ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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

Life in a Coptic Catholic Village

A priest’s weekly visits to a remote Egyptian village provide support and hope.

Father Samuel Elias surveyed the village’s rectangular field, the borders of which were outlined by a row of corn stalks left after harvest.

“A few years ago this land was full of stones,” the Coptic Catholic priest said, squinting as he shielded his eyes from the midday sun.

“But they took this land and cleared it themselves. Now they grow peppers, eggplant, corn and other vegetables. But while they’ve had some success their lives remain difficult.”

Father Elias is one of the few outsiders who visit regularly the Egyptian village of Firdan. He brings bags of rice, an occasional tin of cooking oil, solace and Christian advice to his parishioners, who struggle to farm their arid land located but nine miles from the Suez Canal.

Egypt’s Coptic Catholics say the role of the parish priest has dramatically changed in the last few decades.

“Now the local priest works with the problems of the village more than ever before, and that’s besides his religious role,” stated Hani Naguib, a Coptic Catholic seminarian who will complete his theological studies this spring at St. Leo the Great Seminary in the Cairo suburb of Ma’adi.

And although the church has limited resources, officials say they never turn away anyone in need, whether Coptic Orthodox or Catholic, Christian or Muslim.

Catholics are a tiny minority in Egypt. Most of the country’s estimated six million Christians, or 10 percent of Egypt’s population of 58 million, are Copts, a title hearkening back to the early Egyptians. About 200,000 Christians belong to various Eastern Catholic churches, including the Coptic Catholic Church, which shares the Coptic liturgy with the Coptic Orthodox while maintaining full communion with the Church of Rome.

The current Coptic Catholic Patriarch, Stephanos II Ghattas, guides a community of 190,000 persons. More than 100 parishes and schools, and a number of clinics and hospitals, are scattered throughout Egypt. Through its Beirut office, CNEWA supports many of these programs and institutions of the Coptic Catholic Church.

In a country where per capita income has steadily declined during the past decade, religious and nongovernmental groups give people the kind of concrete assistance the government cannot.

Because of inflation, even government employees, who as mid-level bureaucrats earn $90 per month, can only buy half as much today as they did 20 years ago.

Coptic Catholic clergy, with some outside assistance, offer their impoverished urban parishioners loans to buy sewing machines, taxicabs and even shares in corner grocery stores. In the countryside, similar loans and agricultural development projects help newcomers start their own small but self-sufficient farms. Recipients repay the loans on a monthly basis.

Bishop Makarios Tewfik, Coptic Catholic Bishop of Ismayliah – a city at the southern mouth of the Suez Canal – is responsible for a diocese that includes the village of Firdan. Slender and bespectacled, the Bishop explained the importance of financial and spiritual assistance:

“All of the Christians around Ismayliah come from Upper Egypt (the south), from cities like Assiut and Sohag. There is no work there so they come here to farm and sell their products. The program has only been operating for two years, and already we’ve made loans to about 100 families. But this is only the first stage – right now we’re working with three villages, but we’d like to do more.”

Originally from Upper Egypt, Bishop Makarios believes that he and Father Elias understand the newcomers’ need to feel self-sufficient:

“If they live in the countryside, first we try to lend them money to buy chickens and ducks and other animals that promise immediate financial returns. Life is hard here and very expensive for them. They have to have help.”

It is the parish priest’s mission to seek out those who need help and moral support – and often act as an intermediary between villagers and government officials. Though Father Elias has only worked in Ismayliah for 18 months, his role differs little from the 16 years he spent as a parish priest in Assiut. Sometimes he finds he even knows the immigrants’ families.

Father Elias’s new parish consists of the cities of Ismayliah and Ashara Ramadan, and the villages of Firdan and Qantara. Father Elias calls the inhabitants of Firdan “in need of the most help and encouragement.”

On a warm October day, Father Elias traveled to Firdan for his weekly visit to the family of Narouz Selama, his wife, brothers, their wives and all their children.

As the priest approached in his small white bus, Narouz waved from the far end of the four-and-a-half acre plot he and his brothers own.

Father Elias waved back.

“They don’t earn much,” the priest commented. “Every season they might make, say, $150. But most of that is swallowed up in paying back their loans and other costs. They just try to stay alive.”

As the bus rolled to a stop riotous children in colorful gellabiyas, or traditional ankle length cotton robes, ran to greet him. A deaf child clung to the priest’s cassock, refusing to let go for the entire visit.

In the front yard, ducks and chickens in circular reed enclosures flapped their wings and squawked as the priest walked to the door of Narouz Selama’s simple gray-brick house. With a shy smile, Narouz’s wife gestured to a modest sitting room with benches placed against the walls. Three small framed pictures of Jesus and Mary – well above the children’s reach – were a visible sign that the family was Christian.

“We built this house ourselves, partly with assistance from the church,” said Narouz proudly, the cuffs of his green camouflage jacket gray with dust from the fields. Under his jacket, Narouz wore the traditional vest and loose pants of Upper Egypt, a gauzy white cotton turban wound about his head.

The family is gradually repaying loans for their house, animals and land. It will take them five years to pay for their land alone.

For Narouz, who comes from a troubled village close to the southern city of Assiut, the effort and hardship involved is well worth the effort.

“At least here our children are safe. The environment is good, though life is still hard. We sell chickens, eggs, corn, tomatoes and cucumbers according to the season. And we even have electricity.”

He playfully ran his hands through his smallest daughter’s dark hair.

“We were scared for their sake.”

Militant groups in Upper Egypt have targeted Christians and Muslims alike in a quest to overthrow the current government and establish their version of an Islamic state. In the areas surrounding Minya and Assiut, government employees – from bureaucrats to policemen – fear for their lives. Christians who do not pay roving militant groups for protection are subject to harassment, arson and sometimes death. Since 1992, about 4,000 people, mostly militants and policemen, have died in the struggle.

The violence is largely confined to Upper Egypt, where poverty and lack of opportunity have sparked bitter frustrations.

Life in Firdan is not without its difficulties too. The soil is dry and saline, so earth must be brought in from more fertile areas. And the financial and emotional pressures of paying back debts can take their toll.

“Many wish they could escape,” Bishop Makarios said, pointing out that millions of Christians have left Egypt in the past two decades. “But not everyone has the financial means or the connections to leave the country.”

Until the mid-1980s, the United States deemed Egyptian Christians a “harassed minority” and liberally granted them visas. Large numbers of Copts left for the U.S. during this period. Many others emigrated to Canada and Australia, while a smaller percentage went to live in Europe.

Those who stayed weathered the results of the infitah, or open-door policy, instituted by the government in the late 1970s. Egyptians say it widened the gap between the rich and the poor – and marked the beginning of the conspicuous consumption that has become the hallmark of the Egyptian upper classes.

In such an environment, villagers like Narouz Selama look to the church for advice and encouragement.

“He raises our spirits,” Narouz said, smiling as he looked at Father Elias.

The priest comes to Firdan once or twice every week. He gives the children of the family impromptu catechism lessons and celebrates liturgy; the nearest church is 12 miles away. Only the grown men of the family travel to church, usually by hitchhiking or catching a stray bus on the highway that leads into town.

Father Elias takes a personal interest in the inhabitants of the village and enjoys seeing what new projects they are pursuing. During his visit, Father Elias walked around the enclosure of homes to the back, where dried corn cobs and buffalo chips lay in piles along the walls.

“They use this for fuel – some for themselves and they sell some too,” he said, while various children fought over who had the right to hold the priest’s hand.

On another side of the house, what looked like a large overturned flowerpot housed containers of yogurt that had almost set. The women of the family proudly pointed out their dome-like adobe oven, where they make pita bread every two days.

“They want to be self-sufficient in every way, from making their own yogurt and bread to making a living from their crops,” Father Elias commented.

He walked through every room in the three-house enclosure, commenting and approving the various improvements the families had made: a new pillow here, an extra bench there. The women beamed with pride.

Then the priest began the last ritual of his visit. He blessed each room with a sprinkle of holy water – the small sitting room, the bedroom, the children’s room. A few extra sprinkles helped bless the small kitchen, where a portable gas stove and a refrigerator sat in state.

Then he finally opened a wooden door that led him into a stable – the largest room in the house, with a width equal to the building itself. Two water buffaloes, two cows and several sleepy goats were roused into action by the priest’s blessing, making the children giggle.

“I love this work,” Father Elias said. trying to soothe the child who did not want him to leave.

Jessica Jones is a freelance writer based in Cairo.

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