Maryknoll Father Douglas May works as an administrator and physical trainer at Our Lady Queen of Peace Home for Mentally Handicapped Children in Cairo. (photo: Octavio Duran)
The Rev. Douglas May grew up in a small town near Buffalo, New York, but now serves as a Maryknoll missionary in Cairo, where he has worked for more than two decades. He is the only United States-born, English-speaking priest in Egypt.
He provides pastoral care for several communities in the Cairo area. He also works as the international coordinator for the Center for Intercultural Dialogue and Translation and the Center for Arab-West Understanding, a nongovernmental organization that fosters dialogue between Christians and Muslims and sociopolitical pluralism in Egypt and in the Middle East.
Most Egyptian Christians are Coptic Orthodox. Egyptian Catholics belong to seven distinct churches in full communion with the bishop of Rome: Armenian, Chaldean, Coptic, Latin, Maronite, Melkite Greek and Syriac. I exchanged emails with Father May to get his views on what is happening in Egypt, particularly in the Catholic community.
ONE: How do you see the situation for Christian men in Egypt after the revolution? Is there anything specific to the Catholic male community that you have witnessed?
Father Douglas May: The situation of religious discrimination — not persecution — has gotten worse for many Christian men in the workplace, in the military and in the street. Catholic men of the various churches do not necessarily have “male communities.” Parishes are very male dominated in general without forming communities.
ONE: Can you tell us more about the Catholic community in Egypt and its relationship to the Coptic Orthodox Church?
Father Douglas May: Catholics in Egypt are often considered the “original Protestants,” heretics and the “bastard children of Rome” by some of the Coptic Orthodox priests and hierarchy. Catholic baptism and other sacraments are not considered valid in the Coptic Orthodox Church. Ecumenical relations were quite poor during most of the 40-plus years of Pope Shenouda III, but things may improve under the new Coptic Orthodox pope, Tawadros II. At the lay level though, Orthodox, Catholics and Protestants get along quite well.
ONE: In one of your previous posts for One to One [the CNEWA blog], you wrote: “My challenge in Egypt, since the January Revolution began last year, is to encourage seminarians, priests and bishops to step out into the perilous world of social justice concerns. In Egypt, there are long-held traditions of religious and sexual discrimination in society along with denying the laity an active role in church affairs.” Can you explain more about what you mean, how your efforts have been received?
Father Douglas May: Before the January Revolution, Christians were already “ghettoized” communities in a vast “Muslim ocean.” The Catholic Churches form a small minority within the Christian minority, of which most are Coptic Orthodox.
While the Catholic Churches are linked to Rome and the West, they often feel unknown and uncared about by the West, which is dominated by the Latin rite. Both Muslims and Orthodox Christians sometimes look on Egyptian Catholics as a foreign intrusion into their culture, which is very male dominated in both social and religious circles. Egyptian Catholics sense this. They often find themselves without a specific identity, being related to the Orthodox in terms of liturgy and tradition and yet Catholic in terms of theology and dogma. In Egyptian Catholic homes, one often sees pictures of both the Coptic Orthodox and Catholic popes on their walls, which is symbolic of this confused identity.
In my “Uncle Douglas” ministry, I was part of the formation-education staff at the Coptic Catholic Seminary for 10 years. Since leaving this position in 2007 and returning to Egypt last year, many of my former seminarians who are now priests scattered throughout Upper Egypt see me as a “big brother” who can be approached, visited or welcomed.
Egyptian Catholic laity also see me as someone who appreciates their culture while still having a “western perspective” that can decode and clarify the influences that invade and challenge their culture via tourism, internet media and satellite television. It is often difficult for Egyptians to approach other Egyptians with questions and issues that confront them in this “new world” they are encountering.
Losing face is strong here and keeping confidentiality is weak in Egypt. Young priests can’t relax and just be themselves even with their own families after they are ordained. Confiding with or confessing to a fellow priest can be dangerous here, both in terms of losing face and in terms of rumors/gossip spreading.
There doesn’t seem to be an active movement such as “Jesus Caritas” here in Egypt. Diocesan priests, after living a strong community life for eight years in the seminary, are “more-or-less” tossed out into the lonely world of working in a parish, sometimes distant from family and the friends they had in the seminary. As a formator at the seminary, I always found myself saying that the seminary does a great job preparing these guys for ordination day, but a lousy job preparing them for life as a parish priest.
Whenever we get together, I listen, talk, challenge, encourage, and hug these guys like a father or big brother would. I am also good friends with several bishops and the new Coptic Catholic patriarch since my days at the seminary. Christians and Catholics (clergy and laity) tend to keep a “low profile” in Egypt with the belief that they like to be “left alone.”
As Christians, they are grouped with the rest of the infidels (Kafara) and polytheists (Mushrikun — three Gods: Father, Son and Holy Spirit) by Muslims and with the rest of the heretics and “foreign Christians” by the Orthodox hierarchy and clergy who feel that Rome and the Vatican are outside “invaders.”
Sometimes, I can give them some encouragement to stand up and speak out, but I have to be careful. While the most that can happen to me is to have the government or church authorities tell me to leave Egypt, local priests can be questioned by government security authorities or left in clerical “limbo” by their bishops for “making waves” and calling attention on themselves.
There is sexual discrimination, although it is less among most Catholic Churches and Protestant ones. There is much more in Muslim and Orthodox communities. Laity, both men and women, can participate much more in Catholic Church affairs and liturgies, especially in urban areas. In many villages, women sit separately from the men (left side or right side, in the back or in the balcony) in churches. This is why formation in the seminary is so important if things are going to improve, as seminarians are more open to change during their eight years of formation-education and then become religious leaders in their parishes where they can influence positive change from the exposure to different ideas and cultures.
During the summer English program at the Coptic Catholic Seminary which Maryknoll started in 1986 and which CNEWA has funded, there are women teachers from the United States (one of whom is an ordained Lutheran minister). Also, between 2001 and 2007, I would bring three seminarians with me to the United States for eight-week summer exposure trips. We would visit various sites, do two weeks of family retreats at the Christian Family Living Center in North Carolina and then I would place them in three separate parishes for a “sink-or-swim” experience. Both the seminarians and the Americans they encountered really benefitted from these trips. Such encounters raised questions and challenged thinking. The seminarians saw that both laity and women were more involved in the U.S. than they often are in Egypt.
Most Catholic dioceses in Egypt have a “Justice and Peace” office that should instruct people on human rights plus monitor and report on human-rights abuses, but they seem to accomplish very little and do almost nothing that I have noted in my 18 years here.
Individually, some Catholics and a few clergy are very involved in politics, but this would be more the exception than the rule from what I have seen and heard. Keeping one’s head down and one’s mouth shut is generally seen as the wisest and safest thing to do.
ONE: How has the community responded to rising influence of Islam and the new constitution?
Father Douglas May: Extremist Islam and Muslims are seen as a threat while moderate Islam and Muslims are not. The new constitution has been rejected by most Christians, especially Article 2, which states that Islam is the religion of the country and that the principles of Islamic law are the principal source of legislation. Christians and “secular” Muslims are opposed to this. Many Christians old enough to remember yearn for the days back in the 50’s, 60’s and early 70’s — before Anwar Sadat — when religion was not the focus of how a person was accepted or lived. You can spend several hours with people from this era and still not know for sure who is Muslim and who is Christian.
Christians now feel tolerated at best, but not accepted as equal citizens with equal rights. Their lot is a bit like that of Black Americans before the civil rights ovement, or perhaps Jews in Germany before Hitler rose to power. Most are nervous and many want to leave Egypt.
ONE: Is there anything you would like to add about the situation for Catholics in Egypt?
Father Douglas May: The Catholic churches of Egypt and the Middle East have an advantage in that they, through the Vatican, are networked with the rest of the world — especially with the West. They also have a more “global” point of view than most Orthodox churches. In addition, the papal nuncio in Egypt is the Holy See’s ambassador to Egypt and the Vatican’s representative to the Arab League headquartered in Cairo. Most Muslim countries have diplomatic relations with the Holy See, which gives the Catholic Church a voice beyond the boundaries of specific country.
For example, the Vatican has also been seen as one of the most consistent voices defending the rights of Palestinians, which is an important issue among the Egyptian Muslim community. CNEWA and its magazine, ONE, help in transmitting news, too.
ONE: Finally, what is it like to be the only United States-born priest in Egypt?
Father Douglas May: I could easily become fat-headed as I am a “big fish in a small pond.” There is another dual-national American priest in Egypt who is the Coptic Catholic bishop of Luxor. He acquired U.S. citizenship due to his years as pastor of the Coptic Catholic parish in Los Angeles.
My expatriate communities include Catholics from 22 countries who speak English as a first, second or third language. Many of them work for various government and nongovernment agencies or for multinational corporations. We give each other moral support during this difficult time in Egypt. When I write articles and do interviews from Egypt or in the United States, I can offer a unique perspective as an American “outsider” who is quite integrated into Egyptian social and religious circles along with listening to various opinions on Middle East issues from my eclectic expatriate communities.
I treasure the friendships I have formed with many locals who have become my “family” here. I often say to Americans who think I’m nuts for being here: “Egypt may have all the sand in the world, but the desert is back in the U.S.” Egyptian Christians also strengthen my faith as they do not take their Christianity for granted as many Christians do in the West.