Egypt’s Miracle Worker

A dynamic bishop works tirelessly to improve the lives of Egypt’s people.

text by Dale Gavlak
photographs by Mohammed El-Dakhakhny

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Cradling a large gray rabbit in his arms, the “Bishop Farmer” grins. “This is my passion. I love animals.” Stacks of cages full of rabbits of all sizes surround Bishop Egidio Sampieri, O.F.R., and his two helpers as they feed countless hungry mouths with verdant leaves from the nearby garden.

True to the spirit of St. Francis, Bishop Egidio, as he is affectionately known, loves not only animals but people too. Perhaps it is his warm smile, sympathetic air and open manner that keeps the prelate at the center of a constant swirl of Egyptians, Sudanese and other Africans who seek his fatherly counsel and encouragement.

Bishop Egidio serves as Apostolic Vicar for the Latin Catholic community in Egypt. The post was first established by Pope Gregory XVI in 1839 and at that time covered Egypt and Arabia; Bishop Egidio was appointed by Pope Paul VI in 1978. Al-though the prelate charge is the Latin Catholic community, his ministry stretches much farther.

What distinguishes Bishop Egidio among church leaders in Egypt is the spirit of ecumenism that permeates his words and actions. He is a unique character in a place where religious sensitivities can run high among the various Christian and Muslim communities.

“I am the bishop of Latins, but Latins take little part in my life,” he says. “I am an ecumenical bishop.” These remarks can best be understood in light of the Latin Catholic Church circumstances in Egypt and the bishop own background.

Many Italian Catholics once lived in Egypt: many moved there in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to work on large-scale national projects like the Suez Canal and the first Aswan Dam. Cultural and economic links between Egypt and her northern Mediterranean cousin have been strong, but with President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s nationalization of private properties in the late 1950, most Italians fled the country. When large numbers of Italians left, Latin Catholic numbers in Egypt fell.

Bishop Egidio calls Egypt’s Latin Catholic Church a mission church – it lacks a large diocese as in other places around the world. Because of the past, strong Latin Catholic institutions remain in Egypt, but the actual number of Latin Catholics is small. Currently there are between 5,000 and 6,000 Latin Catholics in the country. (This number does not reflect the large number of Catholic Sudanese refugees, however.) Because of these small numbers, Bishop Egidio has opened the doors of these Catholic institutions to Orthodox, Protestants and Muslims. As the Bishop says, “We are open to anybody and to any kind of need.”

The prelate’s strong sense of ecumenism is rooted in his own personal history. He was born in 1928 in the then very cosmopolitan, multicultural Egyptian port city of Alexandria. His father was an Italian Catholic, his mother Greek Orthodox. Although born and raised in Egypt, the Bishop does not have Egyptian nationality – Egyptian law dictates that a child is granted the nationality of his father.

It was the Bishop’s mother, however, who had the greatest impact on him and his ecumenical views.

“When I was young – about eight years old – she would send me to deliver food to the poor and elderly. I learned from my mother to love everyone, above all the poor,” he says softly.

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Tags: Egypt Muslim Poor/Poverty Coptic Orthodox Church Sudan