Life in a Coptic Catholic Village

text by Jessica Jones
photographs by Mohammed El-Dakhakhny

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Father Samuel Elias surveyed the village’s rectangular field, the borders of which were outlined by a row of corn stalks left after harvest.

“A few years ago this land was full of stones,” the Coptic Catholic priest said, squinting as he shielded his eyes from the midday sun.

“But they took this land and cleared it themselves. Now they grow peppers, eggplant, corn and other vegetables. But while they’ve had some success their lives remain difficult.”

Father Elias is one of the few outsiders who visit regularly the Egyptian village of Firdan. He brings bags of rice, an occasional tin of cooking oil, solace and Christian advice to his parishioners, who struggle to farm their arid land located but nine miles from the Suez Canal.

Egypt’s Coptic Catholics say the role of the parish priest has dramatically changed in the last few decades.

“Now the local priest works with the problems of the village more than ever before, and that’s besides his religious role,” stated Hani Naguib, a Coptic Catholic seminarian who will complete his theological studies this spring at St. Leo the Great Seminary in the Cairo suburb of Ma’adi.

And although the church has limited resources, officials say they never turn away anyone in need, whether Coptic Orthodox or Catholic, Christian or Muslim.

Catholics are a tiny minority in Egypt. Most of the country’s estimated six million Christians, or 10 percent of Egypt’s population of 58 million, are Copts, a title hearkening back to the early Egyptians. About 200,000 Christians belong to various Eastern Catholic churches, including the Coptic Catholic Church, which shares the Coptic liturgy with the Coptic Orthodox while maintaining full communion with the Church of Rome.

The current Coptic Catholic Patriarch, Stephanos II Ghattas, guides a community of 190,000 persons. More than 100 parishes and schools, and a number of clinics and hospitals, are scattered throughout Egypt. Through its Beirut office, CNEWA supports many of these programs and institutions of the Coptic Catholic Church.

In a country where per capita income has steadily declined during the past decade, religious and nongovernmental groups give people the kind of concrete assistance the government cannot.

Because of inflation, even government employees, who as mid-level bureaucrats earn $90 per month, can only buy half as much today as they did 20 years ago.

Coptic Catholic clergy, with some outside assistance, offer their impoverished urban parishioners loans to buy sewing machines, taxicabs and even shares in corner grocery stores. In the countryside, similar loans and agricultural development projects help newcomers start their own small but self-sufficient farms. Recipients repay the loans on a monthly basis.

Bishop Makarios Tewfik, Coptic Catholic Bishop of Ismayliah – a city at the southern mouth of the Suez Canal – is responsible for a diocese that includes the village of Firdan. Slender and bespectacled, the Bishop explained the importance of financial and spiritual assistance:

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Tags: Egypt Village life Priests Economic hardships Coptic Catholic Church