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:

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.


The Inspirational Story of John Samuel

The Inspirational Story of John Samuel

In Scottish terms, John is a ‘son of the manse’. His father is a pastor of a congregation in the ever-expanding suburbs in the north of Cairo.

Despite studying to be an engineer (he has a Masters in Civil Engineering), John found himself working for the Church in the Synod of the Nile’s 80/800 Programme, which aims to develop 80 congregations as the first phase of a plan to create 800 Presbyterian congregations. There are currently just over 300.

John targeted 21 congregations over the length of Egypt, from Alexandria in the North to Aswan in the South, organising training courses in capacity building for church workers, elders and members. He sought to develop discipleship among the members, especially the youth, but also challenged the congregations to look outwards in community service, in education, health and agriculture.

john1John spent two years on the project. However, along with 90,000 other young people (which seems an incredibly high number, but this is Egypt!), he applied for selection to a training programme for youths initiated by President Sisi. He was successful, being one of only 33 Christians out of the 500 chosen. He has now completed the training and is waiting to be assigned to a position, perhaps in one of the ministries or even in the company setting up Egypt’s new capital, which is being established in between Cairo and Suez.

John seemingly collects degrees, and he is also in his third year of the MAOL programme (Master of Arts in Organizational Leadership) at the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo. As its title suggests, the degree focuses on specific needs and issues surrounding Christian Leadership. The students take 12 modules over a three year period, and subjects include modules such as Strategic Thinking, Integrity & Finance, Spiritual Formation, Mentoring &Coaching and Conflict Management & Resolution. The students come to the Seminary for a week of intensive classes twice a year. They then continue their studies through distance learning, reading and writing assignments at home.

He has been enormously impressed by the modules he has taken so far, and especially enjoys their practical nature. He values the strengthening of leadership in the church and only hopes that the course, which has been taught in English so far, can be translated into Arabic so that it reaches a wider audience. John hopes to be used by God through what he learns in the course, and to be able to bring about transformation in Egypt.img_0292

A Visit to Sadat City

A Visit to Sadat City

Sadat City is named after the former President of Egypt, Anwar Sadat, who started to build it 40 years ago and hoped that it would become the capital city of Egypt. It never did, but it is one of a ring of new towns situated around Cairo, whose aim was to decongest Cairo.

About 80,000 people live in Sadat, and it is situated 95km north of Cairo on the Desert Road to Alexandria. The government offered ground to the Presbyterians to build a church, and they are in the process of doing so. However, at present they use a villa which was donated by a church member in Cairo, which has a flat for the pastor as well as meeting space downstairs.

There has, however, been no resident Pastor there for some time. The current Pastor is Medhat Fawzy, who graduated from the Seminary in May 2016, but he is resident in Giza, as his wife works near Cairo. Medhat is also my Arabic teacher, and I was delighted when he asked me to preach one Sunday evening in Sadat.

The Congregation in Sadat

Although I have preached several times at St Andrew’s, both at the English-speaking congregation and two of the Sudanese, this was my first invitation to preach in a Synod of the Nile congregation. I had to make my way to Giza (near the pyramids) by metro, and then use a tuktuk and a bus before catching the minibus for Sadat City.

The service started at 7.30 pm, as Sunday is a working day, and most members work. As the church is not central, a minibus picks up most of the people. That particular Sunday there were 15 adults and several children at the church, which I think was more than usual. The space reminded me of St Andrew’s Galilee, where I spent my previous 6 years, and it was very informal and relaxed worship. It was a very enjoyable experience, though when we returned to the bus stop at 9.45pm we had just missed a bus and so had to sit in an empty minibus, waiting patiently for it to fill up before it left.

By 11pm, there were still only three of us, and we decided to pay more just to get back to Cairo. It was 1am when we got back to the Seminary, but fortunately the guard at the gate was awake. Working as a Mission Partner in Cairo certainly provides opportunity for adventure