, a professor at the Georgian Orthodox Church’s Spiritual
Academy. “That’s why they can’t even pray in our churches,” he elaborated,
adding that the Church has “nothing against” the Copts themselves.
No doubt aware of that point of view, the Copts nevertheless want Georgian
Patriarch Ilia II to bless their intended church building, according to
Father Johan. As yet, the issue has not been decided. The Georgian Orthodox
Church generally has not extended such blessings to other Christian
denominations; in 2011, it initially strongly opposed allowing religious
minorities to be registered as legal organizations.
Father Johan, though, projected that the head of the Coptic Orthodox
Church, Pope Tawadros II, could pay a visit to Tbilisi to discuss the
opening of a Coptic church with the patriarch.
But even if common ground can be found on doctrinal issues, there are
secular matters also causing friction. Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani has
announced that the government plans to review Georgia’s liberal visa
regime. While country quotas do not exist, “we are already more inclined to
deny visas to people from some countries,” said Levan Samadashvili,
chairperson of the Public Service Development Agency. The Ministry of
Internal Affairs, which is giving a security advisory for each long-term
visa demand, “has set the standards’ bar higher,” he said.
So far in 2013, Georgia had granted over 1,740 visas to Egyptian citizens,
more than a seven-fold increase over the 222 visas given to Egyptians
during all of 2012. Some 280 permanent residence permits so far also have
been given out; 740 Egyptians already had one.
Denials also are noticeable; 290 visa and 300 residence-permit requests
have been rejected so far this year. Samir, who operates a small restaurant
in Tbilisi, says that he and his family are among those recently denied
one-year visas. “Why? I don’t know,” he complained. “They said ‘Welcome in
Georgia,’ and now they don’t renew our visas. … They are playing with our
Kyrillo, a young businessman from Alexandria who runs a household-goods
store in the shabby-chic Tbilisi neighborhood of Sololaki, says the same.
“So, I’m already searching on [the] Internet [for] another country where we
could go,” he said. “Moreover, business doesn’t work here. People are poor.”
Many Copts come to Georgia just for a few weeks, to figure out how to open
a business and to see if they can bring their family here.
Many are traders, who complain about the size of the Georgian market. At
roughly 4.6 million people, Georgia is not much bigger than Egypt’s second
largest city of Alexandria. Annual per capita incomes in Georgia and Egypt,
however, are similar -- $5,900 compared with $6,600, according to the
Central Intelligence Agency World Factbook.
While those Copts interviewed by EurasiaNet.org say that they appreciate
the ease with which businesses can be set up in Georgia and the lack of
corruption, most claim that they hardly make any money.
“A lot are losing their savings here, so they have to go back to Egypt,”
commented one young man from Cairo who has opened a car-rental company in
But others are willing to wait on Georgia despite the difficulties. “I see
that there are a lot of problems for us here, but, still, this is a
Christian country and I hope we’ll always be welcome,” said Samuel, who
runs a telecom business in the Alexandria region.
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