MILFORD — In the hour before families begin to push open the heavy front door of the stone church, the three men inside are busy, placing Bibles written in Arabic into each pew, lighting candles on top of a piano.
They hunch over a laptop, gathering lyrics to songs. There are no Arabic hymnals, so once the service begins, the words to each song will be beamed onto a screen behind the preacher and his wooden lectern.
This is the new El-Horya, or Freedom, Meeting, a congregation that was started in late January, attracting 40 or 50 local Egyptians and a few other Arabic-speaking residents of the area. Gathering in the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Milford’s sanctuary each Sunday night represents a new kind of freedom for these Christians, who were a minority in predominantly Muslim Egypt, and often harassed for their faith. Now, they say, even more Christians are fleeing their homeland, and many are ending up in Milford.
“Every few weeks we see a new family coming over,” said Michael Habib, 32, one of the three men preparing for the service, and a postdoctoral fellow at UMass Medical School. “That’s why we built a good community in Milford.”
There are no official numbers on how many Egyptians have settled in Milford, a town known more for its Brazilian and Ecuadorian populations, and where immigration, especially of those living in the United States illegally, has been a sensitive topic in recent years.
Habib’s friend and fellow Egyptian George Gergis, 39, began to consider creating a evangelical Christian service in Arabic last year, and acquired a list of families with Arabic names within a 10-mile radius of Milford to see how large the audience might be. Counting the names he recognized as Egyptian, he found 1,400.
Some Egyptians originally settled in the area to be near St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Church, which bought land in Natick in the 1980s, while taking advantage of the Milford area’s relatively low housing prices. But some of the more recent arrivals in Milford, both Orthodox and evangelical Christians, are attending the El-Horya Meeting, a satellite service of the Arabic Evangelical Baptist Church in West Roxbury.
“Milford is one of the most famous cities that has a lot of Egyptians,” said Maged Saad, a chemist. “It is just by luck. We have no experience in USA, but we just asked one friend. He is here also.”
Saad arrived in Milford last May with his wife and their two young children. He feels lucky to have found work in his field, first in a temporary job, and now in a permanent position.
Many of the Egyptians are afraid to speak out, even in the United States, because they fear for the family they have left behind. In Egypt, Christians, or Copts, make up about 10 percent of the country’s population. It is not very hard to tell who is Christian: Copts have a tradition of getting small tattoos of their cross on the inside of their right wrist; the women do not wear the Islamic hijab, or head covering; and some names are clearly Christian.
The Egyptians in Milford say they faced varying degrees of discrimination for their faith back in their home country. Some, like Gergis’s younger brother, who lives in Marlborough, said he was beaten and threatened; others were denied jobs or routinely harassed. And so they are keenly aware of the significance of creating a new church service here.
“Yes, we have oppression over there,” said the Rev. Khaled Ghobrial, pastor of the West Roxbury church and who preaches at the Sunday night services in Milford. “People are not free to share their faith.”
A community of immigrants
It was Milford’s bounty of jobs that first drew large numbers of immigrants in the 1800s,
when the town’s factories produced more shoes and boots than any other in the country, and its quarries were so rich with pink granite that they created work for more than 1,000 men at a time. Irish, Italians, Portuguese, and Armenians moved here.
As the mills closed and the granite disappeared, the immigrants stayed on. And more came. But in recent years, immigration has become a volatile topic in town, especially after three people died in separate accidents caused, police say, by immigrants from Portugal and Ecuador who were living in the United States illegally.
After the last crash, in 2011, some urged Milford to became the first in the state to join Secure Communities, a federal program that focuses on deporting undocumented immigrants who are charged with crimes.
Milford’s Ecuadorian population is the second largest on the East Coast, after Brooklyn, N.Y., said Jenn Lancaster, director of the English language learner program in the Milford public schools. According to 2010 US Census figures, 8.3 percent of the town’s population is Latino.Continued...