A Time to Celebrate: Graduation

A Time to Celebrate: Graduation

I arrived in Egypt just before the Graduation in 2016, so with Graduation this year I knew I had clocked a full year and more. The graduation took place at Heliopolis Presbyterian Church on Friday 2nd June, but the whole week had been a series of different events, from the trying on of gowns and hoods to the collection of boxes of books, kindly donated by publishers and local congregations, especially to those who will become pastors.

On the Thursday evening there was an in-house celebration of those graduating in the Auditorium at the Seminary, with song and speeches, though rather more of the latter! Then on Friday afternoon everyone gathered for the special ceremony in Heliopolis.

This year the graduation coincided with Ramadan, so in order to allow Muslim guests to attend, the ceremony took place in the afternoon rather than the evening. There were 52 students graduating, including four who graduated with Master of Theology degrees, including one from South Sudan who teaches at the Seminary in Juba. There were also 11 who graduated from the 4 year, full-time Master of Divinity programme who will become pastors in Synod of the Nile congregations.

The others graduated with Masters in Theology or in Organisational Leadership. Michel Ezzat, a friend from St Andrew’s Church, graduated in Theology after a number of years taking courses part-time. During the ceremony two elderly pastors were given special presentations, as they had graduated from the Seminary 50 years before, so that was a nice touch. There was also a presentation to Sarah Kim, a Korean woman who has worked in the Egyptian church for 40 years. However, the day belonged to those who were graduating and their families, and they certainly made the most of a colourful and eventful day.

Michael Youssef and Colin
Colin and Michael Youssef

Among those graduating was Michael Youssef, who was one of the first to welcome me when I arrived at the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo (ETSC). 26 years old, Michael was the youngest student in his year, and thoroughly enjoyed his time at the Seminary.

He comes from a family which is rooted in the Presbyterian Church, with his grandfather being an elder, and both parents being very involved. Michael grew up in the church and was involved in the youth group and taught Sunday School. After completing secondary school, he studied Tourism at Minya University, and it was during this time that Michael felt called to the ordained ministry. People are important to Michael, and he sees the importance of caring for them and affirming them. After university Michael spent a year in Hurghada, a big resort on the Red Sea, where he worked in tourism.

The Red Sea resorts are famous for the number of Russians who come to soak up the sun (fewer these days because of travel restrictions!), and Michael learned Russian in order to communicate with them. After a year there, however, he was accepted for the Seminary.  At the Seminary he immediately appreciated being part of the community. He formed good friendships and soon regarded ETSC as his family. He felt that here people ‘played together and prayed together’.

The courses he has enjoyed best have been in Systematic Theology, but he also has appreciated access to a well-stocked library and the joy of discovering books and ideas. Michael has now become the pastor of Reeda, a small congregation of 100 members (and no elders!) near Minya .Looking ahead, Michael would like to continue to study in the future and perhaps take the Master of Theology programme. He sees education as vital, and has the ambition to write books in Arabic to increase the knowledge of church members.


The Pope’s Message of Peace in Egypt

The Pope’s Message of Peace in Egypt

‘The Pope of Peace in Egypt of Peace’ read the poster displayed on a billboard in the centre of Cairo. This seemed ironic as the main reason for Pope Francis’ visit at the end of April was to show solidarity with the Church following the horrific bombings of the churches in Tanta and Alexandria on Palm Sunday, resulting in the deaths of over 45 people.

Linked with this was also, however, his desire to engage with the leadership at Al Azhar, one of the principal intellectual centres for Sunni Islam, and to speak at an inter-faith meeting. The visit was a tremendous boost to Christians of all denominations, but also presented a security nightmare, coming in the middle of the State of Emergency imposed after the church bombings. There were police officers lining streets throughout the visit and helicopters circled skies, but thankfully the visit passed without incident.

During the visit he had meetings with Egypt’s President Sisi and also with Pope Tawardos II of the Coptic Orthodox Church, with whom he paid tribute to the people who died in the December Bombing of St Peter’s Church adjacent to the Cathedral in Cairo. The two church leaders signed a declaration, renewing their commitment to find ways of recogising each other’s baptism (these things take a while!).

On the Saturday Pope Francis held a mass which 15,000 people attended. I did have a chance to attend, but it coincided with the Spring Bazaar to raise funds for StARS, so I decided to attend the latter. I think Francis would have approved. In fact, he did speak about refugees, saying that as Egypt had sheltered the Holy Family after their flight from Herod, so Egypt now shelters millions of refugees from other parts of the Middle East and the Horn of Africa. He also spoke of the need to help them to integrate into society.

His main aim was, however, to be an ambassador for peace in a region suffering from too many conflicts, and beset by terrorism. He spoke out strongly against those using the name of God to spread hatred, calling on Egyptians to live in harmony with one another, sharing fundamental human values and respecting the faith of all. He advocated a life based on charity: ‘Be fanatical about your faith, but only in the way that leads to engagement and compassion”. He also stressed the special role Egypt must play in promoting peace and combating terrorism, saying that in the days of Joseph, Egypt saved others from famine, but now  it is called to save the region from a ‘famine of love and fraternity’. He urged Egypt to ‘radiate the supreme values of justice and fraternity that are the solid foundation and necessary path to peace’.

The Catholic community in Egypt is very small, numbering 150,000 out of over 9million Christians in Egypt (Census figures concerning religious affiliation are never published, but it is generally stated that Christians make up 10% of the population, though the Orthodox Church would estimate a far higher percentage). Numbers of Catholics in Egypt decreased dramatically in the 1950s following the exodus of large numbers of foreign communities like the Italian and French.

Pope Francis affirmed Christians of all denominations, reminding them that the Church was ‘not new or accidental, but ancient and an inseparable part of the history of Egypt’ and an integral part of the country’. I attended an ecumenical lunch just after the visit, and church leaders from the different denominations were all enthusiastic about what Francis had been able to say and accomplish during his visit and were united in the view that it would bear much good fruit.

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.

“I Am Not Going to Wait For Death”

“I Am Not Going to Wait For Death”

It was a Saturday afternoon, I was next to the Nile, and I was feeling very relaxed. But reality has a habit of intruding when we least expect it, and as I idly checked the BBC News on my phone, I was immediately caught by a headline: ‘Coptic Christians flee Sinai after deadly attack’.

The British government does not recommend travel to most of the Sinai Peninsula, but the Northern part of Sinai is particularly troubled, and there have been constant reports of terrorist attacks, especially on the security forces. In the middle of February, however, the local affiliate of ISIS brought out a video threatening to carry out attacks on Christians and cleanse Egypt of them.

Sinai Christians
Photo: BBC

Since the release of the video, several Christians have been killed. In one case, a father was shot dead, while his 35 year old son was taken away and burned alive. There was apparently no attempt to negotiate or convert them to Islam. Horrific acts such as this have hit the Christian community hard, and many of the Christians living in the El Arish area (the biggest town in the Northern Sinai) have now fled to the relative safety of Ismailia on the Suez Canal. “I am not going to wait for death”, a restaurant owner said. “These people are ruthless” and he shut up his business and joined the exodus away from the Sinai. In all, well over 100 families have fled.

In Ismailia, the Presbyterian Church has opened its doors to the refugees, working alongside the Orthodox Church to make sure that everyone is accommodated and provided with food, blankets and medical supplies, as well as being offered counselling support. Kasr El Dobara, which is the largest of the Presbyterian churches in the country and is situated in Downtown Cairo, has also mobilized itself to help, offering support to Ismailia, but also providing assistance to those who have come to Cairo. It is good that all the churches have responded, but Christians are asking ‘What is next?’ They are also puzzled by what they perceive as the silence from the Western governments.

Most of Egypt is very safe, but this is a reminder of the difficulties facing Christians in certain parts of the country. February also saw the anniversary of the execution of 21 Coptic Christians in Libya in 2015.

Here is the link to a video made by Anne Zaki (See a previous post: Cracking the Glass Ceiling). It is well worth watching and gives a powerful insight into how strong Egyptian Christians’ faith is:  https://vimeo.com/125161160

Mokattam Revisited: Environmental Progress in the ‘Garbage City’

Mokattam Revisited: Environmental Progress in the ‘Garbage City’

In one of my earlier posts I described a visit to Mokattam with its awesome cave churches. I had always wanted to go back to visit one of the projects there, and when I heard that Nazli Rizek, one of the members at St Andrew’s, was taking a few people, I just had to tag along.

Nazli had taught English at the APE Project in the past, so was an ideal person to show us round. Mokattam’s other name is the ‘Garbage City’, because it is where President Nasser moved the rubbish collectors, the Zabaleen, in the 1950s. The Zabaleen are primarily Christian, and everywhere you see signs of their faith.

Mokattam has grown and is now a densely populated township with almost every available piece of land swallowed up in building constructions. In most of the blocks of flats, the ground floor is used for bringing in bags of rubbish, which the families sort through, extracting anything which is able to be recycled. After this process, the rest of the rubbish is taken away to a land fill site.

APE, the Association for the Protection of the Environment, has operated in Mokattam since 1984 and occupies an area in the centre of the township. It is one of the only spaces where there is a sense of space and even greenery. It aims to encourage the garbage collectors, and especially the women and children, to become ‘agents of change for a better environment’, and seeks to improve their lives in healthcare, education and also through income generation projects (involving recycling). They also seek to protect the environment by improving waste management systems and indeed have started an eco-garden at Mokattam, planting indigenous trees which produce fruit, thus promoting the concept of sustainability.

On entering the APE compound, we immediately came upon the school, which was made up of a number of brightly-decorated classrooms and enthusiastic teachers. There was a Nursery, where parents (many of them working on APE projects) could leave their babies and toddlers in a safe environment. Then there were several classrooms for children between the ages of 4 and 8, I would say, where they are taught basic reading and writing and generally are given a head start before being integrated in to the government school system.

However, the main part of the APE centre comprises of the buildings where recycling takes place, and where, primarily young women, are taught how to weave and sew and how to manufacture the wonderful rugs and patchwork quilts and bags, for which they are renowned.  The rags they use come from industrial waste (and not out of the garbage, as I had naively thought). Once they learn how to weave, they often have looms set up in their homes to continue to earn a living. They also learn how to recycle paper, which is handmade without any glues and chemicals, and so environmentally friendly. The paper is used to make cards with dried flowers or embroidery.

The healthcare service was unfortunately closed the day we were there, but they run awareness programmes in the community, especially concerning issues such as early marriage and female circumcision. There is also a project dealing with the transmission of Hepatitis B and C and providing both testing and treatment if necessary.

APE certainly makes a tremendous contribution to the well-being of the community, and everywhere we went we were met by helpful people who were obviously enjoying what they were doing.

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The Cairo Book Fair

The Cairo Book Fair

The metro trains on my Abbasiyya line have been crowded recently, because everyone has been going to the Book Fair! The Cairo Book Fair is the biggest and oldest in the Middle East (and apparently the second biggest in the world after Frankfurt!). It happens every year and lasts for two weeks, during which the Showground becomes a hive of activity.

Problems with the economy have had an effect on the Fair this year, as publishers have been hit hard.  Prices of paper and ink have doubled in price due to the Flotation of the Egyptian Pound in November, and this has led to a subsequent rise in the price of books. There were 100 fewer publishers at the Fair than in 2016.

BUT, despite it all, I was amazed at how many stalls and tents there actually were, and the size of the area they covered. I even managed to lose my bearings at one point, and had to be given directions back to the Metro! It was gratifying to see so many people at a Book Fair – it was crowded! (Admittedly there are 26 million people living in Greater Cairo, so perhaps I should not be surprised…)

Many people were there for a day out, and no doubt the refreshments stalls would make a lot of money. But there were some really good discounts on books, and I did see many people buying books. As usual in Book Fairs, there were various talks (almost exclusively in Arabic) and cultural events. Most of the books on sale were naturally in Arabic, but there were enough in English for me to spend a good few hours browsing – and buying!

Indeed I have visited the Fair three times already, and each time I returned with an empty wallet. We are very fortunate to have the American University in Cairo Press, which publishes excellent books, often with first-rate illustrations or photographs. They too were offering very good discounts, so inevitably I came out of their marquee laden with books.

There were quite a number of Christian publishers (though they tended to be all in the same big tent), including the Bible Society who had a couple of stands and who offered Bibles for the equivalent of 10p (to give them away free could be seen as proselytizing, which is against the law). There was also super material for children and teenagers, but again these were affected by the price rise in imported materials, so have had to raise their prices, though never by enough to cover costs.

I have always loved books, but when I left both Zambia and the Galilee, I left so many books behind. I thought that in Egypt I would have to use Kindle. However, the Cairo Book Fair has certainly helped to break that resolve.