EGYPT: Maher and Dina escape to Syria

Maher El-Gohary (58) and his daughter, Dina Mo’otahssem (17), flew out from Cairo International Airport on 22 February 2011, after two-and-a-half years in hiding.

On first arriving in Syria, Maher and Dina were elated by their freedom, but their hope of obtaining visas to the USA (where Maher’s wife lives) and starting a new life has been dashed. After spending more than ten days trying and failing to obtain a visa to the USA or to any country in Europe, they believe they may have swapped being prisoners in their own country for being refugees in another. Maher went to a UN office in Syria seeking assistance, and was given an appointment to come back on April 20.

“I feel like we’ve stepped out of a prison cell and into a fire,” Maher said. “We are in very, very bad conditions… My daughter and I divide the bottles of water to live, because there is no income.” As the weeks pass and his resources dwindle, Maher said that the stress is almost unbearable.

Although leaving Egypt was “like a miracle” for Dina, she is just as scared in Syria as she was in Egypt. “We’re really, really tired of all this suffering,” she said. “I’ve lost two years of my life. I want to finish school.”

Maher and Dina are former Muslims who left Islam for Christianity. Maher gained notoriety in Egypt after he sued the government in August 2008 for the right to change the religion listed on his state-issued ID card from Islam to Christianity. In Egypt, It is a crime punishable by imprisonment to have no ID card, and it plays a critical role in a person’s life, being used for everything from opening a bank account and renting an apartment to receiving medical care and determining what religion classes a child takes in school. Maher said that he filed the suit so that his daughter could opt out of religion classes and would not be subject to the persecution he suffered when he became a Christian in his 20s.

Maher and Dina were publicly branded apostates and were forced into hiding. For two and a half years, they moved back and forth between several apartments in Cairo and Alexandria, usually moving every month. Even in hiding, they were harassed regularly by the State Security Intelligence and assaulted repeatedly; once, acid was thrown over Dina. Maher tried repeatedly to leave Egypt, but officials at the Ministry of the Interior blocked him at every attempt, and they seized his passport.

In December 2010, after a long legal battle, Maher got a court decision ordering the Ministry of the Interior to allow him to travel, but it took several weeks for the government to comply with the order. Maher credits the revolution, which started on 25 January 2011, with enabling them to leave, saying it was “a miracle from God”. (The demonstrations that led to the removal of President Hosni Mubarak also led to the removal of Interior Minister Habib Al-Adly.) Maher and Dina went to the airport on 22 February with their newly issued passports, the court order and many documents to prove they had the right to leave the country. Even so, the authorities took them aside for lengthy interrogation.

Maher and Dina chose to go to Syria because Egyptian citizens do not need visas to enter. Although not subject to the same type of threats as in Egypt, Maher and Dina still watch what they say and to whom they talk, and they spend much of their time in their apartment. However, they are grateful for their escape. “Without God’s love, we would have been dead by now,” said Maher. “Getting out of Egypt itself was a victory from God.” Dina, too, said that she is thankful, but added, “I want to get out so I can finish my studies. I want to go into a church and out of a church without being scared of being killed.” (Compass Direct News)