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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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Out of the Ashes

Religious in Suez rebuild after mass arson of 2013

Sister Amal was drinking tea at the Good Shepherd Convent in the Egyptian port city of Suez when the first stone came through the window.

It had been a chaotic year. For months, massive protests against President Muhammad Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood had rocked the country. By late June the protests, which had gained the public support of Christian leaders, culminated in the military’s forced removal of the Islamist president. In the eyes of some Egyptians, especially those who supported Mr. Morsi, an alliance had been forged between the military and Egypt’s Coptic Christians. (Ethnic Egyptian Christians are known as Copts, derived from the Greek “Aigyptos,” meaning Egyptian.) This was affirmed further by the interim government’s subsequent brutal crackdown of Islamists throughout Egypt.

Picking up the shattered glass, Good Shepherd Sister Amal was unaware that earlier that same day, 14 August 2013, the interim government had used lethal force to end two massive sit-ins, resulting in more than 600 deaths. In retribution for the alleged alliance, supporters of the ousted president stormed churches and Christian institutions across the country.

A mob of possibly hundreds attacked the chapel near the convent. Sister Amal and her team rushed about, attempting to save as much as they could from both the sanctuary and the structure. Frantically, they turned off the gas and electricity, and eventually found a way to extinguish some of the flames. But as they worked, arsonists set fires elsewhere. Looters helped themselves to furniture, electronics and money.

The flames proved too much to fight. In the chaos, Sister Amal ushered the workers out a rear exit. The police and army were nowhere to be seen. The mob had already killed one soldier operating an armored personnel carrier outside the chapel. Another fled. No one else came to help.

By the end of the day, the convent, chapel, orphanage and school the sisters had administered had been gutted and razed. The mob had also attacked a Franciscan parish church two blocks away — two of the dozens of Christian facilities torched that Wednesday morning. A year later, and despite the Egyptian government’s promise to help rebuild the affected institutions, only a handful has been restored.

While the churches in Suez remain charred husks, the sisters have begun rebuilding their school and renovating their orphanage by launching their own fundraising efforts. They have used what survived the fire to continue their work, praying in the shell of their chapel. Crosses and images of Christ and the Virgin Mary have taken on renewed meanings in light of the fire and the tribulations of the past year and a half.

Walking throughout the remains of the Good Shepherd complex gives the impression of a construction site rendered in black and white. Ceiling fans have wilted from the heat, and the only splash of color is a fuchsia bougainvillea that has crept into what was once the convent’s living room.

It is easy to see all the ash as indistinguishable, but Sister Amal points to the grey piles, indicating what remains of a multilingual library, a pantry, a piano. But she is most keen to point out what survived the fire.

“There was a miracle at the small church where we prayed. The ceiling and door were burnt, but the sanctuary, even though of wood, didn’t burn. The pews weren’t burnt. We had already removed the statue because we were afraid they would break it. Here, they only broke the glass.”

Statues of the Virgin Mary have been moved into a small, makeshift chapel. Inside sits a chair for each of the sisters at the convent, each stacked with its own small collection of prayer books.

Sister Amal takes special care to point out one of the two statues in the chapel. “This came to us in a dream,” she says. “Because of that, we have written ‘Our Lady of Dreams’ on the base.”

Last autumn, on the final Friday of November, Sister Amal dreamed she had asked for a candle, but instead a friend named Raheb, who had helped her put out the flames all night long after the August 2013 attack, brought her the Virgin Mary wrapped in blankets.

“At the end of the next day I told Sister Mariam the dream. She told me, ‘God willing, the Virgin will come in a flash, but I have to tell you some bad news.’ ” Sister Mariam told her the military had withdrawn from the area. They were once again without any protection. Protests were taking shape intermittently, and looters were still entering the chapel, which was open to the street. Anyone could walk in or out of the grounds.

“There was no one. The teachers had left and the workers had gone. There was nobody but us two.”

She turned to Sister Mariam and said, “Look, our Lord is who will protect us in the beginning and the end. Don’t worry. Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the guards stand watch in vain.”

Then the phone rang. It was Raheb. He said there was a woman who wanted to greet the sisters. She expected it to be his sister.

Raheb stood outside and, before their eyes, took the statue of the Virgin Mary out of a crate, wrapped in blankets.

“We cried out of joy,” Sister Amal said.

Soon afterward, the military returned and set up a temporary base in one of the charred rooms of the convent clinic.

“That’s why we’ve called her Our Lady of Dreams, because from the day she came we’ve felt at calm, at peace. We were afraid before, afraid for the school. We have nothing but the school; all else has been destroyed.”

Sister Mariam has the hard-nosed demeanor one would expect from a principal — especially one who had to fight to get the school renovated. In January 2015, she successfully obtained the school’s permits after many months of arguing, and long after its renovation. Although they needed permits to begin construction, the sisters decided to build as the government stalled in approving the paperwork. Only after Sister Mariam filed a complaint at the administrative court in Suez did the bureaucratic process advance.

The school was rebuilt in the month after the fire, from the sisters‘ own limited resources and without assistance — “not from the government, not from the army, not from anybody,” says Sister Mariam. The government even pressured the sisters to open the school to begin the academic year in advance of its completion because of a 15-day delay caused by the fire. The sisters, however, were awaiting the delivery of desks, insisting that without places to sit, there could be no place to learn.

Though some parents expressed concern for the safety of their children, none pulled their children when the school reopened, including the governorate’s top-ranked student, a Good Shepherd pupil. The sisters actually added space to accommodate more children, whose parents pay approximately $400 per child.

The 2,500-seat school smells new and still has factory stickers on some of the glass. During the renovations, the sisters ran a hard bargain, scrutinizing every price. Sister Amal says one contractor asked if she had been in the construction business.

By contrast, it took the sisters almost a year to finance the renovation of their orphanage, which is administered by Sister Odile, an elderly, Egyptian-born Italian woman whose parents were among the many foreigners who lived in Egypt in the early 20th century. In Lebanon at the time of the fire, Sister Odile immediately traveled to Egypt when she received the news. There, she designed cabinets and beds for carpenters to reconstruct, and oversaw the purchasing of appliances, all of which had been lost in the fire.

The children have since moved back into freshly painted rooms with new beds, wardrobes and desks. Sister Odile says the project ran roughly $1,300, completed over a span of two months, which pales in comparison to the estimated $2 million to repair the convent and chapel.

In the meantime, the sisters make do with the scorched sanctuary.

Franciscan Father Gabrail Bakheet’s first day as pastor of the Franciscan parish of the Immaculate Conception in Suez coincided with the day of the attacks. The mob turned on the parish, torching the church and rectory. Father Gabrail has since seen to the repair of the rectory. However, the church will still need serious restoration — repairs may run as high as $850,000. The structure is a burned out shell; blackened, with spots of white from where the plaster fell after the blaze. Its tile floors have swollen from the heat. Heads and arms of statues have been severed.

The promised help from the government has not yet arrived, but he has been assured that the church, along with the Good Shepherd Convent, is scheduled for repairs in a later stage of the reconstruction plan.

During Christmas, army and governorate officials paid the Franciscan a courtesy call. They were welcomed in a concrete room decorated with throw rugs and photos of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al Sisi, Pope Francis and the superior of the Franciscan community in Cairo.

“I think the most important figures for Christians in Egypt at the moment are Pope Francis, [Coptic Orthodox] Pope Tawadros, and al Sisi,” said Father Gabrail. The president’s historic visit to the Coptic Orthodox cathedral in Cairo for the Christmas liturgy, a move enthusiastically welcomed by Coptic Christians, has reinforced the belief that Pope Tawadros and President Sisi are said to have a close relationship.

Regardless of the condition of the church, Father Gabrail continues to celebrate the Eucharist for his parish community. Assisted by two parishioners, an Egyptian-born Italian and an Egyptian doctor, the church remains the center of Suez’s Catholic community.

On a recent feast day, Good Shepherd Sister Amal enters with her own gentle gait, as if walking on glass. Sister Odile arrives, too, with one hand on her cane and another around Dunya, the eldest resident of the orphanage. The liturgy is lighted by fluorescent lights suspended on extension cords that span the church, but worshipers sitting in the nave can still see stars peeking through the blown-out windows. A Nativity scene sits in a dark corner of the church.

After the liturgy, parishioners, the Good Shepherd sisters and several Indian sisters who run a burn clinic in Suez gather for mint tea in the parish garden.

The parishioners’ experience is not rare. Throughout Egypt, many Christians still pray among ashes despite promises to rebuild. In some cases, steel and concrete have been donated, but not the labor. In others, financing has been secured. Still, the promises are falling short.

The sisters, however, did not wait for help and have not forgotten what they have been through. As Sister Amal tells her story, she drinks out of the same teacup she held when the first stone came in the window. And sitting in the chapel, next to Our Lady of Dreams, is that very first stone.

Journalist Jahd Khalil is based in Cairo. His work has appeared in The Financial Times, Fast Company and Esquire.

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