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Hope and Renewal in Suez

Commerce and oil draw jobs and pilgrims

by Liam Stack with photographs by Sean Sprague

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Bright, crisp air hangs over the cold waters of the Suez Canal, one of the world’s most important waterways. At the mouth of the canal, near the city of Port Said, the hulking forms of cargo ships quietly wait their turn to proceed. Squat, boxy warehouses line the channel’s banks. The spires of minarets punctuate the horizon.

Business has not always run so smoothly here, however, and over the course of the 20th century the city has seen alternating periods of boom, bust and bombing. It was devastated during the war between Egypt and Israel in 1967 and later reborn as a free trade zone. Always diverse, it has also been the scene of interfaith cooperation. And for the past few decades, it has become an important place in Egyptian Christian life.

Few people know the rough tides that have washed over the town better than Amba Tadros, the Coptic Orthodox Bishop of Port Said. When he was installed in November 1976, he was charged with creating an Orthodox ecclesiastical jurisdiction for a city that had never had one. Port Said was also missing most of its population. As the 1967 war began, the city was evacuated in the face of a massive Israeli aerial bombardment. Soon after, Egypt lost control of the strategically important Sinai Peninsula, which lies just east of the city.

For Egyptians, it was one of the darkest periods of the country’s modern history, and, in the middle of it all, Amba Tadros was building up the local church from scratch.

“Many homes and buildings had been destroyed by bombs, and people were living in shelters or on the streets,” says the bishop, now an elderly man. “Electricity and water were difficult to have all through the day.”

Over the course of the 1970’s, people began to trickle back to their homes, but most of the city was ruined in the war.

For men like Amba Tadros it was a challenging time. Some would have found providing physical and spiritual aid to the city’s displaced residents a crushing task. But local Coptic leaders say that something unexpected grew out of the ashes: renewed friendships among peoples of all faiths that was a harbinger of a citywide renewal.

Twice a month Laurice Tadros (no relation to the bishop) makes the three- hour trip from Cairo to attend Divine Liturgy at Port Said’s Regina Mundi Cathedral. The graceful, Italianate structure is a stone-and-glass testament to the cooperation that blossomed here after the war.

“During the war everyone had to evacuate Port Said,” she says. “When the city’s people began to return, cooperation between Catholics and Orthodox began to happen. There are many, many Orthodox in Port Said and we were in great need of another church, so we asked the Catholics if we could use their building.”

A Port Said native, she now works at the Cairo-based Development and Social Service Association of the Coptic Orthodox Church. She knows the city and its Christian community like the back of her hand, and her elderly father still regularly attends liturgy at the cathedral.

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Tags: Egypt Muslim Coptic Orthodox Church Economic hardships Religious Diversity