Egypt's Coptic Christians: Caught between Renewal and Persecution

By Wagner, Don | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, November 30, 1997 | Go to article overview

Egypt's Coptic Christians: Caught between Renewal and Persecution


Wagner, Don, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


Egypt's Coptic Christians: Caught Between Renewal and Persecution

A March 1997 travel seminar to Egypt by Evangelicals for Middle East Understanding gave the 29 participants remarkable access to both Coptic Christian and Muslim leadership, as well as insights into the problems members of Egypt's Coptic Christian minority face daily.

The tour began with a three-day retreat at the Wadi Natroun monasteries in the EgyptJan desert, where Christian monasticism has continued since the late third century. His Holiness Pope Shenouda III, Patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church, served as host to the American delegation and addressed the meeting twice on various aspects of Coptic history and spirituality. Pope Shenouda is the 117th successor to St. Mark, who is credited with bringing Christianity to Egypt and is the author of the second book in the New Testament. The pilgrimage to the Wadi Natroun area included visits to three historic Coptic monasteries, all of which are flourishing and preparing to expand their facilities. Most of the monks come from professional careers -- physicians, academics, or businesspeople who have decided to adopt the demanding life of the monastery.

Upon returning from the monastery, the EMEU group visited St. Mark's Cathedral in Cairo, where participants were enthusiastically welcomed by over 7,000 worshippers in the regular Wednesday evening service presided over by Pope Shenouda. This unique two-hour service included prayer, singing and an extended discussion period in which the Pope answered questions on a variety of topics, including dating, marital relationships, vocational decisions and Biblical interpretation.

On the next evening the group ventured into the Zebalin district, where over 150,000 poor residents of Cairo make their home in one of the city's major garbage dumps. One small road leads into the poverty-stricken region where one sees men and children on donkey-drawn carts returning from collecting garbage for a small fee. On arrival, the garbage is sorted and families receive payment for what is recycled. Approximately 90 percent of the Zebalin garbage collectors are Christians, and the three Coptic Churches (Orthodox, Protestant-Evangelical and Catholic) have important ministries there, including clinics, literacy projects and worship.

On Thursdays, a fascinating worship service takes place at St. Samaan Orthodox Church, a relatively new (9-10 years old) facility, a portion of which is carved out of a cave and rises adjacent to the stone mountain in Cairo's northeast sector. Upon entering the church one walks down a ramp, as did the EMEU group, and begins to hear beautiful music from the choir, an instrumental group, and congregation. Entering the massive outdoor sanctuary, one sees a 20-foot television screen with words to the hymn, interspersed with camera pans of the congregation and lead singer. Over 12,000 worshippers were in attendance that evening. The sermon was delivered by Fr. Samaan, the priest of the church, who left medical practice more than 10 years ago and began with a small congregation. Today the St. Samaan Coptic Orthodox Church is the largest church in the Middle East. Its inspirational worship services are matched by ministries of healing, literacy, vocational assistance and health clinics.

But all is not well in Egypt, where over 200 Coptic Christians have been killed in the past two years and an unknown number wounded by attacks by illegal Islamic militias. …

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