Anyone who has spent time with the Copts will quickly sense their resourceful spirit. Their courage and determination will no doubt make a deep impression on Pope Francis during his visit to Egypt, especially in light of recent acts of persecution that have claimed the lives of churchgoers, most notably on Palm Sunday.
The ongoing privations, intimidation and outright oppression not only account for the Copts’ creative and resolute character, but also explain why they need support, not least from charities such as Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), the charity for suffering Christians which I work for.
When I last visited Egypt, I was led up a street by some clergy and asked to pause in front of a building apparently no different to the others on either side. It was only when I stepped across the threshold that I realised that I had walked into a church.
I was then told how the transformation had taken place. The parish priest’s sister had moved into the building next door and, under cover of darkness, building materials were passed through a hole in the roof. From the outside the accommodation block had remained unchanged but inside contractors worked feverishly to create the chapel. Security guards stood outside, apparently oblivious to what was going on within.
ACN is committed to supporting Copts in Egypt, which is a priority country for aid. It has been especially committed to helping to build churches, taking advantage of a relaxation in planning restrictions after the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s regime in 2011. Before that, church construction required the personal approval of the Egyptian president, a process that could take up to 30 years. Hence the need for improvisation and the creation of parish halls with little-known capacity to act as churches.
In addition to supporting Catholic seminarians at St Leo the Great in Maadi, a suburb of Cairo, ACN has helped Coptic Orthodox students for the priesthood. Such initiatives are part of a process seeking greater cooperation between Coptic Catholics, who are a minority, and the Coptic Orthodox, who make up almost all of the country’s up to 10 million Christians.
A small and arguably marginalised community, Coptic Catholics have achieved greater acceptance and integration as a result of their commitment to social work, for example through L’Arche centres for people with learning disabilities and medical centres serving poor communities from all faith backgrounds.
Outreach to young people is chief among the Church’s concerns. The youth are the ones most likely to leave in a country which, in spite of having by far the largest Christian community of any Middle Eastern nation, is still threatened by emigration. Hence, the work carried out by the likes of Coptic Catholic Bishop Kyrillos William of Assiut to provide material and pastoral help for students in a part of the Upper Egypt district with a fine and growing tradition of universities and other places of learning.
This emphasis on the young also explains why Bishop Kyrillos and his brothers in the Coptic Catholic episcopacy joined together in asking ACN to provide funds to enable 250 young people from every diocese in the country to go and see the Pope when he visits Cairo.
Young Copts, in particular, need all the encouragement they can get. While one Coptic Catholic student I met in Assiut described her “trust in the Egypt I love”, another said: “Life is difficult for us. Christians do not feel safe. Sometimes the extremists announce that Christians should be killed. People call you a dog or some other animal.”
John Pontifex is head of press and information for Aid to the Church in Need (UK)
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