ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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

Oasis of Hope

A religious center helps isolated Christians in Egypt strengthen their faith

Being a minority is never easy; being a minority newly settled in a once inhospitable terrain much less so. But such is the fate of some 40,000 Coptic Orthodox, who face poverty and isolation in the arid land west of the Nile Delta.

Most immigrated to the area from Upper Egypt to escape discrimination from Islamic fundamentalists and economic deprivation. Others came after the government encouraged them to leave the over-populated Nile Valley and settle along the desert highway linking Alexandria and Cairo. With only one church to serve them, all fear their faith and heritage will be lost on younger generations eager to escape the bleak landscape where jobs are few.

A multipurpose religious center near Alexandria, however, is providing this isolated community with an opportunity to bring their children together and strengthen their faith.

“The role of the center is to identify needy children and equip them with the tools and education to live their lives in a Christian way,” said Antoin Nabil, the coordinator of the Al Karma Center in Mariout, a southwestern suburb of the Mediterranean port city.

The center gathers children from across the desert for a three-day program of activities dubbed “Jesus the Child.” Boys and girls, ages 6 to 14, are shuttled to the center in groups of 50 to 60 for an up-close look at the life of the Coptic Church.

“Many of the children who come to the center have never even seen a church before,” said Bishop Tawadros, the center’s founder, “so the opportunity to see priests, bishops, deacons and many Christians together at prayer strengthens their faith.”

Al Karma also provides the children with many of the necessities and basic services their families are unable to secure. Upon arrival, the children are bathed, their hair combed and nails trimmed. A doctor also conducts a routine physical. Clothes, shoes, school bags and books are also provided.

“Some of the children come from extremely remote villages, where there are no schools or medical facilities,” said Bishop Tawadros. “Only about half of them attend school, which is a serious problem, especially for the girls.”

The poverty and isolation of these families only compound the many difficulties they share with all Copts in Egypt. Making up less than 10 percent of the country’s population of more than 70 million, the Copts often feel overwhelmed by the country’s dominant Islamic culture. In the face of discrimination, many emigrate, and every year some 12,000 convert to Islam.

To hold back the tide, Bishop Tawadros and other clergy have sought innovative means to nurture and revitalize an ancient community that predates Islam by centuries and whose culture has continued to shape Egyptian history.

The center is perhaps the best example of their efforts, drawing children together to learn and practice their faith.

“We tell them stories from the Bible using video. They sing Coptic hymns, pray, paint and draw – all with ample time for play,” said Bishop Tawadros. “After three days they return home and a new group arrives.”

Some 1,200 children pass through the center annually. After a year, the children come back for another stay.

Success has made expansion a constant. “Previously we used a small church, but now we have this new compound with bedrooms, a library and a kitchen,” the Bishop said. “Of course we have a church, as well as the Museum of Christianity in the Holy Land.”

Covering some two acres, the center includes a demonstration farm where children learn respect for nature and the basics of horticulture. There is also a large yard for playing; future plans include a swimming pool.

The center, which has a paid staff of six and eight volunteers, is also used as a retreat for priests coming in from the desert and for courses for deacons and local youth. A group of scouts from Abou Kir, a port town east of Alexandria, uses the center as well.

All enjoy the murals, mosaics and stained glass at the center. On the top floor is a spacious chapel with a bright red carpet. Shoes are left at the entrance, where groups of girls and boys listen to lectures on everything from hygiene to the Holy Land.

A set of contemporary icons adorns the iconostasis – 33 in all, one for each year of the life of Jesus Christ. They were chosen specifically for children. They include the brothers Maximus and Domadius and the friends Anthony and Paul. On one side of the altar is an icon depicting Jesus as a baby surrounded by elders. On the other side is Jesus as an adult surrounded by children.

The child martyr St. Abanoub is also featured, and his icon appears in each of the center’s bedrooms. Meaning “father of gold,” Abanoub, who came from the city of Samanoud in the Nile Delta, declared his Christian faith in the fourth century when he was 12 years old. The boy’s conversion coincided, however, with the Roman Emperor Diocletian’s campaign to wipe out Christianity. Abanoub was tortured and killed by the governor of the province and his body laid to rest in Samanoud. “We put his picture in every room,” Bishop Tawadros said, “because he is a child of Egypt, praying and carrying the cross.”

The story is illustrated in an exhibit at the center’s Museum of Christianity in the Holy Land. Other displays tell the story of Noah and of Moses crossing the Red Sea. A mosaic depicts a map of the Holy Land. On one wall of the museum is the Lord’s Prayer handwritten in Coptic on a piece of leather.

Bishop Tawadros often leads the children through the museum carefully explaining the meaning of the displays and exhibits. After receiving a degree in pharmacy, he entered the ancient monastery of Amba Bishoi in the desert of Wadi Natrun, where he was ordained.

Some seven years after his ordination, he was named Bishop of the Diocese of Behera, which extends west to include Libya, Algeria and Morocco, though most of his flock are in Egypt.

Although there is only one church in the desert area, there are 17 priests, 4 sisters, several deacons and Sunday school teachers, many of whom regularly help out at the center.

Father Sherubine is a Coptic priest in the area and he was visiting the center with his wife, Antoinette, and their three children. Antoinette volunteers at Al Karma. She was with a small group of teenage girls.

“I teach spiritual education to secondary-school girls as a service to our Lord. Just as I was helped when I was young, I want to help too,” she said. “I come every Friday after Divine Liturgy, and when I can, I visit the girls in their homes.”

Marian Ibrahim, 17, was taking a course at the center. The bright-eyed teenager spoke highly of the facility: “I come to Al Karma to enjoy this beautiful place. The people here teach me a lot about my religion and I also learn how to treat people both in society and in school.”

For many of the younger children it is a real treat to be visiting the center. Abanou Fouad, 10, was on his second visit. “I like to come because I like to read and draw in the library and also to go up to the church and pray,” he said. “I also like playing soccer here.”

Eight-year-old Merna loved it too. “I like to read the books and go to the church. I also go to Sunday school. There is no church in Amriya, where I live, but my parents take me to the church in Mariout when they can.”

On any given day, the center’s library is crowded with children, who gather around a large table to read or color illustrations from the Bible. An adjacent empty room has been designated for computers and video equipment – money permitting.

The dormitories are comfortably appointed with wood cots and bunk beds with crisp fresh linen decorated with pictures from fairy tales or Walt Disney cartoons. The kitchen and dining room are also immaculate, as are the bathrooms and hallways.

“In addition to the spiritual, we always give a lot of attention and care to the aesthetic dimension. We really want to show the children something beautiful,” said Mr. Nabil, coordinator of the center. “Beautiful things in life are very few.”

Sean Sprague travels the globe for CNEWA WORLD.

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