Many American Christians decry today’s strictures on open displays of faith in schools and in public spaces. But Americans still are guaranteed the right to worship as they choose and not to be persecuted because of their faith. In many countries, those rights are anything but guaranteed.
For Meriana Messiha, a Coptic Christian living in Egypt, ever–widening persecution of non–Muslims forced her to make the difficult decision to uproot her family and move to the United States.
After saving for visas and airfares, Meriana and her husband, Jeremiah, brought their 14–month–old daughter, Trinity, along with Meriana’s mother, widowed sister, and nephew here in June 2008. Meriana’s older brother, uncle, and cousin had immigrated several years earlier and settled in the suburbs of Chicago.
Shifting cultural sands
Meriana says Egypt once enjoyed a
more democratic and westernized culture, relatively free of religious prejudices, which was vitally important to the 10 percent of the country’s population that wasn’t Muslim. In those days, non–
Muslims like Meriana’s parents were free to pursue not only higher education but also careers in fields of their choice.
By the time Meriana was born 31 years ago, the idea of an Islam–centric culture had begun to creep into Egyptian society. Cultish Islamic groups soon established strongholds over the business, finance, government, judicial, military, and educational systems. The situation grew worse over the years as non–Muslims in positions of influence aged and retired from their careers.
At one time bribes ensured that non–Muslims could get good jobs. But soon even hefty amounts of money were no longer effective. Today some businesses post signs saying they don’t hire Christians. Muslim–owned companies are allowed to have 100 percent Muslim employees, but Christian–owned businesses—even Christian schools—must employ at least five percent Muslim staff.
Meriana says there was even a ban on singing or performing the Egyptian national anthem, “My Homeland.” In high school, she says, Jeremiah received threats from Islamic high school classmates when they overheard him playing the anthem on a piano. Jeremiah was afraid because he knew that no one, not even the teachers, would save him from his classmates’ hands.
When Meriana reached college age, the persecution began to affect her even more. She was born in Beni–suef, a college town about two hours south of Cairo. In grammar school and high school, Meriana says, she had had to fight for every good grade she received from her Muslim teachers. She wanted to follow in her mother’s footsteps and earn a bachelor’s degree in physical education at the University of Cairo’s Beni–suef branch. She was ready for this new fight; she knew that her first–year professors would be doing their best to discourage their non–Muslim students from going further in their education.
But Meriana’s mother dissuaded her daughter from pursuing her dream profession. She knew that a career in physical education was considered a rather attractive job, which meant it would be reserved for Muslim students. Even if Meriana got into the program, she would be unlikely to succeed.
‘Most useful’ path
So she pursued an education degree in English language instruction and liberal arts, a path administrators deemed would make her “most useful to society.” Even so, her first year was hard. Though she knew she was doing “A–plus” work, she squeaked by with barely passing grades. Meriana had to accept her lot; she knew it was useless to complain.
She did earn her bachelor’s degree; she believes one reason she got through was that she was seen to have Muslim friends. She taught for a while, then found employment as an educational officer for CARE, a leading international humanitarian organization that fights global poverty. Being with the organization gave her a bit more of an edge in advocating the educational rights of Christian students.
In the meantime, Meriana’s own spiritual life had undergone a transformation. Though she had grown up in a Christian home, it wasn’t until her last year of college that she became a born–again believer herself. Unknown to her, Meriana’s college roommate, her best friend since fifth grade (also named Meriana), had been praying for her salvation.
One night her friend asked Meriana to come and keep watch at the door of her Arabic evangelical church to prevent outside interference during a youth meeting. Meriana could not help but hear the speaker’s message. When the meeting ended, Meriana’s friend saw her standing at the door in tears. She simply asked Meriana, “Am I to congratulate you?” Meriana nodded vigorously in agreement, still unable to speak.
God blessed both Meriana and Jeremiah with college educations, which gave them a slight advantage in how they were treated in society, and He provided them decent jobs with consistent incomes. But they mourned over how Christians without their advantages were being treated and realized the Islamic influence would only get worse.
Even as a little girl, Meriana had always wanted to visit the United States. Now, for the sake of her own little girl’s opportunities, she set her sights on a new life in the U.S.
“When we arrived in the U.S. on June 10, 2008, I counted it as the day of my rebirth,” said Meriana, who is a stay–at–home mom to Trinity, now 5; Daniel, 3; and Immanuel, 6 months.
Once here, Meriana and her family eventually found The Salvation Army and one particular Army church, the Norridge, Ill., Citadel Corps.
Meriana first came to the corps a couple of years ago when she went there for food pantry assistance. Pamela Church–Pryor, the corps’ community ministries director, recalls, “There was an almost instant bond between Meriana and me. I asked what her faith was and she eagerly shared she was Christian. I remember we recognized in each other the Spirit of Jesus Christ.”
“When I first met Meriana, her family was attending an Arabic evangelical church in the Chicago area,” says Pamela. “I invited them to attend a corps worship service. On another Sunday my family attended Meriana’s church, where the message was translated into English for us. It was a rich fellowship intently concentrated on the Word of God. Although they’ve made our corps their church home, Meriana and Jeremiah still occasionally attend fellowship events at the Arabic church so they can easily converse with fellow believers in their native language.”
Jeremiah, Meriana, her sister and mother all took English classes as soon as they arrived. Although Jeremiah is highly educated (he held a responsible position as an agricultural engineer in Egypt), he is working at a convenience store owned by Meriana’s brother until he feels more confident in his language skills. Last year, Jeremiah considered taking a position in California’s agricultural industry, Meriana says, but decided against it after having found such a secure spiritual home and new friends for his family at Norridge Citadel.
Pamela says Meriana always finds ways to give back for what has been done for her family. She’s become very involved in corps life and spends much time volunteering for Pamela. They and their families have become close friends.
Meriana’s fluency in Arabic and English also has greatly helped Pamela with Middle Eastern immigrants who come to The Salvation Army for assistance. Pamela finds it always helpful to ask Middle Easterners what their faith is rather than assume it’s Islam.
“When the initial response is a smile, it’s almost always followed by, ‘I am a Christian’ or ‘I am your sister (or brother),’ ” says Pamela.
Meriana doesn’t dwell on the injustices she suffered in Egypt. “Now we only look forward to this life here. I’ve come to a deeper realization of what a blessing friends are, especially my new Salvationist friends.”
Pamela adds that the gestures of friendship have gone both ways. “One lunchtime, Meriana and her mother arrived at the corps with a spread of Egyptian dishes they had prepared for the staff and volunteers. The food was delicious and the fellowship sweet.”
Meriana also regularly helps serve dinner for the corps’ Wednesday night FEAST (Families Eating and Studying Together).
“My family feels loved here. My children are learning about Jesus,” says Meriana.
Joining God’s Army
Pamela says it was a shining moment when Meriana decided to become a soldier (member of The Salvation Army) after completing a recruits course on Army doctrines and traditions. Her enrollment was so important to Meriana that she asked if it could be delayed until Immanuel was born. She wanted to fit into her new uniform and look as sharp as possible.
“It’s a huge responsibility to be a soldier,” says Meriana. “Wearing the uniform is a declaration of my commitment. I am honored.”
Her corps officer (pastor), Major Stephen Yoder, says, “Meriana is a powerful, prophetic voice who challenges us in terms of many vital justice issues. She is a Salvationist at heart.”
Says Meriana, “Our family is growing, and so is our faith. We have to depend on God for everything. At the bottom of my emails I write, ‘Never measure God’s unlimited power by your limited expectations.’ I have found this to be so true—whether it concerned ‘Should we go or stay?’ or ‘How would we live?’—everything.”