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Oasis of Hope

Center near Alexandria caters to the needs of isolated Christians in Egypt’s Western Desert

text and photographs by Sean Sprague

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Being a minority is never easy; being a minority newly settled in a once inhospitable terrain much less so. But such is the fate of some 40,000 Coptic Orthodox, who face poverty and isolation in the arid land west of the Nile Delta.

Most immigrated to the area from Upper Egypt to escape discrimination from Islamic fundamentalists and economic deprivation. Others came after the government encouraged them to leave the over-populated Nile Valley and settle along the desert highway linking Alexandria and Cairo. With only one church to serve them, all fear their faith and heritage will be lost on younger generations eager to escape the bleak landscape where jobs are few.

A multipurpose religious center near Alexandria, however, is providing this isolated community with an opportunity to bring their children together and strengthen their faith.

“The role of the center is to identify needy children and equip them with the tools and education to live their lives in a Christian way,” said Antoin Nabil, the coordinator of the Al Karma Center in Mariout, a southwestern suburb of the Mediterranean port city.

The center gathers children from across the desert for a three-day program of activities dubbed “Jesus the Child.” Boys and girls, ages 6 to 14, are shuttled to the center in groups of 50 to 60 for an up-close look at the life of the Coptic Church.

“Many of the children who come to the center have never even seen a church before,” said Bishop Tawadros, the center’s founder, “so the opportunity to see priests, bishops, deacons and many Christians together at prayer strengthens their faith.”

Al Karma also provides the children with many of the necessities and basic services their families are unable to secure. Upon arrival, the children are bathed, their hair combed and nails trimmed. A doctor also conducts a routine physical. Clothes, shoes, school bags and books are also provided.

“Some of the children come from extremely remote villages, where there are no schools or medical facilities,” said Bishop Tawadros. “Only about half of them attend school, which is a serious problem, especially for the girls.”

The poverty and isolation of these families only compound the many difficulties they share with all Copts in Egypt. Making up less than 10 percent of the country’s population of more than 70 million, the Copts often feel overwhelmed by the country’s dominant Islamic culture. In the face of discrimination, many emigrate, and every year some 12,000 convert to Islam.

To hold back the tide, Bishop Tawadros and other clergy have sought innovative means to nurture and revitalize an ancient community that predates Islam by centuries and whose culture has continued to shape Egyptian history.

The center is perhaps the best example of their efforts, drawing children together to learn and practice their faith.

“We tell them stories from the Bible using video. They sing Coptic hymns, pray, paint and draw – all with ample time for play,” said Bishop Tawadros. “After three days they return home and a new group arrives.”

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Tags: Egypt Children Education Poor/Poverty Coptic Orthodox Church