ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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

Egypt’s Miracle Worker

A profile of Egidio Sampieri, a dynamic bishop building bridges between faith communities.

Cradling a large gray rabbit in his arms, the “Bishop Farmer” grins. “This is my passion. I love animals.” Stacks of cages full of rabbits of all sizes surround Bishop Egidio Sampieri, O.F.R., and his two helpers as they feed countless hungry mouths with verdant leaves from the nearby garden.

True to the spirit of St. Francis, Bishop Egidio, as he is affectionately known, loves not only animals but people too. Perhaps it is his warm smile, sympathetic air and open manner that keeps the prelate at the center of a constant swirl of Egyptians, Sudanese and other Africans who seek his fatherly counsel and encouragement.

Bishop Egidio serves as Apostolic Vicar for the Latin Catholic community in Egypt. The post was first established by Pope Gregory XVI in 1839 and at that time covered Egypt and Arabia; Bishop Egidio was appointed by Pope Paul VI in 1978. Al-though the prelate charge is the Latin Catholic community, his ministry stretches much farther.

What distinguishes Bishop Egidio among church leaders in Egypt is the spirit of ecumenism that permeates his words and actions. He is a unique character in a place where religious sensitivities can run high among the various Christian and Muslim communities.

“I am the bishop of Latins, but Latins take little part in my life,” he says. “I am an ecumenical bishop.” These remarks can best be understood in light of the Latin Catholic Church circumstances in Egypt and the bishop own background.

Many Italian Catholics once lived in Egypt: many moved there in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to work on large-scale national projects like the Suez Canal and the first Aswan Dam. Cultural and economic links between Egypt and her northern Mediterranean cousin have been strong, but with President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s nationalization of private properties in the late 1950, most Italians fled the country. When large numbers of Italians left, Latin Catholic numbers in Egypt fell.

Bishop Egidio calls Egypt’s Latin Catholic Church a mission church – it lacks a large diocese as in other places around the world. Because of the past, strong Latin Catholic institutions remain in Egypt, but the actual number of Latin Catholics is small. Currently there are between 5,000 and 6,000 Latin Catholics in the country. (This number does not reflect the large number of Catholic Sudanese refugees, however.) Because of these small numbers, Bishop Egidio has opened the doors of these Catholic institutions to Orthodox, Protestants and Muslims. As the Bishop says, “We are open to anybody and to any kind of need.”

The prelate’s strong sense of ecumenism is rooted in his own personal history. He was born in 1928 in the then very cosmopolitan, multicultural Egyptian port city of Alexandria. His father was an Italian Catholic, his mother Greek Orthodox. Although born and raised in Egypt, the Bishop does not have Egyptian nationality – Egyptian law dictates that a child is granted the nationality of his father.

It was the Bishop’s mother, however, who had the greatest impact on him and his ecumenical views.

“When I was young – about eight years old – she would send me to deliver food to the poor and elderly. I learned from my mother to love everyone, above all the poor,” he says softly.

Despite his mother’s kindness and generosity, young Egidio used to fret about whether his mother would make it to heaven. Catechism had taught him that there was no salvation outside the Catholic Church; his mother was Greek Orthodox. She embraced Latin Catholicism, however, upon the death of his tiny two-year-old sister so the child could be buried in Alexandria’s Latin cemetery.

The prelate says his mother attended Mass and received the Eucharist every day. But on her deathbed, after her 80th birthday, she called for Alexandria’s Greek Orthodox Patriarch. “She knew, then, even though she had become Catholic, she was still Orthodox,” he recalls. “For me, this changed everything.”

Bishop Egidio asserts that what is important for him is good relations with everyone. He minimizes the differences between Christians. He boasts, in fact, that all of Alexandria Greek and Coptic Orthodox approach him for help, underscoring the trust that continues to build between Egypt Catholics and Orthodox.

Along these lines, the Bishop has allowed the Coptic Orthodox use of three Catholic houses of worship. The first, in Port Said, is a cathedral in which the Holy See granted permission for Orthodox services. The other two churches on loan are in nearby Port Fuad and in the Muharram Bey section of Alexandria.

Bishop Egidio stresses that the Latin Catholic Church has entered into present-day Egyptian society.

“We’re in the countryside and in the city, among the poor, university students and street orphans and with Muslims and Coptic Orthodox,” he explains. “This presence is trying to meet the real needs of Egypt.”

Most of Egypt’s 62 million people are poor and the number of Muslims is growing at a rate of 1.3 million a year. St. Mark established the Church of Egypt in the first century A.D. Today, most of Egypt’s Christians belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church.

The prelate affirms that his church cares for Egypt’s Latin Catholic faithful, but is also active in reaching out to the country’s poor, whether Muslim or Coptic Orthodox.

More than 870 Latin religious from 36 communities for women are involved in 20 various ministries in Egypt. They range from operating schools and hospitals to working with the handicapped, aged and blind to overseeing student dormitories. The sisters come from 41 countries and serve at 152 establishments throughout Egypt. There are also more than 200 Latin priests and brothers from 18 different religious communities. They administer schools, hospitals and orphanages, provide aid to the poor and engage in Muslim-Christian dialogue, to name just a few of their 27 ministries. Bishop Egidio is charged with overseeing this work. His face crinkles with laughter as he jokes, “I am like the mother of the bride – always busy!”

There is a limited number of Latin faithful in Egypt; as a result, the Latin religious can serve all Christians in that country, especially the Copts. According to Bishop Egidio, the smaller institutions in Egypt need to become more viable, but are often weighted with unexpected expenses, leaving them with little funds for self-sufficiency. With the Bishop’s assistance, they can count on donor agencies like CNEWA to help them reach their goal.

Because of the high standards and quality maintained by the priests and religious, Egyptians, whatever their religious background, vie for slots at Catholic schools and readily seek treatment at Catholic hospitals and other Catholic facilities. But the Bishop argues that whatever the ministry, it remains a person-to-person endeavor.

“Being Apostolic Vicar is a personal work. Funding agencies want to see nice buildings, a big clinic. I don’t have these,” he explains. “I have families and thousands of children. I see each problem individually. Every case is different from the other.”

As if by example, the Bishop holds up a picture of Qassem Nashed Fouad, a 12-year-old Coptic Orthodox boy living in a small village outside Alexandria. Qassem is physically handicapped as a result of receiving badly administered vaccines as a toddler. Through Bishop Egidio the boy received a wheelchair, but now the Bishop must help this family find another place to live: Qassem’s apartment building has no elevator, and his mother can no longer carry her growing son up three flights of stairs to their home.

Unfortunately, having a handicap is a great stigma in the Middle East. Qassem’s Muslim neighbors believe his father must have committed a horrible sin for God’s judgment to fall on his son in this way.

Bishop Egidio tries to help Qassem’s family and others like them to live better lives. But he shakes his head when he thinks of the more than five million people in Egypt who suffer from some physical or mental handicap as a result of marriage between near relatives, childhood illness or poorly administered medicines. The difficulty, he says, is further compounded when there is more than one handicapped family member.

Unfortunately, “many cases like this exist,” he adds. In addition, handicapped family members are often hidden from public view due to the family’s sense of shame.

The Catholic Institute for the Handicapped in the Shoubra district of Cairo opened 10 years ago when the mothers of these children recognized their common bond; they joined together and started a school at the church for their physically and mentally handicapped children. The Sisters of Charity of Bescançon and the Brothers of the Christian Schools at St. Mark’s College work with these children.

Bishop Egidio says the sisters often start new ministries among Egypt’s handicapped; there are also two schools for the blind in the Abou Keir section of Alexandria and in Shoubra. Most participating in the programs are Christians, but Muslims are welcome.

Despite the numerous handicapped receiving aid, the largest group under the bishop’s care are the 17,000 Latin Catholic members of the Sudanese refugee community living in Egypt. In years past, Sudanese university students often traveled to Egypt to pursue higher studies and found assistance through government stipends. Today, most Sudanese seek refuge in Egypt to escape the devastation wrought by 15 years of civil war and persecution of Christians by a fundamentalist Islamic regime.

What sets the Sudanese in Egypt apart from other refugee communities around the world is that most Sudanese live in urban apartments, often with 10 people or more crammed into one flat. Since only Egyptian children are entitled to free education by law, the Catholic Church is faced with the challenge of helping the Sudanese pay their biggest expenses of rent and school fees.

To combat these problems, Bishop Egidio has appointed two priests to care for the needs of this refugee community. Schools have been established to educate Sudanese youth. In addition, the prelate has opened a small home for single Sudanese women and a dormitory for single Sudanese men.

The Italian Episcopal Conference tries to help the Sudanese by providing some funds on a year-to-year basis. The Irish Embassy in Cairo has also provided refugees with some sponsorship. But the Bishop says an annual sum of $18,000 is still needed for the refugees. And that figure is bound to rise as growing numbers of Sudanese cross the border in search of shelter.

“Most funding agencies want a project with a start and end date,” the Bishop laments. “But this never finishes.” His gentle face turns sad. “There is no end to the situation in Sudan.”

Bishop Egidio has also helped numerous Egyptians to rise above their desperation and discover new lives. After the death of his father, adolescent Emad Fawzy lived on the streets of Alexandria; Emad’s mother found the wild youngster too much to handle in addition to the rest of her large family. Seeing that the tall youth needed direction, the Bishop invited Emad to stay at the vicariate and learn about cooking.

That was eight years ago. Today Emad still works at the vicariate as a cook. He is married and is the father of two children. Emad is known for his delicious meals of roast rabbit with pasta. With Bishop Egidio’s help, Emad has found his new life.

“Really, God helps me,” the Bishop says. “Things happen… they’re like miracles,” he adds, smiling. The Bishop asserts that God uses him as a channel of peace to relay blessings to others.

One man, seemingly distressed, asked for prayer from the Bishop during a service. Bishop Egidio laid his hands on the man head and prayed. After the service, someone asked the Bishop why he had prayed for a Muslim. The prelate answered that he never asks of someone his religion – only someone in need of God healing grace.

Bishop Egidio continues to work toward providing aid for the needy in Egypt. Recently the Bishop said he felt strongly about providing lunch for the children of one of Alexandria’s lower income districts. No one knew yet about the idea, but shortly after making the decision an offering of more than $14,000 suddenly became available.

“Well, it’s another miracle,” he says, his face full of joy. Bishop Egidio knows God provided for the needs of these children.

Bishop Egidio says he does not know how much money passes through his office – he is merely the conduit God has chosen to support others. “I have seen the hand of God in the way problems are solved,” the prelate confesses. “God understands the reality of Egypt. He has made me understand how to work with it and resolve our difficulties.”

The vicariate is trying to tackle the unemployment problem in Egypt by starting small. That where the rabbits come in. The Bishop isn’t pulling them out of hats, though – instead, he raises them and gives them to poor farmers outside the city. The rabbits become a potential source of income as well as a meal for a hungry family.

“We don’t create work, but we do provide the solution for those who feel they are ready to start,” he asserts. “We help them.”

The challenge faced by Bishop Egidio is enormous. Most of the people on the receiving end of this special man and his outreach programs lack the basic foundations of education and culture, so the prelate often starts at ground zero. For the 71-year-old cleric, though, this is old hat.

Back in 1955, as a Franciscan priest, Father Egidio insisted on working as a missionary among the poor in the village of Kafr el Dawar near Alexandria. No one there knew how to read or write, let alone consider attending university; in addition, there were no modern conveniences in the village. By the time he left in 1965, 270 village Catholics had completed their university studies, a large number of villagers were literate and all families had telephones, refrigerators and stoves. Many villagers have moved on and taken positions with Latin churches in Egypt, Bethlehem and Nazareth.

“When I was made bishop, I was told I would serve a vicariate in ‘extinction,’” he chuckles. “As you can see, I am the bishop of a vicariate of expansion.”

The bishop has plans to make the province of Alexandria a “pilot” vicariate. In other parts of the world, fewer people are entering the religious life, but in Egypt more are waiting to enter.

“There is always something new in the church. We shouldn’t get discouraged,” he says with twinkling eyes.

Dale Gavlak is based in Cairo.

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