MAHER Elgohary, daughter Dina and friend, Rania, are Egyptian Christians who fled Egypt a month ago in fear of their lives and are now staying in temporary accommodation in Paphos.
Their sole crime is their Coptic Christian faith and they are appealing to the president and the public to offer them protection from radical Muslims and allow them a permanent, safe home.
In Egypt, the father and daughter have been subject to years of persecution and horrendous physical abuse, which they could not escape even when – helped by the international media attention their case had attracted – they temporarily fled first to Europe and then Maher to the United States.
The Elgoharys came to Cyprus after a terrifying ordeal a month ago when three men forced their way into their apartment in Egypt and made them hold up signs denouncing their faith and saying they had found Islam. Their lives were threatened to make them comply. Afterwards, a story was printed in an Islamic newspaper, confirming their return to Islam.
Dina, a petite young woman with soulful eyes, tells me that if she hadn’t been present at the apartment, she knows her father would have refused their demands and they would have killed him.
“My father did this for me, he protected me, and he always does,” the 22-year-old told the Sunday Mail.
It made them realise that they had to leave their homeland for good if they wanted a chance of any sort of a life, they said.
Elgohary said he faced years of abuse after he converted from Islam to Christianity more than twenty years ago; he had secretly been a Christian for far longer. His daughter has suffered the same fate, he said.
The poor treatment of Coptic Christians in Egypt is well-known and has frequently been condemned internationally, but the Elgohary case has been especially brutal. Maher is convinced he has been made an example of, as his father was well-known in Egypt and held high ranking positions in the police and the interior ministry. His uncle was ’big in Egyptian security and surveillance’ and another uncle was an army leader, he said. His family have always refused to accept him as a Christian.
Another likely reason for his ‘special treatment’ is a lawsuit that Elgohary filed against the Egyptian government in August 2008 for official recognition of his conversion, but he lost the case. The media reported that, according to the court ruling, the religious conversion of a Muslim is against Islamic law and poses ‘a threat to public order’ in Egypt.
In 2009 and whilst living in hiding, Dina, then 15, wrote an emotional letter to President Obama, asking him to save her and her father from religious persecution. She asked that he mediate with the Egyptian government on their behalf and for his help to get to America.
Although the letter gained worldwide media attention, it remained unanswered.
Elgohary said that Muslim radicals have called him an apostate, and that a number of sheikhs, including Egyptian cleric Sheikh Yousef al-Badri, have issued fatwas, demanding that he and his daughter be killed. Some mosques incited people to shed their blood.
Fellow Christian and family friend Rania, 28, left Egypt with the Elgoharys. Her family are also Copts and her father disappeared a year ago. Her husband was killed by radical Muslims. They are now the only Christian family living in an area surrounded by Muslims, she said.
“They tried to make me convert to Islam, to change my religion and after my husband died, they are trying to make me marry a Muslim.”
Elgohary said that he attempted to help Rania find her father and reported his disappearance to the police but no news has been forthcoming.
Rania also longs to be able to live in the safety of Cyprus, she said.
“Please, (Cyprus) we beg you for your protection and mercy.,” said Maher. “We want to have a relaxed life, to start actually living and not to be persecuted for what we believe.”
He is desperate to find a job in Cyprus, as he has little money left. They said they are tired of running, living a clandestine life in the shadows and existing in a permanent state of fear.
Elgohary grew up a Muslim and followed Islam, but while completing police training in Egypt, he experienced a vision of Jesus, which led him to challenge his beliefs.
He borrowed a bible belonging to a Christian friend, who had been beaten, to see what the bible contained.
His eyes water as he relives the life-changing moment he believes that Jesus appeared before him.
“I was reading the Lord’s Prayer and Jesus appeared before me. There was so much light, it lit up the room. I felt unbelievable happiness, I have never felt like this before.”
He explained that the experience made him realise that he was a Christian and wanted to live his life as such.
Elgohary’s influential father abhorred his son’s desire to become a Christian and put him in prison for a while, while his brother told him that as he had left Islam, he must die.
Dina’s childhood and teenage years were marred by constant pressure from her Muslim mother, whom she loves deeply, and her family to lead her back to Islam, she said. Her family tried to marry her off to her first cousin, a Muslim, when she was 14. She refused and fled with her father to Alexandria.
Elgohary said before he married his wife agreed to be baptised Christian but when pregnant with Dina, she refused, admitting that she had lied, in the hope that she could lead him back to Islam.
The couple divorced but kept a good relationship for Dina who spent time with both parents attending churches and mosques during her formative years. “I am a Christian,” she said.
But the lives of the father and daughter were constantly under threat. It was only thanks to a thick coat that Dina survived physically unscathed an acid attack in the street in Alexandria when she was 15.
Maher also survived an attempted beheading whilst walking in the street with his lawyer. Two men on a motorcycle sped up, one shouted ‘Allahu akbar’ (God is great) – and tried to cut off his head, but he turned and was slashed on his shoulder, he said.
The pair were also subjected to torture and abuse for five days at the Egyptian security headquarters, after a failed attempt to leave from Port Said to go to China.
Kept in a brightly lit glass room, containing cameras and microphones, they went without food and had minimal water. One of their captors hit 16-year-old Dina’s legs and feet with a large piece of wood and then in the face, smashing her front teeth.
Her father sprung to her defence and suffered a beating in his groin; he then had some of his toenails ripped out.
After five days, they were released and told that it was due to the many concerned telephone calls about them from around the world.
Finally, in 2012 a judge granted them permission to leave Egypt. Unable to get to America, they went to Syria, their only option without visas, but a country already torn apart by civil war. From there they travelled to France, then onto Germany and arrived in Sweden by train where they applied for asylum.
But it was not the fresh start they had hoped for. They ended up in a refugee camp and an unsolicited report in the Swedish press on the father and daughter’s plight alerted Muslim campmates, who would recite the Quran at them all night.
“We were very scared,” said Dina.
Finally, they moved to southern Sweden, but life became unbearable for Dina when she was excluded from the Coptic Church there. A priest at the church, fearful that Dina’s presence would endanger other Copts, forbade her from attending any church, or for other Copts to befriend her.
Elgohary said this treatment ‘broke’ his daughter and caused her to ‘return to Egypt to die’, despite his desperate attempts to prevent her. Maher, though not his daughter, received a Swedish passport so he reluctantly agreed to her returning to Egypt, but only on the understanding that he would go to the US and find a way to get her there safely.
In the meantime, he managed to find her a host Christian family in Egypt and promised to come back for her.
By 2014, Elgohary was living in America and Dina in Egypt when he risked his life to reunite them. On his return to Egypt, he said three men attacked him in his hotel room, branding a piece of burning hot steel on his back, shouting at him to leave Egypt and never return.
Unable to secure a visa for the United States for his daughter he placed her with another Christian family until he could find a solution to reunite them.
Around a year ago, Dina’s family tried to marry her off to another family member and her father decided that it was time to get her out of Egypt for good. He returned once more. They hope their most recent traumatic experience will be their last and they can finally find a home in Cyprus.
But while Maher has his Swedish passport, Dina holds only an Egyptian one which means she has been issued with just a three-month visa for Cyprus.
For now, the trio are being helped by a church in Paphos, but are short of food, winter clothes and other essentials. Dina doesn’t even have a pair of urgently needed glasses.
They have put their hope in Cyprus.
“We are asking that you keep us safe, that you don’t let anyone harm us and that we can finally have a place to call home,” Maher told the Sunday Mail.
If you would like to help, please contact the Cyprus Mail.