Palm Sunday 2017: Tears Just Ran Down His Face

Palm Sunday 2017: Tears Just Ran Down His Face

Palm Sunday is usually a day of celebration. There are, however, bittersweet moments. We all know the story, and know that the same Jesus who rides into town on the donkey to the acclamation of the crowds will be betrayed, denied, humiliated and even put to death before the week is out.

The Holy Week story of suffering and death became very real to the Church in Egypt this year when suicide bombers targeted the Mar Girgis Church in Tanta, a large town in the Delta, and then later in the morning St. Mark’s Cathedral in Alexandria, where Pope Tawadros II was officiating.

At least 45 people died and over 100 were injured in the explosions.

I had already celebrated ‘Palm Friday’, for many churches in Egypt have services on Friday as that is the day when working people are off. But on the Saturday I had travelled to Alexandria for an overnight visit.

I arrived in time to wander round the city, visiting the Anglican Church and seeing how beautifully it was decorated for Palm Sunday and then making my way to the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral, St. Mark’s, where in the courtyard a number of people were weaving wonderfully intricate palm crosses and other decorations.

On Sunday morning I returned to the Cathedral to worship. Security was tight, and my passport was taken away to be checked. Finally, I was allowed through the gate into the courtyard, and to the church beyond. The Cathedral was absolutely packed, with people standing down the aisles. I squeezed in at the back near the mosaic of St Mark, but was able to hear the Pope preach.

After just under an hour I slipped away, as I wanted to attend the Attareen Presbyterian Church, a church which has its roots in Scottish and Swiss missionaries. Again, the church was full of people celebrating Palm Sunday. I stayed for communion, but had to rush away to collect my bag from my hotel in order to reach the station in time to catch my train.

In making my way back to the hotel, however, I soon became aware that something was terribly wrong. There was an uncanny silence only broken by ambulance sirens. And yet the streets were crowded. People were obviously distraught and in some kind of shock.

As I walked over broken glass from shop windows, I stopped at a coffee shop which I had visited the previous day to ask what had happened. The man at the counter could not speak – the tears just ran down his face.

It was only when I reached the hotel that I was able to hear that a bomb had exploded at the Cathedral. I thought immediately of the people I had spoken to, like the men weaving the palm crosses or the police officer who had inspected my passport. It was only later that I learnt that because of the swift action of the police, the bomb had exploded at the gate of the Cathedral compound, rather than inside where there would certainly have been more casualties. Sadly several of the police officers lost their lives.

In December a bomb exploded in the church adjoining the Cathedral in Cairo, killing and injuring many worshippers. In March the Islamic State group killed at least seven men in Northern Sinai, after posting a video threatening to cleanse Christians from that area.

Now at the start of Holy Week, there have been more deaths. Christians are asking what is next and also questioning security, which was an issue in Tanta, but not so in Alexandria.

The Church has a long history of oppression and even dates its calendar from the period of severe persecution under the emperor Diocletian. Christians have proved to be amazingly resilient over the years, and even now, life continues, and the Holy Week services continue, as people refuse to let terrorism and fear have the last word. There is a Coptic Orthodox Church across the road which I sometimes attend, and speaking with some of the young people gathered there, they simply say, ‘Pray for us’ – and they believe it will make a difference.

Meet the Gaber Brothers

Meet the Gaber Brothers

Perhaps it is not uncommon for two siblings to graduate at the same time, but things become a bit unusual when the age difference between the two is 14 Years!

Saad Gaber and Maurice Gaber grew up in the Upper Egyptian village of Daqouf, in a family of 5 children, with Saad the eldest and Maurice the youngest (three sisters in between). At the 2017 ETSC Graduation, in the beginning of June, both will be awarded M.Div degrees. Looking at them you can see the family likeness, and certainly both of them are very musical, with Saad playing the accordion at Chapel services, while Maurice is often on the keyboard or piano.

Their stories, however, are quite different.

Saad, a graduate in Media and Communication, had served as a lay pastor for a number of years. The Synod of the Nile had been conscious of the number of congregations without pastors, so set up a scheme whereby people could study at the Seminary for 6 months and then serve in these smaller congregations.  Saad was one of those who came forward.

He studied in 2006 and then served in three successive congregations, building each of them up so that they could be given an ordained pastor. As a lay pastor, Saad could do most things, but could not administer the sacraments, nor could he be effectively involved in decision-making in the wider church. He was also conscious that he wanted to study more about subjects such as counselling, and to be ordained. As such, he applied to join the ordination track M.D. programme.

After graduation, Saad will become a Pastor in the almost entirely Christian village of El Asaya near Assiut. There hasn’t been a pastor there for three years, and Saad has lots of ideas, but wisely says that only once he starts work, and assesses the situation, will he will know the way forward. Saad is married to Teresa.

Maurice, his younger brother, is 29, extremely personable, and confident. He is in charge of the chapel services at the Seminary and is also the designated student photographer at any of the Seminary events. Like many young men in Egypt he was conscripted into the armed forces, and for Maurice this meant the Air Force.

He studied Art Media at Minya University, though he admits that the course concentrated purely on theory. He was therefore delighted to have his second year internship with Media Arts for Development, a Christian Arts organization involved in things like film-making, where he could see the practical application of all the things he had learned in his bachelor’s degree.

For his 3rd year internship he was in a small congregation which had been without a pastor for several years in the old Pharaonic town of Armant, near Luxor, where he used his musical gifts to attract young people to the church. He has thoroughly enjoyed his four years at ETSC and especially the greater insight it has given him into Theology and Pastoral Care. He wrote his research paper on Demon Possession, and he will travel to the Netherlands in the autumn for a three month programme to develop this research.

Maurice is very much looking forward to being the pastor of Karara congregation near Minya, where the Evangelical Church is the only Christian presence in an otherwise Muslim village.

Both Saad and Maurice have benefited enormously from having each other about at Seminary. The family members are understandably very proud of both of them and will all be there supporting them at Graduation.