Starting Over in Suez

Jahd Khalil writes about efforts to rebuild religious institutions in Suez in the Spring 2015 edition of ONE.

Jahd Khalil writes about efforts to rebuild religious institutions in Suez in the Spring 2015 edition of ONE. Below, he offers personal impressions from his trip there last winter.

Last Christmas season there were plenty of images in press coverage of Egypt of congregations praying in burned-out churches, but I only experienced the atmosphere and feelings of it on this recent trip to Suez. It was a few days before Epiphany, and it brought to light the gravity of the situation for this congregation and the implications of all the little things that were lost.

Franciscan Father Gabrail Bakheet was dressed in his white liturgical robes. While giving us a tour of the vestry, he pointed out that the diversity in vestments meant that so many had to be replaced. The congregation also had to sing hymns without hymnals. Christmas is one of those times when you reflect on family, friends and community, but there were so few people in the church that the hymns only highlighted that the scarcity of people. The many who once might have been signing these hymns just weren’t there. The US invasion of Iraq, the civil war in Syria, and general unrest across the Middle East have made religious life more difficult for Christians and other minorities. It felt quite lonely in that burned-out, cold church.

One thing that struck me while reporting this story is the amount of faith Christians have put in their government’s support for their communities. The Maspiro massacre — in which 28 people, mostly Christians, died while protesting for religious freedom — is not a distant memory. But there has been a willingness to overlook it in order to try and preserve what is left of the long Christian tradition in Egypt.

As they sat alone in their makeshift chapel, with seemingly nothing but their faith, Sister Amany quoted Psalm 127 to Sister Mariam. “Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain,” she said. “Unless the Lord watches over the city, the guards stand watch in vain.”

I really admired the sisters’ perseverance and good spirits in the face of adversity and isolation. Here they were in one of the most densely populated countries on earth, but still alone in many ways.

Read more about life in Suez in “Out of the Ashes.”

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