From ONE Magazine

Upper Egypt’s Copts

“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.

“Our real problems,” he continued, “are much more mundane than the fear of being attacked by Muslim extremists. All Egyptians, regardless of their religious background, share the same life problems: poverty, disease, unemployment and drugs, particularly among the youth. Housing and education needs are also issues.

“The church addresses these. Our Coptic Catholic Church, in particular, is very active in social work and human development and serves all communities equally.”

Father Matta’s village experience reaffirms Bishop Antonios’ thoughts:

“People here,” the priest asserted as we strolled through the muddy lanes of Manhari, “don’t experience Islamic extremist aggression, but they do feel economically repressed.

“Many families cannot support themselves, although there are some wealthy Coptic families.”

Father Matta’s family, however, is not one of the wealthy ones. Typically, Eastern Catholic married priests in the Middle East must also hold down jobs outside the parish to support the family, thereby reducing the parish burden. The priest’s wife, in addition to rearing a family, must also work.

Father Matta led me on a tour of Manhari’s four-story Catholic Social Services Center. Here, working parents leave their children in a well-run kindergarten. School dropouts improve their reading and writing skills while young women learn to weave tapestries. The center offers additional vocational training in its tailoring workshop. Mothers and their children receive medical care in a mother-child clinic and the center conducts courses in health and hygiene.

“The villagers survive by raising livestock – cattle, buffalo, sheep and goats – and by growing clover for fodder,” Father Matta said. “Fuul, or fava beans, and wheat provide the Egyptian staple diet. They grow in fields around the village,” he added.

Much activity centered on a construction site where, with a CNEWA grant, local laborers were constructing a fine Catholic church with twin spires and many windows. Meanwhile, children from a nearby kindergarten chased each other about the courtyard of the Orthodox church. A much older structure, the dark church was filled with frescoes depicting the lives of Christ, Mary and the saints. A highly intricate iconostasis, or icon screen, shielded the altar from the congregation.

Manhari’s Coptic Orthodox pastor was away at the time, but a few miles from Manhari at an Orthodox church, which once served a monastic community, we met a priest revered by all Copts – Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant – Father Yacoub, an old man with a long white beard. Father Matta greeted him with elaborate embraces and kisses. Father Yacoub sat in virtual silence while we drank tea and spoke with his young colleague, Father Bola. His eyes gleamed with obvious pleasure at our visit.

“Relations between Orthodox and Catholic Copts in Manhari are warm,” Father Bola said, taking a sip of his sweetened tea.

“Caritas serves the entire community. Intermarriage is common. So it doesn’t really make much difference which church you are from. We are all from the same cloth.”

“Manhari has 3,000 Catholics out of a total of 15,000 Copts,” added Father Matta. “In some families you find Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants together. People move between faiths and pray in each other’s churches.”

Permission to build a church is difficult to obtain in Egypt; as a result some Copts have gone “underground.” Neighbors in some Coptic villages have donated adjoining rooms in attached houses. Walls are removed and a secret church, safely hidden within the homes, is constructed. However, the Coptic Catholic parish in the village of Abou-Korkas, Mother of Divine Grace, was fortunate. They received the necessary permits to build a church.

The parish priest, Father Younas, celebrates three liturgies each Sunday, plus a special liturgy for women on Wednesday, in a new church built with CNEWA funds. This church replaces an older but decrepit structure built in 1895.

Prior to his assignment in Abou-Korkas, Father Younas lived in Australia for four years. He spoke about the Coptic Christian diaspora with its growing communities in Sydney, Melbourne, Los Angeles, New York, Toronto and Paris.

“An estimated 20,000 Coptic Christians emigrate each year,” he said. “But prompted by economic considerations,” the priest continued, “approximately 20,000 of those Copts who remain in Egypt accept Islam.”

Employment opportunities are better for Muslims than for Copts, and intermarriage between Muslims and Copts – which requires the Copts to embrace Islam – also contributes to the decline of the Coptic population.

Despite their differences, Egypt’s Muslims and Christians share the same problems. Apart from the narrow strip of arable land along the Nile, most of the nation is desert. Overpopulation and the results of economic globalization have exacerbated an already high level of poverty.

Employment opportunities for Muslims and Copts are limited and many jobs require a level of education beyond the means of most Egyptians. Muslims and Copts are plagued by disease: Bilharzia runs rampant in stagnant waters and hepatitis C is endemic.

The vast majority of Copts and Muslims deplore the violence and hatred of the extremists and want to move ahead together. Schools – government and religious – are interdenominational; the children are encouraged to love and respect one another. Christian clergy and Muslim imams reportedly have good relations.

Hopefully, the inherent good will of most Egyptians will prevail and they will work together to solve the daunting problems confronting them. Perhaps more Egyptians will adopt Father Matta’s desire to do what is good, to serve the people of God.

Sean Sprague is a frequent contributor to CNEWA WORLD.