A priest talks about the challenges of life in Egypt

Catholic in Cairo

by Sarah Topol

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The Rev. Douglas May grew up in a small town near Buffalo, New York, but now serves as a Maryknoll missionary in Cairo, where he has worked for more than two decades. He is the only United States-born, English-speaking priest in Egypt.

He provides pastoral care for several communities in the Cairo area. He also works as the international coordinator for the Center for Intercultural Dialogue and Translation and the Center for Arab-West Understanding, a nongovernmental organization that fosters dialogue between Christians and Muslims and sociopolitical pluralism in Egypt and in the Middle East.

Most Egyptian Christians are Coptic Orthodox. Egyptian Catholics belong to seven distinct churches in full communion with the bishop of Rome: Armenian, Chaldean, Coptic, Latin, Maronite, Melkite Greek and Syriac. I exchanged emails with Father May to get his views on what is happening in Egypt, particularly in the Catholic community.

ONE: How do you see the situation for Christian men in Egypt after the revolution? Is there anything specific to the Catholic male community that you have witnessed?

Father Douglas May: The situation of religious discrimination — not persecution — has gotten worse for many Christian men in the workplace, in the military and in the street. Catholic men of the various churches do not necessarily have “male communities.” Parishes are very male dominated in general without forming communities.

ONE: Can you tell us more about the Catholic community in Egypt and its relationship to the Coptic Orthodox Church?

Father Douglas May: Catholics in Egypt are often considered the “original Protestants,” heretics and the “bastard children of Rome” by some of the Coptic Orthodox priests and hierarchy. Catholic baptism and other sacraments are not considered valid in the Coptic Orthodox Church. Ecumenical relations were quite poor during most of the 40-plus years of Pope Shenouda III, but things may improve under the new Coptic Orthodox pope, Tawadros II. At the lay level though, Orthodox, Catholics and Protestants get along quite well.

ONE: In one of your previous posts for One to One [the CNEWA blog], you wrote: “My challenge in Egypt, since the January Revolution began last year, is to encourage seminarians, priests and bishops to step out into the perilous world of social justice concerns. In Egypt, there are long-held traditions of religious and sexual discrimination in society along with denying the laity an active role in church affairs.” Can you explain more about what you mean, how your efforts have been received?

Father Douglas May: Before the January Revolution, Christians were already “ghettoized” communities in a vast “Muslim ocean.” The Catholic Churches form a small minority within the Christian minority, of which most are Coptic Orthodox.

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