The canal running through Izbet Chokor, called Al Bahr by locals, acts as a lifeline to the village. (photo: Don Duncan)
A choir sings at St. Paul’s Coptic Catholic Church. (photo: Don Duncan)
Kindergarteners sit for a lesson at the St. Paul Service Center. (photo: Don Duncan)
A study group of teenagers meets on evenings in the courtyard of the St. Paul Service Center. (photo: Don Duncan)
On a typical evening, 61-year-old Waheed Zaghol can be found sitting on the bank of the small canal opposite his home in Izbet Chokor, a village of Christians and Muslims about 60 miles southwest of Cairo. In the waning light, he speaks to his neighbors and watches the village children play, making the most of the final hours of the day.
Mr. Zaghol, a Coptic Catholic, came to Izbet Chokor from the Egyptian city of Asaeed in 1970. Though he had arrived seeking work, he quickly came to think of the small hamlet as his home. There, he met his wife, Farha, with whom he has reared six children — four sons and two daughters.
Over 46 years, Mr. Zaghol established himself in Izbet Chokor, a process that paralleled the development of its Christian community. When he first arrived, the village lacked a church; a priest would visit from the nearby oasis city of El Faiyum to conduct prayer meetings in private homes, which eventually developed into celebrations of the Divine Liturgy. In 1991, a small hall was built to serve as a church.
Today, the village — which numbers 1,500 people — is home to two mosques and three Coptic churches: Catholic, Orthodox and evangelical Protestant. Its residents coexist in peace, living and working closely together.
“The sense of community here is very good,” Mr. Zaghol says from his perch by the canal. “The relationship between Christians and Muslims has been excellent for many decades here, even after the revolution.”
Copts represent about 10 percent of Egypt’s population of 82 million — making up the largest Christian community in the Middle East. The vast majority belongs to the Coptic Orthodox Church, led by Pope Tawadros II of Alexandria. The Coptic Catholic Church represents some 175,000 people — a tiny minority within a minority — who share the rites and traditions of the Orthodox and remain in full communion with the Church of Rome.
Under the rule of Hosni Mubarak, the country’s Copts felt a certain measure of security. While his dictatorial administration was criticized for abuses of human rights and due process, it also held at bay extremist currents — such as Salafist ideologies and the Muslim Brotherhood, a powerful Islamist political organization — traditionally hostile to Christians and other minorities.
When, fueled by the hopes of the Arab Spring, Egyptians ousted Mr. Mubarak in January 2011, the nation’s Copts felt a sudden rush of anxiety. They feared the same insecurity affecting their brothers and sisters in the faith across an increasingly unsettled Middle East.
Their fears were borne out, to some degree. Since the revolution, Christian communities across Egypt have seen an increase in church burnings, interreligious conflict, abductions — especially of women — and forced conversions.
However, not every corner of Egypt has endured such acrimony; many communities, such as that of Izbet Chokor, have managed to weather the storm, keeping afloat the vessel of tolerance, coexistence and interfaith love.
“If we had places like Izbet Chokor everywhere, it would be excellent,” says Amba Antonios Aziz Mina, Catholic bishop of the Eparchy of Giza, whose episcopal see includes the village.
Izbet Chokor’s celebrated harmony is no accident. Its sense of community stems from a mix of shared lifelines — such as the canal, called Al Bahr (“the sea”), used by all for washing, laundering clothes, watering crops and swimming — and active institutions — such as the St. Paul Service Center, a non-denominational community hub supported by CNEWA and administered by the Coptic Catholic parish of St. Paul.
“The service center connects Muslims and Christians. And among the Christians, it connects Coptic Orthodox and Coptic Catholics,” says Abuna Marcos Saleh Zeki, who pastors the parish. “The center makes all of these people feel the same sense of community, and so they can connect with each other without any problems.”
In a time of increased interreligious tension, this center’s work has taken on a critical significance, hailed by some as a model for the promotion of peaceful coexistence.
Apart from a few colorful murals on its gable, one might drive past the service center without noticing it. The discreet compound comprises a handful of buildings, some grassy areas and a swimming pool — a point of pride for the village. Although the compound appears quiet and sleepy from the outside, its interior buzzes with activity.
Every morning, a bright orange bus arrives with children and staff, quickly flooding the grounds with the sounds of children at study or play.
The center offers a preschool service to some 115 Christian and Muslim children from Izbet Chokor and three surrounding villages. On a hot day, a number of the preschoolers spend their playtime in an inflatable pool. Preschool Principal Nagwa Youssef sprays them with cool water from a hose, eliciting shrieks of laughter.
“The mix of religions enables the kids to know each other and their differences and to deal with those differences,” she says, “so when they go on to public school, they will be able to deal with everyone they meet. They won’t feel that others are strangers.”
Once through with preschool, the children attend public school in nearby El Faiyum. As public schools in Egypt are generally poor — a report from the World Economic Forum published in September ranks Egypt’s primary education quality in the bottom five worldwide — the service center at Izbet Chokor organizes classes and extra tutoring for children in primary and secondary school. In the summer, special intensive catch-up sessions are organized where students can review and clarify what they had covered at school during the year.
A stone’s throw from the preschool, three infants with special needs snack on a mid-morning yogurt in one of the classrooms. In the next room, special-needs teenagers thread beads to make necklaces.
“We try to advance several areas of learning at the same time,” says Mary Abu Seif, a volunteer teacher at the special-needs section. Lessons focus on general mobility, life skills such as personal hygiene and general cognitive function through games and puzzles.
On the second floor of the building, a group of young women file into an arts workshop where they sit at sewing machines or around craft tables. This workshop works to empower women by teaching them trade skills they have not acquired at home, such as dress and jewelry making. The hope is that they can eventually monetize these new skills to improve their respective life situations. It is also an occasion for Muslim and Christian women to work together, to learn from each other and to grow as one community.
“When I speak to someone here I don’t think about whether she is a Muslim or a Christian,” says Jihane Eid, a Muslim resident of Izbet Chokor and an attendee of the workshop. “Above all, I am speaking to a human being. I never think of ‘us’ and ‘them’; we are all together here.”
The center also serves other, less formal functions.
The Christian Youth Club meets one evening a week for recreation and catechism. This week, they are gathered around a television watching Charlie Chaplin’s “The Kid,” giggling periodically at the shenanigans on the screen. Once the film ends, a discussion begins on how small gestures — such as Chaplin’s gesture of helping the child in the film — can have a large impact on the lives of others. Sister Salwa, one of two sisters from the convent of the Little Sisters of Jesus, a short walk down the road from the center, steers the conversation. She asks if anyone can think of examples of such small gestures in their own lives.
“I have a friend who is sick and I go visit him,” pipes up Samih Magdih.
“In the Gospel of St. Matthew, Jesus says: ‘When I was hungry you gave me to eat. When I was thirsty, you gave me to drink.’ These little gestures are what matter,” adds Ossama Aantar, another young club member.
“The model for this is Jesus,” concludes Madonna Mandoh, the only girl in the group.
While the youth club is underway inside, another group of teenagers has gathered in the center’s grassy inner courtyard to study and socialize. There, they huddle in the dying light of sunset, discussing mathematics, their faces lighted up by the shining screens of their laptops.
“The service center is helping people here to go beyond school and go to university,” says Abuna Zeki. “We reinforce and improve on the education the youth are getting. We are also raising the standard of health care here.”
The service center’s primary care clinic is the first stop in health care for everyone in and around Izbet Chokor, regardless of religion. The clinic consists of a reception, a handful of treatment cubicles and a dispensary.
While there are nurses constantly present at the clinic, on specific days of the week, a physiotherapist and a dermatologist hold visiting hours to treat specific needs.
Once a week, in another building in the complex, the center runs its Mother and Child Wellbeing clinic. This pre- and postnatal health project has been running for 15 years. Currently, it helps some 70 women and their children.
“The first challenge we face regarding maternal and child care is unawareness, then poverty and then illiteracy,” says Sister Salwa. Once a week, Sister Salwa and Dr. Hanne Lufti present relevant information to the women on aspects of maternal and infant health. At the end of the seminar, Dr. Lufti holds a clinic where she can treat or advise the participants.
“I try to make the most of the doctor’s knowledge and presence,” says Amal Ramandan Orabi, a mother of three from Izbet Chokor.
Since 1970, the year Waheed Zaghol first set foot in Izbet Chokor, the Christians and Muslims of his generation have witnessed a progressive development of services, culminating in a prolific community center.
Mr. Zaghol’s sons, Mourad and Wael, helped build various parts of the center. His grandchildren attend its preschool. Wael’s wife, Hanen, teaches in the center’s special-needs section. Mourad’s wife utilizes the services of the mother and child clinic.
In this respect, the Zaghol family is not exceptional. The St. Paul Service Center’s success — and indeed the success of Izbet Chokor as a haven of interfaith harmony — owes to the simple fact that everyone in the village has a stake in building that reality. The center merely crystallizes this shared will.
“Yes, the service center is special. It’s the banner of the village,” Mr. Zaghol says. “But there is still room for improvement. We need to upgrade and we need to expand more in health and education.”
While the establishment of basic health and educational services has long been a priority for the church in Izbet Chokor, these efforts have recently been accompanied by physical, infrastructural improvements to aspects to the village.
For example, a project called the Samaritan Homes seeks to ease the hardship of single or widowed mothers by renovating their homes and offering the women a monthly stipend for essentials. So far, 18 women and their children have benefited.
Another area of improvement concerns the canal; because many residents also use it as a dump for sewage and trash, Al Bahr is becoming a toxic lifeline.
“The kids would go swimming in the canal, and they catch all sorts of diseases including liver and kidney infections,” says Sister Hél&egrvae;ne, of the Little Sisters of Jesus.
A long-term goal of the church is to provide proper sewage disposal for the village and to dredge the canal — a costly and time-consuming proposal. In the meantime, the church has an interim solution: the swimming pool.
Come early evening, the pool is easily the most animated feature of the service center.
A recent hot evening saw the pool filled with children on summer camp, visiting from their Coptic Catholic parish in Manhary village, near the city of Minya, some 110 miles south of Izbet Chokor.
“Izbet Chokor is quiet and there is space and calm for us to do what we wish,” says Joe Bishay, 15, who works as a lifeguard.
The campers, between 10 and 12 years old, splash around with wild abandon. Their parish priest, Abuna Fady Farouk, challenges those nearby to a game — to plunge underwater and try to hold their breaths for as long as possible. They all submerge in unison and then, one by one, they breach the surface like strange hyperactive sea creatures, gasping for air.
“Izbet Chokor means a lot to us,” says Abuna Farouk. “It’s very important that there exist other Christian places like this. It gives us a sense of hope and it inspires us to try similar projects in our own village.”
This cross-pollination of ideas and approaches might prove to be a steady, continuous countercurrent to the forces of ignorance currently dividing Egypt.
In so large a country, however, Izbet Chokor remains but a tiny point of light.
“We need to see what is happening there on the level of the nation, all over Egypt,” says Amba Antonios. “Then Egypt can truly start out in the right direction.”
A regular contributor to ONE, Don Duncan has covered the Middle East and Africa for The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, The New York Times and Agence France Presse.