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Georgia and Armenia are rolling out the carpet for Copts fleeing violence and discrimination at home, but they face serious obstacles to settling down.
TBILISI, Georgia — Ever since ouster of Egyptian strongman President Hosni Mubarak two years ago, Adel has faced a difficult dilemma: Leave behind a relatively cushy life in Egypt or stay and risk discrimination and violence as religious and sectarian tensions rise.
Visa restrictions are narrowing his options, so the successful, middle-class Coptic Christian and the father of two says he’s considering uprooting his family to start anew in an unlikely place: A small ex-Soviet country with a different language, culture and climate from his own.
“In Egypt, it’s difficult to get visas to the U.S. or Europe,” 50-year-old Adel says. “We didn’t chose Georgia, Georgia is choosing us.”
He’s not alone. Christian minorities from both Egypt and Syria are starting to look to the South Caucasus countries of Georgia and Armenia as a refuge from violence and uncertainly.
The choice isn’t as random as it may seem. Sandwiched between Turkey, Iran and Russia’s predominately Muslim North Caucasus regions, both Georgia and Armenia have ancient Christian traditions dating back to the 4th century. Their churches are closely related to the Copts and other Eastern Christian confessions.
Georgia has issued nearly 2,000 visas to Egyptians this year — almost all to Coptic Christians — after giving out just 222 last year, according to government figures cited by Eurasianet. The country of 4.5 million now estimates about 2,500 Egyptians live there.
Armenia has gone as far as announcing the creation of “New Aleppo” — a housing development outside the capital Yerevan that has reportedly drawn interest from 600 Syrian Armenian families.
More than 7,000 Syrian Armenians have already expressed the desire to relocate to Armenia, according to the Armenian government, which sees the possible immigrants as a potential boost to a stagnant economy and population fall.
Adel, who asked that his last name not be used for fear of reprisals against his family, said that although Christians faced discrimination under Mubarak’s long rule, the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise to power in 2012 has increased pressure on religious minorities and led many of Egypt’s estimated 5 million to 15 million Copts to look for the exits.
Sipping tea in the offices of a legal consultancy in the Georgian capital Tbilisi tailored to arriving Arabs — and set up by an Egyptian Copt eight months ago — Adel is still weighing his options.
Although he supports the Egyptian military’s ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood government earlier this month, he says he fears the Islamist organization will be “just as dangerous out of power.”
Despite having a son in university and another finishing high school, he says he’s already decided to leave Egypt. Both would face major difficulties finishing their studies in Georgia, where the curriculum differs greatly and would require proficiency in the Georgian language.
Across Tbilisi, another Coptic immigrant smokes in lobby of the small hostel he opened in April. Although he arrived just this January with his wife and daughter, the 39-year-old, who asked to be named Ahmed, said he already plans to return to his homeland as soon as he recoups the $20,000 he invested in the venture.
Despite fears of a prolonged post-coup crisis, Ahmed says he’s confident the threats to Christian communities in Egypt will abate and has warned other Copts not to come to Georgia.
“Georgia is a nice country with nice people, but it’s not a suitable place for business or a permanent stay,” he said.
The country’s entrenched poverty and unemployment makes it a difficult economy for immigrants and entrepreneurs, he explained.
Although the World Bank estimates Georgia’s 2012 GDP per capita as slightly higher than Egypt’s at $3,508, 31 percent of Georgians said in a June poll that they are “unemployed and looking for a job.”
The situation is similar in Armenia. Like the Copts in Egypt, Syrian Armenians have long been supporters of the secular government of President Bashar al-Assad. Many fear retribution from rebels should the civil war drag on or if Assad falls.
Yerevan has gone as far as to offer passports to Syrians with Armenian heritage at its consulates in Syria. But Richard Giragosian, director of the Yerevan-based Regional Security Center, says that Armenia’s sluggish economy and endemic corruption make it an unattractive destination for its worldwide diaspora — even for those fleeing war.
“Despite the apparent urgency of the crisis for Armenians in Syria, Armenia remains a remote and distant focus,” Giragosian wrote in Oxford Analytica in December. “Even some of those now coming to Yerevan may be only treating it as a temporary refuge.”
Georgia’s secessionist province of Abkhazia has also sought to attract immigrants fleeing strife in the Middle East. Abkhazia has been free from Georgian control since forcing out government troops in a 1993-1994 conflict and has been recognized as independent by Russia and a few of its allies.
Largely depopulated after forcing out more than 200,000 ethnic Georgians following the war, it has now invited Syrian Circassians to settle there. Circassians are ethnically linked to the Abkhaz: they were expelled from the Caucasus in the late 19th century by the Russian Empire and many ended up scattered throughout the Middle East.
Abkhazia claims it has welcomed and housed about 400 refugee families from Syria.
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Back in Tbilisi, Adel says he’ll return to Egypt to contemplate his next move after four weeks checking out Georgia.
“It’s a small, mostly poor country and none of us knew anything about it until the Muslim Brotherhood [came to power],” he said.
“It’s difficult to see how we’ll be able to maintain our lifestyle here. But it’s better than Egypt.”