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Hope and Renewal in Suez

Prospering, the Coptic Orthodox of Port Said are beating the odds

Bright, crisp air hangs over the cold waters of the Suez Canal, one of the world’s most important waterways. At the mouth of the canal, near the city of Port Said, the hulking forms of cargo ships quietly wait their turn to proceed. Squat, boxy warehouses line the channel’s banks. The spires of minarets punctuate the horizon.

Business has not always run so smoothly here, however, and over the course of the 20th century the city has seen alternating periods of boom, bust and bombing. It was devastated during the war between Egypt and Israel in 1967 and later reborn as a free trade zone. Always diverse, it has also been the scene of interfaith cooperation. And for the past few decades, it has become an important place in Egyptian Christian life.

Few people know the rough tides that have washed over the town better than Amba Tadros, the Coptic Orthodox Bishop of Port Said. When he was installed in November 1976, he was charged with creating an Orthodox ecclesiastical jurisdiction for a city that had never had one. Port Said was also missing most of its population. As the 1967 war began, the city was evacuated in the face of a massive Israeli aerial bombardment. Soon after, Egypt lost control of the strategically important Sinai Peninsula, which lies just east of the city.

For Egyptians, it was one of the darkest periods of the country’s modern history, and, in the middle of it all, Amba Tadros was building up the local church from scratch.

“Many homes and buildings had been destroyed by bombs, and people were living in shelters or on the streets,” says the bishop, now an elderly man. “Electricity and water were difficult to have all through the day.”

Over the course of the 1970’s, people began to trickle back to their homes, but most of the city was ruined in the war.

For men like Amba Tadros it was a challenging time. Some would have found providing physical and spiritual aid to the city’s displaced residents a crushing task. But local Coptic leaders say that something unexpected grew out of the ashes: renewed friendships among peoples of all faiths that was a harbinger of a citywide renewal.

Twice a month Laurice Tadros (no relation to the bishop) makes the three- hour trip from Cairo to attend Divine Liturgy at Port Said’s Regina Mundi Cathedral. The graceful, Italianate structure is a stone-and-glass testament to the cooperation that blossomed here after the war.

“During the war everyone had to evacuate Port Said,” she says. “When the city’s people began to return, cooperation between Catholics and Orthodox began to happen. There are many, many Orthodox in Port Said and we were in great need of another church, so we asked the Catholics if we could use their building.”

A Port Said native, she now works at the Cairo-based Development and Social Service Association of the Coptic Orthodox Church. She knows the city and its Christian community like the back of her hand, and her elderly father still regularly attends liturgy at the cathedral.

The cathedral was once the crown jewel of the Catholic Apostolic Vicariate of Port Said, which was founded in 1926 to serve European Latin Catholic expatriates — most of them Italians — who worked in the port. But the community fell on hard times. When Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized private property and industries in the late 1950’s, most Europeans fled. Those who remained in Port Said witnessed its destruction in Egypt’s wars against Israel in 1956 and 1967. By the time of its evacuation in 1967, few Latin Catholics remained. After the war, hardly any returned.

Today, the handful of Latin Catholics who still live in Port Said share the cathedral and other churches in the city with the Coptic Orthodox community, who make up about 10 percent of its 515,000 people. At least one night a week, a Catholic Latin rite liturgy is celebrated under the cathedral’s soaring apse, which is decorated with an ambitious mural with the proclamation “Mary is the Queen of the World” emblazoned on its supports.

Each morning, however, the cathedral is filled with the sound of the ancient Coptic language, said to be descended from the tongue of the pharaohs. Rather than use the Catholic high altar, which faces south, Coptic Orthodox worshipers pray facing east; the altar lies behind a screen of icons. Many women cover their hair, at least when they stand in a separate line from the men to receive Communion.

“When I first came here we had nothing,” says Amba Tadros, “just a very small space.”

The Catholic Church had many properties that had fallen into disrepair and disuse and some were “dirty and in bad shape,” he says. Beginning with the former apostolic vicar, the late Bishop Egidio Sampieri, O.F.M., the Catholic Church lent or leased a number of empty properties to the Coptic Orthodox Church, which are now active centers of the Christian faith.

“It’s a good feeling for the Catholic Church, too, because they want to see their buildings used, taken care of and filled with life,” adds Amba Tadros. “It is an ecumenical church now and people from all denominations can come and pray — Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant.”

After the war, Port Said needed a miracle and, according to many, it received two. In 1975, the city became an international free trade zone, which set off job growth, ignited trade and ushered in an economic boom. A revived city drew tens of thousands of unemployed Egyptians — Christian and Muslim.

Though the city has clearly made progress, the results of that growth have been spread unevenly. According to Ms. Tadros, up to 60 percent of the city’s Christians live in poverty. Amba Tadros fears that number may rise in December 2011 when the city’s free zone status is set to expire.

“We are worried because in the next three years we have to prepare for the thousands of young people who will lose their jobs,” says the bishop, who hopes that the church-sponsored job-training program will soften the blow.

“We are already faced with many unemployed young people, and everyone wants to know how they will ever get work or afford to get married,” he says. “It is a big problem.”

In 1990, the city was blessed with a second miracle. The night before going into surgery for breast cancer, a local Coptic woman, Samia Yousef Basilious, went to the city’s Mar Bishoi Church to pray in front of an icon of the Virgin Mary. When she emerged from the operating room the next day, her cancer was gone and the bloodstains on her bandages appeared as a series of crosses.

Later, priests at Mar Bishoi discovered that the same icon of the Virgin wept oil. The tears did not stop for several weeks, and the priests had to attach plastic bags to the bottom of the picture frame to catch them all. Coptic Orthodox Pope Shenouda III declared the event a miracle, and it has returned every year since. Each year on the anniversary of Ms. Basilious’s recovery, the original icon — as well as a second one that has also been hung in the church — has wept oil for several weeks at a time.

The miracle at Mar Bishoi is a major point of pride for Port Said’s Christian community, and pilgrims from across Egypt travel there every year to witness the event and to be blessed by the oil.

“Port Said is a Mediterranean city, and people from all over hear about the miracle that occurred here and they come to us,” he says. “Last year a group from Sweden came to see the miracle, and just the other day I received an email from them asking if the oil came again this year.”

One morning last winter, entire families gathered under the bright banners and flags in the church’s courtyard to pray and to be blessed by the oil. As children played nearby, their parents sat in quiet contemplation and reflected on the meaning of the miracle for themselves and their community.

“It’s a sign from our Lord Jesus,” says Nagi Saad, a middle-aged man who was born in Port Said. His family returned from the evacuation in 1972. “He is sending us a clear message: I am here, I am alive and I am in your community. I won’t forget you and I will never leave you.”

The city’s Christian charities have made a similar promise to the entire city, Christian and Muslim.

The Ave Mina Hospital sits on the edge of town in the working-class district of El Amine, across from an empty lot where battered white minibuses unload a few passengers every now and then. For the last 20 years, the hospital has treated anyone who walked through its doors, says its supervisor, Sister Marina, at an average of 2,000 patients each month.

“We provide our services cheaply,” says Sister Marina, noting that most procedures cost just $1.80, though “some people don’t even pay that much, if they can’t afford it.”

Most of the patients are poor Muslims from the neighborhood, she says, because “we are working here for everyone.”

The area’s Muslim population appears to have given the hospital a major vote of confidence. Most of the women walking its halls are veiled, and many of the men wear their beards in the long style of observant Muslims. They come for checkups, minor operations and obstetric care.

Many of its nurses are veiled as well. The head nurse, Reda Abdel al Muhammad, says that as a Muslim she sees no difference between working in a Christian hospital and working in one run by a Muslim group.

“The patients don’t think about religion when they come here, they don’t think ’oh, it’s a Christian hospital’ or ’oh, she is a Muslim nurse,’” she says. “Most of our patients here are Muslims, but we are all like brothers and sisters. Before God’s eyes, Muslims and Christians are equal.”

Sister Marina prides herself on providing high quality care to people too poor to afford private hospitals. With few resources, she thinks Ave Mina lives up to the task.

“Our work is very important to this community,” she says. Usually in Egypt, she continues, “if you don’t have the money, you can’t afford to go to a private hospital. When people come here, they feel like they are really being healed and not just dealt with, and that’s important.”

Karima Abdel Aziz agrees. Standing over her grown son as he lies in a hospital bed, she breaks out in an unlikely grin when asked her thoughts on his treatment. Her son’s doctor has performed one operation on him and two on her two daughters, and she planned to have him deliver her first grandchild last February. “We love this hospital,” she says. “We trust them with everything. We trust them with our lives.”

Liam Stack and Sean Sprague are regular contributors to ONE magazine.

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