From ONE Magazine

Fortifying the Faith of Egypt’s Youth

Just before dusk, college student Iriini Girguis winds her way through the narrow, dusty streets of a largely Christian district in Cairo old city. Iriini is on her way to a weekly youth meeting at St. Michael the Archangel Church, a Coptic Orthodox parish younger than its neighboring sister parishes, some of which date to the fourth and fifth centuries.

“I wouldn miss this meeting. It an opportunity to grow more in my spiritual life and to see my friends,” the 20-year-old collegiate enthuses. Iriini is one of some six million Coptic Christians, or 10 percent of Egypt population. More than one third of the Copts are under thirty years of age.

The church spiritual formation of its youth starts early. In Sunday school, children as young as six years of age study Bible stories, the lives of the saints, liturgy, the sacraments and Coptic traditions. As the children grow older, the learning continues in regular youth meetings.

“We strive to strengthen the young people in their Christian faith,” affirms Amba (Bishop) Moussa, who heads the Coptic Orthodox Church youth ministry.

“We have weekly meetings, publish two magazines for people in their 20, another for youth workers, pamphlets and books. We also offer counseling and teaching,” the Bishop adds.

The weekly youth meetings top the church calendar in educating young Copts about their faith, moral principles and church doctrine. The Bishop says most of Egypt 2,500 Coptic Orthodox parishes offer nothing less than three youth meetings a week for high school and university students. Some parishes also host a fourth meeting for young professionals.

Recently, Iriini college group at St. Michael the Archangel was cited by Amba Moussa office for its successful youth meetings. The parish two-hour sessions, held every Monday, begin with contemporary worship against a backdrop of ancient icons. The group of 30 men and 25 women sing in Arabic:

Come Lord Jesus.
We live with him in our world
but the world does not live within us.
Jesus Christ lives inside us.

A recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, the Nicene Creed and a reading from the Book of Psalms follows.

Ayman, a youth leader and engineer, examines one of Jesus parables about sowing seed and relates it to Christian life. Ayman energy and dedication to the group captivate his listeners. He then holds a lively discussion on the church as the Body of Christ. The meeting closes and many people remain to learn hymns in Coptic, the ancient liturgical language of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Smaller groups gather together to study the Bible, church history or doctrine. All enjoy their time together as they learn more about their own faith and its history.

These meetings provide not only spiritual guidance but a place where young Egyptian Christians feel a sense of belonging to the church and to each other. Most of the youth were reared in the Coptic Orthodox Church; it is natural for them to join the group. But the fellowship does not end once these young people leave church; other associated activities include sports, arts-and-crafts evenings and parties.

George is tall and shy. He attends the young professionals meeting at St. Mark Church in Maadi, a suburb of Cairo.

“All my friends are here and Ive got lots of memories from the church,” George remarks. “The people here are like family.” Others in the group call these gatherings their “second home.” The meetings are often geared to help the young face the challenges imposed on them by an increasingly complex society.

“Egypt youth suffer from many problems. They are nice and pleasant,” says Amba Moussa, as his face adopts an expression of fatherly concern. “They like to laugh and enjoy life – but they are also suffering.”

The Bishop points to the influence of the media, the Internet and the West for an increasing sense of alienation among Egypt young people. While the youth are generally religious and committed to tradition, “the information and communication revolution bombards them with materialism and liberalism, and attacks moral life, holiness and sanctification,” he says.

Volunteer youth worker Ezzat Zakary confirms this. “Young people feel torn between two cultures and sometimes lose their Christian identity in the process.” Ezzat states that healthy relationships are encouraged by youth leaders through informal talks during the meetings.

Lack of money is another daunting challenge faced by Egypt Coptic youth. Egypt open-door economic policy of the late 1970, and its move in the 80 and 90 to privatize its state-run economy, has widened the gap between the rich and the poor, placing an enormous pressure on the middle class. In addition, the population grows annually by some 1.3 million, adding to the country financial burdens.

“The young people can find jobs or start small businesses. It can be hard to afford marriage or an apartment,” Amba Moussa says. “This disturbs our young people.”

Those involved in the youth program range from those of modest means to the upper-middle class; when asked, they all list their economic situation as their main concern for the future.

Youth leader Ezzet Zakary agrees. “The people who attend these meetings are in the prime of their lives. Theyre at the point of making paramount decisions about the great events in their lives: attending university, getting a job, getting married and having kids. It a time for doing everything you want to do. Many have aspirations, but only a few can realize them.”

The Coptic Orthodox Church tries to encourage young people to start their own businesses rather than settle for low-paying government jobs. A church-sponsored economic development group offers job seekers information and seminars providing practical advice on starting small projects and obtaining loans, writing résumés, successful salesmanship, interview techniques and other pertinent business topics.

Others follow the belief that the grass is greener on the other side. Nancy is a dentist preparing for an additional qualifying certificate through London Royal College of Surgeons. She says the opportunities in Egypt are not plentiful and believes the only way to get ahead is to emigrate.

Coptic emigration from Egypt is perhaps the church most daunting challenge. There are an estimated half million Copts living outside Egypt; some 300,000 are in the United States and roughly 100,000 each in Australia and Europe. Amba Moussa encourages Egypt youth to remain in their homeland, thereby strengthening the church in the Middle East.

Problems of sexual promiscuity, drug exposure and addiction and a higher crime rate are just some of the troubles emigrants must face in the West. Can Egyptian Copts ensure that their children will maintain their faith and traditions in a new land?

“I tell them: Stick to your country and create for yourself a happy atmosphere through a small business, a good marriage, a beautiful family. For sure, there are troubles here,” admits the Bishop, “but there are other troubles elsewhere.”

Amba Moussa says that he never forbids his flock to leave Egypt; emigration is an individual decision. He points to some of the flourishing Coptic communities overseas, especially in the U.S., where Copts are keeping their cultural and spiritual heritage alive. But his wish and that of many in the church is that Egyptian Christians, especially their youth, stay in the land of their ancestors.

Because of their Christian faith, Egypt Coptic youth sometimes fail to secure jobs or attend university. The Egyptian constitution is neutral in religious matters, but discrimination still occurs in society. The best way to deal with this challenge, the Bishop declares, is to teach Egypt Christian youth about establishing a good rapport with their Muslim brothers and sisters. Two action groups within the Coptic Orthodox Church – one encouraging Christian-Muslim intellectual exchange and the other challenging Copts to exercise their civic rights and responsibilities – help to foster Christian-Muslim dialogue and friendship.

Mrs. Freza is the mother of three children. She says that although there are difficulties in Egypt, Christian parents have the responsibility of teaching their children how to handle society problems effectively. Regarding the issue of competition and the scarcity of jobs, which may disadvantage Christians, Mrs. Freza says, “Parents need to teach their children to stand up for their rights and defend themselves.” But she also emphasizes, “They must also be encouraged to live in peace with others.”

Working among the urban and rural poor, Mrs. Freza says the challenges faced by many Egyptians are compounded for those who are struggling. Illiteracy, for example, is a major obstacle facing Egypt urban poor and rural youth; illiteracy rates run as high as 50 to 60 percent in the countryside. The Coptic Orthodox Church, together with the Egyptian government, is working to combat this deficiency by offering literacy classes.

In some outlying districts and in isolated countryside villages around Cairo, migrants have set up their homes in search of a “better life.” There is a serious lack of church presence here, let alone youth meetings – the moral and spiritual fiber of this area young Christians needs support. As a result, the Coptic Orthodox Church sends Sunday school teachers and youth workers to tackle problems in these areas. Wearing no special clerical dress, these servants of God work without interference, even in some predominately Muslim areas and villages.

Youth leader Hany Isa assists a Coptic Orthodox parish in one of the larger impoverished districts on the outskirts of Cairo. Hany says his parish and its young people lack financial resources; there simply isn’t enough money to support youth activities. He and his parish priest are trying to develop a “buddy system” where the older, more mature and devoted Christians look after the younger ones, thereby creating their own support system.

In spite of this work, conversions in Egypt from Christianity to Islam do occur, particularly in the more remote areas. This may happen for a number of reasons. Often, people may have little knowledge of their own faith and see minimal differences between the two. Others feel that converting to the country majority religion will help them economically. Still others, particularly adolescent Christian girls, may establish relationships with Muslim boys. Young Copts might even seek a means of escape from domestic family problems by converting.

Drug addiction is another problem among the Christian youth of Egypt, but the percentage of those involved with drugs is not very high. This may be the result of the church emphasis on the education of its youth. Youth workers like Zakary and Hany say if they are aware of someone struggling with drug problems, they usually speak with the parish priest, who can best handle the situation pastorally. If the problem is serious, they refer the youth to Best Life, a Coptic drug rehabilitation program that received its start-up funding from CNEWA.

Despite the nearly 400 youth meetings held each week in Cairo, there are some young Egyptians who are unable to meet for Christian fellowship. Marianne, a student of Spanish literature at Ain Shams University in Cairo, is one of these youths. In spite of missing the meetings, however, she would not miss the opportunity to hear the Patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church, Pope Shenouda III, speak at his weekly Wednesday night meetings.

A slender 19-year-old, Marianne waits along with several hundred Egyptians for the program to begin inside the cavernous Cathedral of St. Mark. Marianne says she loves the simple yet profound way Pope Shenouda presents the Scriptures and applies them to everyday life; the “passages about Jesus,” she adds, “really come alive when he speaks.”

Amba Moussa says Pope Shenouda preachings reinforce the teaching of Egypt Coptic youth.

“He always speaks in a very practical and everyday manner,” says the Bishop. “He not just speaking about theology or of complex theories. Instead, he incorporates parables, stories and analogies into his talks. He a beloved preacher.”

No matter how Egypt Christian youth fulfill their religious relationships, many concur with their parents that these youth meetings are the church best offer for Egypt young Christians.

“Youth meetings bring young people closer to God, to the church and to each other,” says parent Suzanne Issak. “We need more of them.”

Dale Gavlak is a freelance writer. She lives in Cairo.