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.
‘Yes, we have oppression over there.’
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.”
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.
In the town’s schools, about 18 percent of the students speak a language other than English as their first language, slightly higher than the state average, state figures show.
But most students learn English quickly; only 7 percent are not fluent in English, most of them kindergartners, Lancaster said. Among all students who do not speak fluent English, 45 percent speak Spanish, 45 percent speak Portuguese, 6 percent speak Arabic (Egyptian dialect), and 4 percent speak another language, she said.
The adults who come to the United States from Egypt often struggle to continue schooling and careers they began in their home country. Samy, 32, the third friend who helped set up the church for the El-Horya Meeting, had a law degree in Egypt. When he came to the United States six years ago, after winning a visa through a lottery for residents of countries, like Egypt, with low immigration rates, he found he couldn’t afford to repeat law school.
Now he is managing a convenience store and dreams of owning his own business, said Samy, who spoken on the condition that his last name not be used. “It’s not as easy as it looked in the American movies I used to watch,” he said.
George and Ann Gergis met on Valentine’s Day 2005, her first day of work at the Copy Cop on Boylston Street in Boston, where he was a graphics designer and she worked in customer service. She grew up in Rockland, Maine, and had never met anyone from Egypt.
Eight months later, they were married at a nondenominational church in Maine. At their reception, they played music from both of their backgrounds: Arabic, rock, country.
“When we got married, religion wasn’t an issue,” said Ann, 31. “We fell in love.”
They honeymooned at Niagara Falls, N.Y.
Not long after the wedding, George took her to a service at a Coptic Christian church in Rhode Island.
Ann wasn’t raised religious, and was open to considering a church. But she found it hard to adapt to the Orthodox service, which is conducted in Arabic and Coptic.
The lawyer who helped them with George’s immigration status attends the Arabic Evangelical Baptist Church in West Roxbury, and he invited them to attend a service.
They found the church members warm and open, and Ann liked that there was an English translation. The church was convenient when they lived in Waltham, and then Watertown. But once they moved to Milford in 2011, the drive was too long. George started talking with Ghobrial about starting a satellite church in Milford.
The Gergises’ new house is a gray Cape near the elementary school where their daughter, Eve, goes to kindergarten. Their son, Jonathan, is 2. George commutes to Waltham, where he is a design technologist at a software company, and gets home each day at 7 p.m. He feels like his concerns are typically American: working on his house, raising his kids.
After the bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, it didn’t occur to Ann that this might be a problem for her husband.
“Not at all,” she said. “Because I don’t see him that way. Because I know how loving his community is.”
But as George checked with friends to make sure they were safe, and prayed that no one else would be hurt, he felt dread. The suspicions that some Americans had directed at immigrants had finally died down after 9/11, he said.
In 2001, George was living in Boston, working at Copy Cop. Not long after the attacks, he said, a customer threw her papers at him, screaming, “Your people killed!” He went outside to get some air; and when he had no money to give a homeless man, George said, he called him a killer.
“But now it’s going to start over again,” he worried. “It’s painful.”
Follow her on Twitter @KathleenBurge.