The Syrian Connection

Syria is never far from the news headlines these days. However, we often forget that between 1958 to 1971it was united with Egypt, and although the union was dissolved, there has always been a strong connection between the two countries. Nowadays there is a large Syrian community in Egypt, mostly, but not exclusively, made up of refugees. I find myself knowing and working with a number of Syrians in Cairo..

IMG_20170225_143424077_BURST000_COVERSalim Farah is now in his final year of the M.Div program at ETSC and is about to graduate. An elder in the Presbyterian Church, Salim comes from Baludan, a town in the hills outside Damascus (a winter sports resort in the days before the Civil War ravaged the country). The civil war made it difficult for his congregation to maintain a pastor, so Salim, who is an attorney and judge at the religious court by profession, effectively became the pastor. However he was conscious of his lack of training and so decided to have theological training. His brother is a pastor in the North-east of Syria and had studied at ETSC, so Salim elected to come to Cairo too. It has not always been easy as the culture, food and even the Arabic spoken in Egypt is very different from Syria, and Salim has had to adjust. However, his worst moment came with the death of his father in Syria during his first year here. Because of his visa, he was unable to travel for the funeral and he has also been unable to visit his mother and family since, as it has been uncertain whether he would be allowed back in to finish his studies. Salim found himself supported by the family of ETSC and has built up good relations here in Cairo. He is committed to return to Syria to be part of the rehabilitation and healing of Syria once the war is over –Syria was 20% Christian before the present troubles and, according to Salim, desperately needs the message of Jesus’ love. He would first like to study for a Masters degree in peace studies, before he returns for good.

Camilla 1Camilla Elia is also Syrian, coming from the North-East of the country from a town settled by Christians fleeing persecution in Ottoman Turkey during World War 1. Her father was Protestant, but her mother’s side of the family was all Orthodox, and she grew up singing Syriac hymns. Although deciding to be Protestant herself, she values her Orthodox heritage and is strongly ecumenical. She came at first to Egypt in 1997 to study for the B.Th. at ETSC, before continuing to study for a Th.M. in Biblical Studies, being one of the first women to graduate in the Th.M. programme.. She married an Egyptian pastor, and so has stayed on in Cairo and teaches Hebrew at the Catholic and the Baptist seminaries. She has also involved herself in the Sudanese community, supporting some of the refugee congregations. Recently Camilla returned to ETSC to study for a second Th.M., this time focusing on the work of St Ephrem, a Syrian church-leader of the 5th Century. She is active in her husband’s congregation in Rod El Farag and often invites expat pastors to preach there, though first of all filling them with the most marvellous Syrian food.

Ghaith10Both Camilla and Salim came to Egypt specifically to study, but Ghiath came as a refugee. He is from Damascus, where his family is well-established and live in a big 12 roomed house in the old part of Damascus. He studied engineering at the university, but realised that on graduation, he would be drafted into the army and, as a soldier, he would either have to kill someone or be killed himself, neither of which particularly appealed! So after his third year he ran away, travelling to Lebanon first of all, then to Turkey, before finally reaching Egypt, where he has lived now for five years, working in a takeaway restaurant serving Syrian food. He is continuing his engineering studies online, at the end of which his dream is to go to Australia or Canada. He knows his family are well and manages to communicate with his mother by phone every other day, but realises it would be difficult for him ever to return to Syria. His English is excellent already, but he says he learnt it from watching films on YouTube! I am supposed to help him with pronunciation, but mostly we explore the various Syrian and Lebanese restaurants around the city.

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January: Theology and Monks in the Desert

January: Theology and Monks in the Desert

January has been satisfyingly cold. Not Scottish cold, of course, but cold enough to wear a jacket and even a scarf. The skies have been grey, and there was even a day when it tried to rain. At ETSC we have just completed the short January term, a three week period of intensive courses.

Often international theologians are invited to lecture, and this year we had invited Yohanna Katanacho from the Nazareth Evangelical College who lectured on Palestinian Theology. His lectures certainly hit a chord with our Egyptian students, who reflected on their own situation and the various discriminations they face as Christians. I had met Yohanna during my time in the Galilee, so it was good to see him again.

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Yohanna Katanacho with a group from the Scholars’ Seminar.

January also saw the Egyptian launch of the Arabic translation of Calvin’s Institutes. It was a big event, with the auditorium full. It seems Calvin still makes an impact today! The translators were Lebanese, Syrian and Egyptian, and the editor was Dr George Sabra, President of the Near Eastern School of Theology (NEST) in Beirut, who in his speech described how Calvin wrote his work at a time of great persecution. Dr Atef Gendy, President of ETSC, highlighted the cooperation between Egypt and Lebanon in the project and mentioned that a team from ETSC would soon be meeting their counterparts at NEST to plan for future projects of more recent works. Translation is vitally important in the Middle East to allow Christians to access works written in other languages.

While life has been busy at the Seminary, I did manage to get away one Saturday with friends, and we ventured to the Fayoum, a fertile oasis just 90 minutes drive from Cairo. We had lunch at a former royal lodge overlooking the lake (definitely fading grandeur!), had a look round some ancient temples and visited one of the pottery villages for which the Fayoum is famous (I had already bought some pottery from a church-based project in the village of Garagos near Luxor, so resisted the temptation to buy).

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However, the highlight of our day was a visit to the St Macarius monastery, which is situated on a mountainside bordering the Western Desert. My guidebook stated that after centuries of neglect, the monastery had been revived and that in the early 2000s there were 14 monks living there. My guidebook was admittedly several years old, but nonetheless we were very surprised to find the monastery a hive of activity and that there are now 150 monks there!

This reinforced what I had heard; that monasticism is once again becoming a popular option in Egypt. We spoke with a number of men who had been engineers and bankers, but had now left everything to become monks in the back of beyond. The area around the monastery was large, and some of the desert has been reclaimed, so that the monks grew olives and dates and various vegetables with a shop selling its produce. The original church had been replaced by a slightly bigger one, but near the gate an even bigger church is currently being constructed. Around the mountain, however, were the little cells where the monks lived and prayed. At certain times each day they would gather for communal worship. It was encouraging to see all the prayerful activity in the desert – and of course it was in the Egyptian desert that monasticism has its roots.

The month ended with the engagement party of one of our students, Ibrahim Nagy, though it was such a big affair with sermons, speeches and vows that it was almost like the wedding itself. We now await the Spring semester, which starts in February.

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All Are Welcome

All Are Welcome

It was the Friday, rather appropriately between American Thanksgiving and St. Andrew’s Day, and St. Andrew’s Church in Cairo was full. People of different nationalities had gathered;  from Canada and the United States, from Egypt and Ethiopia, from Sudan, South Sudan and the Philippines, and even a number of us from Scotland.

Together, we gave thanks to God for 109 years of worship in that place, and rededicated the building and indeed ourselves for the future. It was a joyous service with the organ playing and several African choirs singing, but it was also a time to feel the unity of believers from different backgrounds sharing their oneness in Christ.

St Andrew’s had been in bad shape. The windows had been blown out in a bomb blast a few years before and were covered with cardboard, the floor was seriously sinking, the paintwork peeling, and the roof leaking. The church itself seemed tired and dark. Now, thanks to help from the Church of Scotland among others, the windows have all been replaced, the floor and roof have been sorted, new lights and a new sound system put in and the furnishings all restored and polished, so that we can actually see some wonderful detail.

The church was looking good. Outside we have even laid grass, albeit of the artificial variety, which gives a welcome splash of colour in dusty Cairo. The US Marines have painted the ‘caravans’ (porta-cabins) we use for various classes as part of their community service.

Seven congregations use St Andrew’s, but since Holy Week we all had to meet in the Guild Hall or the German Church nearby until work  on the building was more or less completed at the end of September. The congregations are mostly made up of refugees and are Presbyterian, Lutheran, Pentecostal and interdenominational in background. The first group to move back to the church was the Ethiopian Protestant congregation for their New Year service (Ethiopian New Year being in September), and that was appropriate as we had a new start.

Representatives from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and Church of Scotland joined members from the 7 congregations in attending the service, which was led by Pastor Kirsten Fryer who is from ELCA. In our first hymn we sang ‘Let us build a house where love can dwell and all can safely live… And all are welcome in this place’. That sums up St Andrew’s. We always stress that we are a welcoming church  providing a safe place for the many refugees from different countries and different faith communities who gather within our walls, and within the embrace of God.

This was again evident the following day when we held our bazaar. The church was full of people laughing and chatting, eating Yemeni samosas and drinking Ethiopian coffee, as they looked at a variety of stalls. There was a woodworker from Eritrea making miniature musical instruments; a South Sudanese women selling patchwork i-pad covers; a Yemeni who makes intricately carved boxes: artists, portrait painters, jewellery makers.

They were all there, plus the food stalls from all the different countries – including my favourite: Syrian food. A good day was had by all, and the funds raised go to the Emergency Fund to help refugees!

When I put up some photos of the service on Facebook, a former member wrote that St Andrew’s is a beacon of hope in the darkness. Long may it continue to be so.

 

Featured Image: StARS

A Trip to Minya

A Trip to Minya

From the windows of the train you could see fields of sugar cane and palm trees on either side of the river, but beyond was the desert. There was a real contrast between the green of the cultivated land and the hazy browns of the encroaching desert.

I realised how narrow a band of fertile land supports the 90+ million inhabitants in Egypt, spread out along the Nile River. I was on the train heading south to Minya, a journey of four hours. Minya is the heartland of the Protestant Church in Egypt and many of our students come from the villages around Minya, but I had never had the opportunity to visit. So when one of the students, Moody, invited me to stay with his family, I readily accepted.

Minya is situated mainly on the West side of the Nile, and the main part of the town is squeezed beween the Nile and the Ibrahimiya Canal, built in the 1870s to irrigate the land around. A new town, appropriately called New Minya, has been built on the East Bank of the river, but needless to say, despite the low housing costs and good infrastructure in New Minya, people still prefer to live in the more congested old town.

Minya is a busy place of a quarter of a million people, but compared to Cairo, it is still small enough to bump into people you know. On my first evening we went along to the club at the 2nd Presbyterian Church, one of the biggest Presbyterian churches in the country. The club takes place on a Friday evening, and is a place where people of all ages can gather to chat and play games. Some of the young people were playing volleyball and table tennis, while the adults were more likely to chat around tables or play chess.

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The main point of the club was to provide a safe place for people to gather and socialize and be themselves, knowing there would not be any trouble. I have noticed repeatedly how churches of all denominations are busy through the week with people gathering just to sit and talk in safe spaces.

On the Sunday morning I went along to worship at 2nd Presbyterian, but in the evening I had been invited to preach at a smaller church in a slightly less salubrious area. Gad El Seed lies to the South of Minya City and is a warren of narrow alleys. In 2013 there was an outbreak of violence against property belonging to Christians in the area, and a mob of Islamists worked their way from the South. The Gad El Seed church was the first to be burned (over 70 churches were damaged).

Sameh, the pastor, showed me some awful pictures of the destruction. At that time he was still single and he remained to rally his members and encourage them (I know one married pastor whose church was burned down at the same time, and his wife and daughter were so traumatized by the events that they had to move away). It was a tense, even dangerous week, but the community rallied round.  The church took three years to be rebuilt, but the congregation is strong and I was impressed by their warmth (and also by their wonderful hospitality afterwards).

I stayed with Moody and his wife and daughter for two of the nights I was in Minya, but the third I stayed on the Dahabeya, a boat on the Nile with four cabins. This is a fundraising venture by CEOSS, the evangelical social development organisation. The original boat had been burnt in the 2013 riots, but it has now been replaced, and it was certainly wonderful to wake up and look out at people fishing in small canoes on the Nile. The scene and the means of fishing would probably not have changed too much over the centuries.

It was good to visit Minya at long last and to be able to engage with the local Christians. At least now when the students say that they are from Minya, I will be able to say I have been!

 

New Semester: New Students

New Semester: New Students

During the summer the Dorm has been quiet; by mid-September they corridors were full of noise. The students had been away on their summer placements, but now they are back, and there is life and activity around the campus again. There is always a sense of anticipation and excitement before the new session begins.

Old students return full of stories about their summer and what they accomplished in their internships. But there are also the new students who feel slightly bewildered, as they get used to a new place and new people.

To help them, and as part of spiritual formation, a retreat is held just before the beginning of the semester. From Monday until Thursday, the faculty members and students got together at a retreat house called Beit El Salam, the House of Peace, which is on the coast just outside Alexandria. There was time for prayer and reflection, but also plenty of time for fellowship and fun. The theme of the Retreat this year was ‘Run to Win the Prize’ from 1 Corinthians 9:24, and the talks focused on this athletic theme. The Movie ‘Chariots of Fire’ was even shown, telling the story of Eric Liddell. There was a tremendous sense of togetherness at the retreat, and it ended with communion led by the ETSC President, Dr Atef Gendy. By the time the bus came to take us back to Cairo, the new students felt very much part of the ETSC family.

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The new students have since been settling well. There are 11 new Master of Divinity students who will train to be pastors. One of them is Amen Magdy, who is 23 years old and has come straight from an Engineering degree. Amen is a Son of the Manse: his father has been pastor of the congregation of Nag Hammadi in the South of Egypt for 23 years.

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Amen Magdy

Nag Hammadi is famous in scholarly circles for being the place where a lot of Gnostic documents were discovered which have a bearing on our understanding of the Early Church. But Egyptians tend to associate Nag Hammadi with the events of 6th January 2011 (the Coptic Christmas) when an extremist shot dead several people as they came out of church. Amen was a teenager then, but he says that the Christians and Muslims interact well in the community and that his family has many Muslim friends.

 

Amen’s mother is a Biology teacher at High School, and he has a sister currently studying economics in Chicago. He obviously grew up in the church, but never thought to become a pastor himself (he saw that his father was always very busy), but in his later years at College he began to feel very strongly that God was calling him to be just that. He prayed about it, consulted friends, argued against it, but in the end submitted to the call. He has now completed his first few weeks at Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo, he is already playing piano at chapel services and is amazed at how supportive and friendly the teaching staff are – far different from the more remote teachers of his first degree. Amen is very much looking forward to the years ahead.

Moody is another of the new students. He is 35, worked for CEOSS, the Evangelical Church social outreach organization, for 12 years and is married to Marian with a daughter Mayly. He had already taken some of the MAT courses and has now transferred to the M.Div program, so is able to gain exemption from the 1st year. He comes from Minya, one of the biggest cities in Upper Egypt and the heartland of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church.

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Moody

In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, Minya was caught up in sectarian tensions, and a mob encouraged by extremist preachers burnt several churches and also set fire to a number of Christian homes. The building where Moody lived with his grandmother and aunt was one of them. They lived in a flat on the 4th Floor, but he managed somehow to carry his grandmother, who suffers from dementia, to safety. They are only now moving back into the building. Moody is very committed to the family, and because of that, he travels every weekend to Minya to be with them, while trying to keep abreast of his homework and assignments. Both Moody and Amen are very different in character and experience, but both are united in a deep love for Jesus Christ and a commitment to Christ’s ways.

A Day In The Life Of…

A Day In The Life Of…

It is a Wednesday in late August. The temperatures have been in the high 30s all week, and they don’t seem to fall much during the night. From my African days I have always tended to wake with the light, but Cairo is a city which never sleeps, so there is always noise outside. Often it is the call to prayer from the nearby mosque which wakes me. I doze a bit, before getting up before 06.00 and putting on the kettle. I am unusual in waking early; many Egyptians go to bed in the early hours of the morning, so sleep late.

I have a small flat at the end of the corridor on Floor 4 of the Dorm (up 6 flights of stairs), and during the summer it is quiet, as most of the students are away on their internships. There is a bedroom and living room with a shower room and small kitchen. It is ideal.

One side looks over the Police Training Academy, including the Police Equestrian centre and their kennels (the dogs’ barking makes a lot of noise, though it is amazing how accustomed you become to it). The other side looks over St Mary’s, a Coptic Orthodox church with a big picture (mosaic) of Mary painted on its tower, whose bells ring at 07.30.

 

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Breakfast at the Seminary is from 08.30, which is too late for me, so I usually have tea and a bowl of granola. There are several different types of granola in the shops, all of which are made in Poland. As with all imported goods, you buy them when you see them, as they are on the shelves for a few months, then you can’t find them for several months thereafter.

I always try to walk down the stairs rather than use the lift (though the thought of walking up 6 flights is more daunting!), and I am in the office by 08.30. Four of us share the office, all working on ‘Development and International Relations’. We seek to raise awareness about the Seminary and to keep in touch with friends and supporters through newsletters. We also take care of visitors and show them round the Seminary. Another task is to raise funds for the various projects and write reports to donors, so I find myself busy behind a computer screen. During term time there are chapel services mid-morning, but in the summer everything is quiet.

On Wednesdays I leave the office early and walk to the metro station in order to go to Maadi in the south of Cairo, as I teach English to a group of Oromo refugees from Ethiopia.

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The Oromo People in Traditional Dress

It takes about 25 minutes to walk to Demerdash station and involves zigzagging across a busy road (no helpful pedestrian crossings!), then walking through the grounds of a hospital and past the mortuary. I am used to mortuaries from Zambia, where I often had to collect coffins in my pick-up to take to the cemetery for burial, but here there is less obvious grief in evidence; everything is God’s will.

I walk through a covered market selling all sorts of goods, though halfway through I could veer off into a small park, one of the few patches of green in this part of Cairo, where rather bizarrely there is a plaque commemorating a visit by Margaret Thatcher.

Reaching the station I pay my 2 ginay (the equivalent of 4p) and wait for the train. Often on this line the carriages can be crowded, and some of the trains are older and their a/c does not always work so effectively, so, in August, it is like being in a sauna. Some of the other trains are newer, so if you are not too pressed for time, you wait until one of the new trains comes. The middle two carriages are reserved purely for women, though women can also use the other carriages as well.

People are very good at giving up their seats to the elderly or infirm, though this often involves an elaborate ritual of refusal and insistence. I have never had a problem with security on the train, even though at times they can be jam-packed, and have found people really friendly. On arrival at Hadayek Maadi, I transfer to a tuktuk, which can be a hair-raising experience as they weave their way at breakneck speed past pedestrians, cars and donkey-and-carts.

This takes me to a square, where the women are gathered and from where we take a minibus to the Oromo School for the lessons. Often returning on the bus the women sing songs and chants from Ethiopia, one of which translates ‘We did not understand this week, but maybe we will next week’!. I started to teach the group a year ago, and now we have two groups; a class for beginners who want to proceed at a gentler rate; and a class for those who feel more confident. While the aim is to teach English, the main purpose is psycho-social rather than educational and is for the women to get out of their homes and socialise. Many of the refugees have their own difficulties living in Cairo, so it is good for them to come together.

After the class is finished, it is late afternoon and I make my way to Maadi, a slightly more upmarket suburb nearby, and treat myself to a meal from a Lebanese Takeaway, which is a nice change from Egyptian food. During the winter or spring I would often get off the metro in the city center (called Downtown) which was redeveloped in the 19th Century and modeled on Paris. Now the streets are lined with shops (amazing the number of clothes shops, especially for men) but if you look up you still see glimpses of grand buildings, but very much decaying grandeur.

Tonight however, I make my way back to Abbassiya, walking past pens of sheep, which are sold for the Muslim El Adha Feast which takes place this year at the beginning of September (the sheep and cattle are slaughtered on the streets which are literally running with blood!). I dump my stuff, and then go across the road to the Coptic Orthodox church, where there are services every night for two weeks leading up to one of the Coptic feasts.

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It is very different from the Presbyterian services, but I enjoy participating. There is a tremendous sense of community, and the church has been well-filled every evening of the feast (it is also a fast, so most of the people there have not been eating meat or diary for some weeks). I am always impressed by the number of young people at the churches in Egypt, and many of them are involved in the worship.

Afterwards I walk across the road to the Seminary where, unlike most of the inhabitants of Cairo, I tend to fall asleep before midnight.

Practicing Theology: Reaching Spiritual and Emotional Needs

Practicing Theology: Reaching Spiritual and Emotional Needs

The long, hot summer months are here. Our minds inevitably turn to holidays. However, for the students at the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo (ETSC) the summer is about work.

During the year they study theology, talk about theology, and write assignments about theology. When the summer comes, they embark on 10 week placements which allow them the chance to put theory into practice.

Through summer internships students are exposed to the challenges that Egypt faces in the 21st Century, equipping them to address the spiritual, physical and emotional needs of society.

The students find themselves placed out of their comfort zones, perhaps working in prisons or addiction rehabilitation centers, or school for those with special needs. Wherever they are, they have to develop new skills to meet the peoples’ needs.

Final year students find themselves in areas where there are no churches, or where the congregation has been without a pastor for many years. They have to respond in creative and transformational ways. Those who have just completed 1st Year are placed in larger congregations and work alongside experienced pastors.

Peter Gad El Rab is working in a large congregation in Assiut in Upper Egypt and has gained enormously from working with the pastor there. Pastor Basem sees the importance of study in the ministry and has encouraged Peter to spend three hours, from 11.00am to 2.00pm, purely reading. The pastor specifies useful books, often gifting copies to Peter. Once he has finished each book, Peter discusses what he has read with him.

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Peter Gad El Rab 

Peter has taken part in all aspects of church life, and at Eid el Fitr at the end of Ramadan he joined the pastors in greeting some of the local Muslim leaders. This was a new experience for Peter to meet such important people, especially given the often-fraught relationship between the two religions in Upper Egypt. Peter also meets two elders or leaders per week to discuss the life of the congregation. He has been impressed with the set-up of the Assiut church, where there is an emphasis on the role of women. Impressively the number of women elders is equal to the number of male elders, which is not at all typical in Egyptian congregations.

Abd El Sayed has just completed his 2nd Year of studies and is spending the summer attached to the social services wing of the Catholic Church in Minya. The Catholic Church has had a long tradition of social service, and Abd El Sayed has been involved in three areas: Working with prisoners and their families, with those suffering from cancer, and with people living with mental illness. He enjoys working with his supervisor, Fr Paulus, and is impressed by his openness and readiness to work with prisoners, for example, in a welcoming and non-judgmental way.

Standing alongside the families of cancer sufferers and prisoners is an important feature of the work, and parties have been held for children and families to help them through a traumatic time. With those who are living with mental illness, he has seen how they have been enabled to earn a living through making candles or clothes.

Abd El Sayed has had a good experience so far and says ‘It would be have been a big loss for me if I had not come to a place like this’. He bemoans how far forward the Catholic Church is with their social programme, compared to the Evangelical Church where the stress is too much on worship.

Magdy Monier is working in a small congregation, 30 kms out of Alexandria. The Evangelical Church has been there for a long time, but years without a pastor have taken their toll, and now there are only 15-20 members attending worship. There is no Sunday School, nor are there any other meetings during the week. Obviously it is a congregation facing problems, and it’s hard to solve much during a ten week internship.

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Magdy Monier (left) who is supporting an Evangelical Church near Alexandria. 

However, Magdy has organised a team of leaders from one of the big congregations in Alexandria to come to the church to spend time with the people and help them to put in place a project which allows the church to serve the local community. He realizes that while this will help in the short term, there really needs to be a full-time pastor working alongside the people, building up the members and strengthening their faith and also their sense of identity as members of the church.

In July, halfway through their time, the students returned to the Seminary for a few days to process their experiences so far. From what they shared, we realise the importance of the internship program for preparing them for their future work as pastors.