As they have done for nearly 20 years, members of the close-knit and expanding community of Coptic Christians in Maryland prayed Sunday morning at a church in Savage, the red-brick building thick with incense and echoing with the sound of religious recitations sung in Arabic and English.
On this particular Sunday, as massive protests aimed at unseating President Hosni Mubarak's authoritarian regime gripped Egypt, the congregation at St. Mary's Coptic Orthodox Church prayed not just for the safety of family members there but also for a resolution to the unrest — one that would put in power a moderate government friendly to religious diversity.
"They say it's horrible there, a mess everywhere," said George Mekhail, a Columbia resident with family in Cairo, Egypt's capital city and the site of the largest and most violent demonstrations against Mubarak's government. "The men are coming out to protect" their neighborhoods against looters who are taking advantage of the chaos in the country, Mekhail said.
Unable to reach family in Egypt last week on their cell phones or by e-mail after Mubarak shut down cellular and Internet connections to stop protesters from organizing, members of Maryland's Coptic diaspora said they have had to depend on landline connections to call loved ones in Egypt. Cellular connections were recently restored by Egyptian authorities.
Their families, they said, have largely barricaded themselves in their homes, with doormen staying on guard around the clock inside apartment buildings. Mona Gobrial, whose husband, the Rev. Guirguis Gobrial, has served as the Savage congregation's priest since 1995, said Saturday was the first time since the large-scale protests began on Jan. 25 that her sisters in Cairo could go out to get food for their families.
"Nobody's sleeping," she said. "They don't know how it went from peaceful to that chaotic."
Father Gobrial called for three days of fasting and extra prayer services this week at St. Mary's in light of the protests and violence in Egypt. As the Sunday services ended around noon and the crowd of mostly young families began to disperse, a woman told two friends animatedly in Arabic and English about the sounds of gunshots her extended family said they had heard in Cairo.
While they fret from hour to hour about family members' safety and stay alert for any bit of news from their home country, Copts here also worry about who will eventually take up the reins of power after the dust from the protests settles.
The Christian denomination makes up about 10 percent of Egypt's 80 million or so people, and in recent years their churches have been the targets of suicide bombers and gunmen — attacks the minority group sees as attempts by extremists to make Egypt a universally Islamic state.
They are heartened, the community here said, by reports that Christian Egyptians protected Muslims from a brutal police crackdown during their prayers this week. And after a New Year's Day bombing at a Coptic church killed 21 people, news outlets reported Egyptian Muslims acting as human shields to protect Copts celebrating Christmas, which they observe on Jan. 7.
The discontent in Egypt, churchgoers in Maryland said, largely transcends religious divides.
"I come from the middle class in Egypt," said Raafat Guirguis, a church member who has lived in Maryland since 1994. "The gap between the middle and upper and lower classes in Egypt is growing."
Nasr Fahmy, a U.S. government employee who lives in Montgomery County, agreed.
"The root cause is economic issues," Fahmy said. "People cannot make it."
But they also worry that members of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's most organized and sustained opposition party, will take advantage of the challenge to Mubarak's rule to put in place an Islamic government that they believe may step up the persecution of Christians.
Forced to choose between the status quo and a Muslim Brotherhood-led government, Father Gobrial and several members of St. Mary's said they would prefer Mubarak's continued rule, though they believe he has passively allowed attacks against Christian Egyptians to increase in the last 30 years.
Their best hope, they said, is a government led by Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who has emerged as Mubarak's leading opponent.
Despite their concerns, some congregants can't help but be inspired by the events unfolding in their native land. Youth in Egypt have benefited from years of access to international media, said Marie Hanna, an Ellicott City physician and a St. Mary's congregant.
"They know what they want," Hanna said. "I feel like there is hope now."