ONLY last month, Christians in Egypt were speaking with cautious optimism about the stability of the country. They talked of relief at the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood and improved security under the current president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Their response was to commit themselves to helping their neighbours to overcome the huge social and economic challenges that the country faces.
Security was “100 times better than at the time of the Muslim Brotherhood”, the President-Bishop of the Province of Jerusalem and the Middle East, Dr Mouneer Anis, told us.
At the height of the mass attacks against Christians in Egypt, in the summer of 2013, the Coptic Pope, Tawadros II, suspended public gatherings (News, 23 August 2013). Dozens of churches were destroyed, and 29 people were killed. The General Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the UK, Bishop Angaelos, was moved to warn of a “very real risk upon the life of every Christian”.
The bombing on Sunday runs counter to the latest report on Egypt from the US Commission on Religious Freedom, which noted fewer sectarian attacks on Christians, and ongoing investigations into those that went before. Since the summer of 2013, dozens of suspects have been prosecuted and imprisoned.
In the mean time, the Churches in Egypt have pursued a path of building cohesion by working with some of the most marginalised, vulnerable parts of society.
“The best thing Christians can do now is go to the community,” the general director of Episcocare, an Anglican NGO registered with the Ministry of Social Solidarity, Dr Maged Mousa, said. “We need to build the acceptance of normal Muslims. This is the best time to do this. If we do not, we will be sorry.”
In Ezbet El Nakhl, in the north-east of Cairo, we visited “garbage city”, a plot of land piled high with the city’s waste, sorted by about 6000 rubbish collectors, the zabaleen. Most of these are Christian, living in small tin and wooden huts. Rising up in the midst of these piles is the Salam Centre, established in 1979 by the Coptic convent of the Daughters of St Mary, offering services including education, health care, and legal advice.
The head of the convent, Sister Maria, has been here for 26 years. Life had improved since the removal from power of the Muslim Brotherhood, she told us. In the wake of the 2011 revolution, a carpenter was killed in his workshop near by, just because he was a Christian. Under President Morsi, “nobody smiled”.
The Anglican Church has run a community development centre at El Ras El Soda, a poor area in the outskirts of Alexandria, since 2005. Most residents had arrived here from rural areas in Upper Egypt, seeking a better life, but discovered that, without education or experience, it was tough to find well-paying work. What began as a nursery has developed into a wide-ranging service, including health care, education, and job-placement. Between 30 and 40 per cent of those attending the centre are Christians, but many of the beneficiaries of the work are Muslims.
On the day we visited, we found a room packed with women learning a range of skills, including English and time management. One of them excitedly showed us the award-winning accessories she made and now sells, with the help of vocational training. Upstairs is the Church of Christ the King, where the Revd Osama Ramsis told us: “We cannot say we feel safe 100 per cent, but what can you do? The police cannot protect us.”
BEFORE Sunday, Alexandria was the site of the worst attack on Egyptian Christians in recent times: in 2011, 23 people died and 96 were wounded in a bombing that took place as they were leaving a New Year service at All Saints’ Coptic church (News, 7 January 2011).
“You felt that maybe this was going to be the end of the church in Egypt,” the Dean of St Mark’s Pro Cathedral, in Alexandria, Dr Samy Fawzy Shehata, said. Yet there was a sense of solidarity with the many other Egyptians opposed to the regime, he said.
On a Friday night at the cathedral we found young people, including many Muslims, thronging in the churchyard, where a regular arts night was taking place. The Arkan project, started in the wake of the first revolution, was designed to harness the desire for a “better Egypt”.
The founder, Nader Wanis, explained: “Before the revolution, the Christian community was so closed, and we started a project to open the Church, to serve the community itself, not only its own people.” He believes that “fear is leading the Churches in Egypt”, and admits that it was “scary at the beginning” of the project. But in five years there has been “not one problem”. It is “historic”, he thinks, for an Egyptian church to host this number of Muslims.
Under the leadership of Dr Anis, the Anglican Church has evolved from what was once described as the “Church of England in Egypt” to an indigenous Church that serves both Egyptians and those who have fled violence south of the country, including South Sudan.
Given the economic crisis in the country — unemployment stands at 12 per cent, inflation at 14 per cent — tensions between Egyptians and refugees can run high.
Through Refuge Egypt, the Anglican Church provides emergency support for new arrivals, offering education, mentoring, and an employment office that places about 600 refugees a year. It is currently the only place in the country that helps refugees who are HIV-positive.
WHILE Anglican leaders speak of a positive relationship with the government, human-rights groups fear that the work of civil society might be under threat.
Last month, the Egyptian parliament passed the Civic Association Law, which places all responsibility for administering civil society with government departments and the security services. Christian Solidarity Worldwide has suggested that the law “effectively eradicates civil society” in Egypt.
An acknowledged problem in present-day Egypt is that greater security comes at a price. Human Rights Watch notes that, under President Sisi, Egyptian authorities have imprisoned tens of thousands. At a sewing workshop in Cairo, we found a large pile of white gowns, and a smaller number of red gowns. They were destined for a women’s prison: the latter pile for those sentenced to death.
Until the angry scenes outside the bombed cathedral last Sunday, most Christians in Egypt had expressed support for President Sisi, grateful for his crackdown on those who threatened their communities. Last year, he become the first head of state to attend a Coptic mass on Christmas Eve.
But the protests that followed Sunday’s attack exposed the view that too little has been done to protect a community still subject to regular indignities and attacks, which Christian Solidarity calls a “cycle of violence and impunity”.
Madeleine Davies was travelling as a trustee of Embrace the Middle East, which funds Episcopare and the Salaam Centre, and other projects in Europe.