Out of the Ashes

Religious in Suez rebuild after the violence of 2013

by Jahd Khalil with photographs by David Degner

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Sister Amal was drinking tea at the Good Shepherd Convent in the Egyptian port city of Suez when the first stone came through the window.

It had been a chaotic year. For months, massive protests against President Muhammad Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood had rocked the country. By late June the protests, which had gained the public support of Christian leaders, culminated in the military’s forced removal of the Islamist president. In the eyes of some Egyptians, especially those who supported Mr. Morsi, an alliance had been forged between the military and Egypt’s Coptic Christians. (Ethnic Egyptian Christians are known as Copts, derived from the Greek “Aigyptos,” meaning Egyptian.) This was affirmed further by the interim government’s subsequent brutal crackdown of Islamists throughout Egypt.

Picking up the shattered glass, Good Shepherd Sister Amal was unaware that earlier that same day, 14 August 2013, the interim government had used lethal force to end two massive sit-ins, resulting in more than 600 deaths. In retribution for the alleged alliance, supporters of the ousted president stormed churches and Christian institutions across the country.

A mob of possibly hundreds attacked the chapel near the convent. Sister Amal and her team rushed about, attempting to save as much as they could from both the sanctuary and the structure. Frantically, they turned off the gas and electricity, and eventually found a way to extinguish some of the flames. But as they worked, arsonists set fires elsewhere. Looters helped themselves to furniture, electronics and money.

The flames proved too much to fight. In the chaos, Sister Amal ushered the workers out a rear exit. The police and army were nowhere to be seen. The mob had already killed one soldier operating an armored personnel carrier outside the chapel. Another fled. No one else came to help.

By the end of the day, the convent, chapel, orphanage and school the sisters had administered had been gutted and razed. The mob had also attacked a Franciscan parish church two blocks away — two of the dozens of Christian facilities torched that Wednesday morning. A year later, and despite the Egyptian government’s promise to help rebuild the affected institutions, only a handful has been restored.

While the churches in Suez remain charred husks, the sisters have begun rebuilding their school and renovating their orphanage by launching their own fundraising efforts. They have used what survived the fire to continue their work, praying in the shell of their chapel. Crosses and images of Christ and the Virgin Mary have taken on renewed meanings in light of the fire and the tribulations of the past year and a half.

Walking throughout the remains of the Good Shepherd complex gives the impression of a construction site rendered in black and white. Ceiling fans have wilted from the heat, and the only splash of color is a fuchsia bougainvillea that has crept into what was once the convent’s living room.

It is easy to see all the ash as indistinguishable, but Sister Amal points to the grey piles, indicating what remains of a multilingual library, a pantry, a piano. But she is most keen to point out what survived the fire.

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