Christians celebrate Meskel, the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross in the Ethiopian Church. (photo: Petterik Wiggers)
Manal Malek Abdo lives in Izbet Chokor, an Egyptian village. (photo: Don Duncan)
Ethiopian sisters provide safe and loving educational environments for children with disabilities, such as blindness. (photo: Gabriel Delmonaco)
Carved into a mountain near Cairo, the Monastery of St. Simon the Tanner serves the Zabbaleen, a population of Christian garbage collectors. (photo: John E. Kozar)
The Ethiopian Catholic bishop of Emdibir celebrates the Divine Liturgy at St. Anthony of Padua Cathedral. (photo: John E. Kozar)
Manal Malek Abdo professes a dynamic experience of faith — faith lived through deeds.
“All of my actions say I am a Christian, that I follow Christ’s way,” she says, sitting in her living room in central Egypt. “From Christianity, I learned how to live by example and to love others through my work.”
For thousands of years, ethnic Christians — or Copts — have formed a major constituency of the Church of Alexandria, which in Africa includes a number of other Eastern churches, Catholic and Orthodox.
For centuries, relations among these Christian communities have been rocky, even hostile. And while leaders are working together to strengthen the bonds of unity, Catholic Copts in villages say they feel more uneasy with their Orthodox Copt brethren than with their Muslim neighbors. In Izbet Chokor, a village near the city of El Faiyum some 60 miles southwest of Cairo, one Catholic, Mrs. Abdo, builds bridges to strengthen the two sister churches.
The youngest of seven children born to a family in El Faiyum, she began her faith formation in the Orthodox tradition. She attended a Coptic school, and credits her family with instilling both a strong connection to their parish and an active inner life.
“What I learned from my parents,” she says, “was to listen for God’s voice everywhere, regardless of where that might be.”
This lesson would inform one of the most important decisions in her life when, at age 24, she married her beloved, Ramsis — a Catholic Copt.
“We first met at a clinic near my work,” she says. Her future husband had accompanied his sister to have her infant son inoculated. “I was teaching in a school; he was working three doors down from the school.”
Some had objected to their marriage, which also led to Manal’s reception into the Catholic Church. Although saddened by the controversy surrounding the marriage, she took comfort in her family’s support.
“My father had no problem whatsoever with the marriage and becoming Catholic. He said: ‘Do as you feel.’ We prayed and we looked for a sign that it would all be fine.”
Listening for God’s voice and looking for signs would help her through the difficult times that followed her marriage as well, especially when her infant daughter died suddenly.
“I first had a dream that I would be having a baby and to be ready for pregnancy. Then, before my daughter died, I had another dream telling me that this daughter was not for me,” she says. “This was God talking to me again in dreams and letting me know what to prepare for. These signs helped me to know before the tragedy struck and so to prepare for it in some way.” In this way, she says, her faith helped her to begin to cope with so great a loss.
“My relationship to God is like a friendship,” she says, “and he has made many signs, many miracles in my life.”
Today, she lives her faith through her work with the parish community of St. Paul in Izbet Chokor, where she is deeply involved with various social and educational services. Through the church’s service center, she administers extra lessons for local students and runs handicrafts workshops for young women.
“The work they normally do is cooking and taking care of the house,” she says of the workshop participants. “Now, they are making things with their own hands. They are creating things and that gives them more confidence in themselves.” What’s more, she adds, the women take great pleasure in both learning and practicing technical crafts.
The parish offers these services to all members of the community, irrespective of background. “We are doing this without any discrimination with regards to religion,” she says, adding that “at the service center, there is no Muslim or Christian. We are all the same: Egyptians.”
Mrs. Abdo regards this spirit of tolerance and peaceful coexistence as vital. Her own experience of conversion has helped her to encourage interfaith encounter; as a young girl, she says, she had heard negative things about Catholics. “But then, when I went to the Coptic Catholic parish church and listened to the Divine Liturgy, I found it was practically the same.”
This discovery led her to realize isolation and separation can lead people to emphasize differences, even when common ground is far greater.
“Here in Izbet Chokor, our relations with our Muslim neighbors are very good. You can see peaceful coexistence in very small acts,” she says. “During the Islamic month of fasting, or Ramadan, some Muslims wish us ‘Ramadan Kareem’ (noble Ramadan) and we respond, ‘Allahu Akram’ (God the most noble and generous one), the traditional Islamic response.”
Some, she says, are surprised; all are delighted.
“I am very sad when I see what is happening to Christians in the region,” she says of the rise of intolerance in Egypt and elsewhere. “I also pray for the Christians in other countries; I light a candle at every liturgy to pray for them.”
Challenges such as these, however, bring Mrs. Abdo back to the importance of faith — of listening for God’s voice, and of acting in accordance. This, she says, gives her strength, even in the darkest hours.
“After every bad experience, God gives me the power to overcome it. So, every hardship that comes along, I can overcome it because of my faith — God helps me,” she says. “The bad experiences in my life have made me stronger.”
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.