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Upper Egypt’s Copts

Copts share in Egypt’s problems and work for solutions.

text and photographs by Sean Sprague

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“I desire to dedicate my entire life to God,” said Father Matta Argui Habib, a middle-aged Coptic Catholic priest. “Since I was a child I have wanted to be a priest, to serve the people of God.”

A married man with a growing family, Father Matta nevertheless does exactly what he has aspired to do since childhood: he serves the people of God as a parish priest in the Coptic Christian village of Manhari, located in Upper Egypt’s Governorate of Minya, some three hours by train south of Cairo.

Approximately six million of Egypt’s 63 million citizens profess Christianity, the largest number of Christians in the Middle East. Most belong to the Coptic (from the Greek Aigyptios, meaning Egyptian) Orthodox Church, led by Pope Shenouda III. Other churches include six Eastern Catholic communities – the largest of which is Coptic Catholic – a small Latin Catholic community, as well as Greek Orthodox and Coptic Evangelical Christians.

Last February my train, following the Nile Valley, pulled into Minya. A representative of Coptic Catholic Bishop Antonios Naguib, flanked by security personnel, met me at the station and escorted me to the Bishop’s house. I was alarmed by the security, but the Bishop explained that protection of Westerners is necessary. In recent years, Islamic militants have targeted Westerners and local Christians alike. A kind, intelligent man, Bishop Antonios patiently explained the relationships he and his community maintain in culturally complex Egypt:

“The Catholic Eparchy of Minya has very good relations among the churches in the area,” the Bishop explained.

“Coptic Orthodox Bishop Arsanios is a good man and a good friend, as is the Reverend Fayez Faris, Pastor of the Second Presbyterian Church of Minya.

“We exchange visits and work on pastoral projects together. Each year we hold a week of prayer for Christian unity, and we work together when tackling government issues or when attending Muslim feasts.

“Our relations with high officials, members of the civil service, police and security are all very good, too,” he added.

Though he admitted isolated flare-ups between Christians and Muslims, the Bishop believes the climate has improved, especially in the last decade. This improvement, he hastened to add, is due largely to the support of law enforcement officials, who crack down on any hint of trouble. Bishop Antonios further suggested that recent sectarian violence stems from the growth of Islamic extremism, which, the Bishop thinks, has developed in Egypt since it began to supply migrant workers to the oil-rich yet conservative Muslim states of the Persian Gulf.

Such a contrast of wealth in the Gulf with poverty in Egypt, said the Bishop, “has had a psychological effect on these workers, who see that God has blessed Islamic countries with wealth, while ‘secular’ Egypt is reliant on Western aid.”

Equating Christianity with the West, which is increasingly viewed as anti-Muslim, Bishop Antonios said many of these migrants return to Egypt brimming with resentment.

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Tags: Egypt Middle East Christian-Muslim relations Emigration Coptic Catholic Church