Azbakiyya may sound like the name of a republic in Central Asia, but is actually a district in the centre of Cairo and the place where the Synod of the Nile established itself, building a church and latterly its offices (the ‘121’ of Cairo). The Church has 12 different councils (just as the Church of Scotland has World Mission, Ministries, Church and Society, etc) focusing on different areas, but the one with which I have had most dealings so far (and also a warm welcome from!) is CSD – the Council for Services and Development. It promotes development and ministries of compassion and justice in the 8 presbyteries (and 400 congregations) which make up the Presbyterian Church, but the area which perhaps hits home most is what I would call Health Justice. They are very much involved in Gender Based Violence, running workshops, training counsellors and providing support groups – and also producing excellent videos, such as ‘In her Place’ (Please take the time to watch this – it is so well done!):
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7-0wdl-ztLE (If this fails, type’ In Her Place’ and ‘Egypt’ into YouTube and hopefully it will show!)
Egypt is an extremely conservative and patriarchal society, and the percentage of women in Egypt who have suffered verbal or physical abuse is staggeringly high, but like so many other countries, people do not speak out about it. Speaking with Engie Ibrahim, the International Relations Officer for CSD, she uses phrases such as of ‘taboo’ and ‘stigma’ and ‘breaking the silence’, all terms which I associate with HIV and AIDS, but which are equally applicable to violence against women in Egypt. Fortunately through CSD, the topic is being aired in the media, with the Director Shaher Luka being interviewed on television, part of the advocacy work, keeping society, and especially the decision-makers in church and the community, well-informed.
Another health area in which CSD works is Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), which is very common in Egypt. I had failed to realise how widespread the practice is within the Christian community, especially in Upper Egypt. It is less prevalent in the urban centres like Cairo or Alexandria, but it is hard to know exact numbers. According to Engie, the practice goes back to the times of the Pharaohs, but ‘the Church cannot just turn a blind eye to it’. CSD has been involved in speaking to church leaders of all the denominations and has also been in discussions with the Islamic community to encourage Imans to raise the issue with their followers. The reaction from the various workshops held has been a very positive one, with participants saying that the information they had received had made them change their minds about FGM and that they would no longer go ahead with it.
The work of CSD is ecumenical and interfaith, but there are some restrictions. They are unable to work with street kids, for example, because it would be feared that they would try to convert them from Islam to Christianity. These are things in Egypt that you have to be very sensitive about. However, they have targeted children at risk, especially helping children from poorer families to stay on at school, when the temptation would be to drop out. School fees for state schools are minimal in Egypt, but often there are hidden costs – children often have to pay for mandatory tutorials, which can strain a family’s resources. This is where CSD steps in to help and to keep the children in school.
The work of the CSD is more wide-ranging than this, ranging from HIV workshops to the giving out of microloans to small businesses – and even the provision of tablets (the computer kind) complete with 1000s of ebooks for newly graduated pastors! I have been enormously impressed by the wide-ranging work of this Council and their small team, and feel that other churches have a lot to learn from them.