Egypt’s Syrian Catholics

text by Dale McGeehon
photos by John Samples

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If you expect to spot Holy Rosary Syrian Catholic Church from a Cairo street, you will be disappointed.

While the area’s Armenian and Coptic churches boldly present themselves to pedestrians, Holy Rosary is tucked away shyly, almost secretly, from public view. Small signs disclose that the site is also the seat of a Syrian Catholic bishop; a hint that a church may be there.

A steel gate with a large sign in Arabic and French announcing St. Michael’s Syrian Catholic School (which is associated with the church) frames an entrance. Another access, which I found only with luck, is through the dimly lit lobby of an adjacent building.

But once you find your way into the church’s small shaded courtyard, you will encounter a peaceful environment: the banging and buzzing of the surrounding automobile repair shops and the congestion of Cairo’s streets have been left behind.

“There is no reason for the church to be hidden,” said Bishop Moussa Daoud, who was the leader of the Syrian Catholic community in Egypt and Sudan until his appointment to a post in Syria last November. “It just happened.”

The quiet of the compound does not mean there are no activities here. On the contrary, on any given day boys from the school may be found playing soccer. In the early evening, individuals slip inside the church, find a private place in the pews and kneel in silent prayer. At the baptismal font, Bishop Daoud baptizes an infant, who loudly objects to being stripped of his clothes and immersed in the cold water. At night, families gather at the church’s social club while others seek medical attention from the doctors and dentists at the clinic.

But while there are activities at the church, just a few years ago there were many more people to participate in them. According to the Bishop, only 500 families now attend Egypt’s three Syrian Catholic churches: “Years ago, there were more.”

Most Syrians are descendants of immigrants who journeyed to Egypt in the 17th century, Bishop Daoud remarked.

At that time Egypt was like America is today. Its advanced society attracted Syrian artisans and skilled laborers who came seeking better economic opportunities.

Although the first Syrian Catholic churches were established in Egypt in the 18th and 19th centuries, they have since been vacated. Like the immigrants who settled in America’s cities, each generation of Syrians moved to a new locale.

Holy Rosary, the oldest of Egypt’s three Syrian Catholic churches, was built in 1904, enlarged from 1940 to 1950, reconstructed beginning in 1975 and finished in 1983. CNEWA helped finance the renovation of the church as well as the construction of the community’s clinic. St. Catherine’s in Cairo was built in 1957 and Sacred Heart of Jesus, a chapel in Alexandria, was built in 1913.

While Egypt’s Syrian Catholic community is relatively recent in origin, the roots of the 100,000-strong Syrian Catholic Church may be traced to the ancient city of Antioch: “…and it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians.” (Acts 11:26)

Until the Early Christian Christological controversies reached a climax at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, Antioch was one of the five patriarchal sees of undivided Christendom. Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria and Jerusalem were the other four.

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Tags: Egypt Church history