ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church


Excerpts from the report of a May field visit to Egypt by Catholic Near East Welfare Association staff.

Christianity in Egypt. According to tradition, St. Mark the Evangelist founded the Church in Egypt and died in Alexandria in 63 A.D.. The country became entirely Christian and the center of the life of the Church in the eastern Mediterranean. With the spread of Islam, by the middle of the ninth century Christians had become a minority. However Egypt still has the largest number of Christians of any country in the Arab world.

Although estimates vary, Christians in Egypt probably amount to about ten percent of the population, or five million people. The overwhelming majority of these are Coptic Orthodox, whose patriarch, Pope Shenouda III, presides over the see of St. Mark.

Coptic Catholics number approximately 150,000 and other Catholics, 25,000. Coptic evangelicals and other Protestant faithful make up the remainder.

Christians are found in the large cities and in rural areas, especially in Upper Egypt. Many are peasants, but many others are well educated. Denied access to high government service, most of these are shopkeepers, tradesmen, engineers, physicians, educators and other professionals.

The Catholic Copts are the most recent of the Eastern Churches to come into communion with Rome. Relations between these and their Orthodox neighbors have been correct rather than cordial; however, in the face of Islamic resurgence at least overt animosity seems to have been muted. There are five Catholic Coptic dioceses (Assiut, Ismailia, Luxor, Minya, and Sohag) suffragan to the Coptic Catholic Patriarchate of Alexandria.

Six other Catholic dioceses serve Armenians, Chaldeans, Latins, Maronites, Melkites, and Syrians. Most of them arrived from Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Iraq at the turn of the century.

All but one of the Catholic bishops are Arabs.

Socio-political situation. Egypt is a predominantly Muslim country. Both Muslims and Christians are confronted by an economy heavily dependent upon foreign assistance. Jobs are scarce, so competition within the labor pool is fierce.

In the competition for jobs, wasta or influence, not necessarily merit, is a determining factor, and better jobs usually go to the Muslim majority. Christian youth must choose among long-term unemployment or under employment, emigration, or conversion to Islam. The rise of Islamic consciousness has led to rewarding conversion in material ways. In return for leaving the Christian fold, youth are provided spouses, jobs, houses and overall identification with a resurgent Islamic community. Many Christians find the prospects of majority status tempting.

Still others choose to emigrate. For example, the Melkite community, which numbered 30,000 faithful thirty years ago has been reduced to 7,000. Their bishop understands that, conditions being what they are, he must work to preserve the faith of his people and prepare the youth to leave.

Christians in Egypt behave like minorities elsewhere who feel threatened. The response of church leaders has been varied.

Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant churches have developed programs targeted especially at the young. Land reclamation and distribution schemes under Church auspices have been developed. Programs designed especially for women encourage hygiene and literacy in addition to handicraft promotion schemes. Education in the form of pamphlets and periodicals, weekend retreats and other group activities remind Christian youth of their heritage and that they are part of community which is actively concerned for their well-being.

Religious formation. Vocations to the secular clergy are plentiful. The average Egyptian seminarian is adept in one or more foreign languages. There is a great need for more books and scholarly material on Church history, theology, and religious studies in Arabic.

Egyptians seem to be well represented among the various Latin congregations of religious women, especially the Franciscan, Good Shepherd, and Holy Apostle sisters. Most of the work of the religious is coordinated and supported by the Latin apostolic vicar. They operate schools, dispensaries, homes for the aged, needy children and women’s promotion centers, and hostels for young working women.

Language formation is important for the preparation of church workers in Egypt. Foreign missionaries need to learn Arabic, while their Egyptian counterparts study English or French during the summer in Alexandria. At the Centre des Etudes Arabes in Cairo, the Comboni Fathers operate an intercongregational Arabic language institute. In addition to the very latest techniques in language instruction, the center also offers courses in Arab Christian and Muslim culture.

Another religious joint venture is the National Center for Religious Education. It is divided into two institutes, one for Theology and the other for Catechetics, which are open to lay persons, religious and seminarians.

Additionally, there exist several research institutes staffed by religious for the study of language and the Arab spiritual heritage. Eminent among these is the Institut Dominicain des Etudes Orient.

Pastoral diversity. Many different opinions are expressed by church leaders regarding the condition of the Egyptian church, its prospects for the future, and pastoral needs. Although the Catholic bishops of Egypt meet at least annually, there appears to be little pastoral coordination and a great diversity of pastoral priorities among them.

One point of view seems to emphasize the physical visibility of the church and its institutions and give importance to supporting the dignity of the faithful by buildings. In the Arab world especially, Christian structures are symbols of the faith and the community of believers. If a church is decrepit, its condition seems to reflect on the worshipping community itself – in its own eyes or to the “other.”

Also, under Islam Christians are dhimmi or protected, but their faith is not to be displayed publicly. Through the centuries often they were forbidden to rebuild decaying churches or monasteries, to ring bells, or to hold processions. As a result Christians have come to attach great significance to these outward signs of their identity. They value them for emphasizing differences between themselves and their Muslim neighbors, and by doing so, combat assimilation.

Another point of view expressed a wariness of triumphalism, the dangers of affluence, and an over-dependence on foreign financial assistance. The Church should opt in a radical way for the poor, with church leaders setting a personal example. Decisions concerning the use of funds should involve all levels of the local church. Donor agencies should insist upon proper stewardship of their grants and provided careful oversight.

Another pastoral priority expressed was the need for a regular and modest support for the extensive educational and charitable works and institutions of the religious orders throughout Egypt, in preference to costly investment in particular projects under individual direction.

In some places, there is a strong emphasis on the organization of small community self-help groups for social development and action, including integral child education, vocational training, literacy programs, rural development, animal husbandry, desert reclamation, and land distribution.

In view of the difficult employment situation for Christians and the increasing pressures of Islam, another pastoral goal expressed was that of preparing youth for emigration and the facilitation of their resettlement in the Americas, Europe, or Australia.

Coptic Orthodox Church. The growth and development of the Church is very difficult in the Arab world. Most Arab countries are officially Islamic, although the practical expressions of this vary very much from one to the other.

Christianity in Egypt needs both financial and moral support from outside. Since most of these Christians are Coptic Orthodox, it follows that the strengthening of the Orthodox church, not just the Catholic and Protestant churches, must be a concern for the Christians of the west.

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