Egypt: “This is our country. We will never leave it.”
• An Aid to the Church in Need interview with the Coptic-Catholic Bishop of Assiut, Kyrillos William Samaan
by Rodrigo Arantes
Q) What is the significance of being a Christian in Egypt today?
A) The significance of being a Christian in Egypt can be found in the joy of being salt, salt that is the giver of life, that gives life flavour. It is the sourdough that leavens a handful of flour – in the sense that it changes society and makes a difference. The gospel does not deceive us when Christ says, “If they have persecuted me, then they will also persecute you. But have no fear, for I will be with you, and no one will take your joy from you.” This is a joy that we experience even in times of persecution and sorrow.
Q) What dangers does a Christian in Egypt face?
A) The challenge lies in the fact that just being a Christian already presents an obstacle. This is because an extremist group believes that redemption is only possible through one religion, through Islam. This minority has a negative impact on the lives of Christians. Because it pursues the goal of destroying them. However, we are confident in the words of Jesus, “But even the very hairs of your head are all numbered.”
Q) How do Egyptian Christians feel about being the target of persecution in the same country that offered Jesus and his parents refuge when they fled from Herod?
A) Egypt has always been a welcoming country. However, when the extremists – the Muslim Brotherhood – took power and the presidency, they openly said, “We want to cast out the Christians. They all have passports, we will send them to the United States and to Canada. We want to transform Egypt into a caliphate, into a Muslim republic.” We Christians answered, “This is our country. We will never leave it. You will not live in Egypt without us and we will not live in Egypt without you. Following the synod of the Eastern churches, Pope Benedict XVI said that a Middle East without its Christian minorities would no longer be the Middle East. The Christians had already established their civilization before the Arab onslaught. Afterwards, they adapted to living together with the Muslims. They could all continue to live side by side until the end.
(The Coptic-Catholic Bishop of Assiut, Kyrillos William Samaan © Aid to the Church in Need)
Q) What expectations do the Christians in Egypt have now after the recent trip of Pope Francis?
A) Doubtlessly, the Holy Father’s trip to Egypt strengthens the position of the Christians. It shows that the small flock of Catholics – with its less than 92 000 believers – is not completely isolated. Catholics from all over the world stand by us. From an ecumenical standpoint, this trip represents the seeds for a better harvest for Christians in general, but especially for relations between the Catholic and Orthodox churches, after the pope met with His Holiness Pope Tawadros II and they signed documents agreeing to take steps towards each other. They found that “there is more that unites us than that separates us.” The trip also shows the willingness of the current patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox church to move towards the Catholic church – to a greater extent than his deceased predecessor. This will strengthen the connection between the Eastern Catholic, Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches. As regards the Muslims, this trip tore down the wall that went up after a statement of Pope Benedict XVI was misunderstood. Another outcome of the visit was that the Muslims are now more open to a dialogue with Christians, especially after the embrace “between brothers” exchanged by the Holy Father and the Grand Imam of al Azhar Mosque and Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar University. The photo of this gesture, which is now being spread all over the world, is reminiscent of the embrace that St. Francis of Assisi exchanged with the Sultan of Egypt 800 years ago. The pope also reaffirmed his respect for Muslims. He said that violence and terror committed in the name of God or Allah or in the name of religion is an aberration and a sacrilege. These are not religious acts. The pope praised the efforts of the current Egyptian president, who has changed the image of the country in just a short time – he is transforming it into a modern country, he is taking care of the country and its citizens.
Q) What has the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need achieved in Egypt?
A) Aid to the Church in Need has provided much support in Egypt. Once when I met the executive president of Aid to the Church in Need in Germany, he showed me a list of the aid that the foundation has granted my diocese over the last ten years. It equalled a large sum of money. Thanks to this aid, churches have been built, future priests have been able to finish their training, convents have been built for religious sisters, vehicles have been bought, etc. All of this is part of pastoral care. I was also very surprised how many dioceses and local churches from all over the world have contributed to our maintenance. Because we have no other sources of funding. The priests live off of the annual Mass stipends – however, these are small sums. More important than the financial support is the fact that Aid to the Church in Need gives a voice to those Christians who do not have a voice in their own countries, so that they can make themselves heard all over the world. This is greatly appreciated. It is very important for all those who feel excluded and discriminated. I thank Aid to the Church in Need for the fact that, as a well organised aid organisation, it gives voice to Christians all over the world. Furthermore, Aid to the Church in Need sends out worldwide calls for prayer for a people, for a country. This is an important gesture, because joint prayer can move mountains. I myself have visited several offices of Aid to the Church in Need worldwide. It was quite remarkable that the same spirit was palpable everywhere. Both the full-time staff as well as the volunteers share the same deep spirituality. That is fantastic!
Q) Behind the aid that is sent to Egypt are thousands of benefactors who can often only donate small sums, but still contribute to these efforts. What would you say to them?
A) You are the saints of the modern era. You are emulating the widow who could only give two small coins to those who were most needy. We can learn what Pentecost is all about from these kind of people.
Q) How do you manage to appear so calm despite having so many worries?
A) Pope John XXIII, who had to deal with many problems during his papacy, always took his worries to the tabernacle. There he laid them down and said to God, “These problems are not mine. They are yours. Take care of them!” On his desk, Pope Francis has a statue of St. Joseph sleeping. Every time he encounters a problem, he writes a note, “You are sleeping, but dream of my problem and offer me a solution.”
Directly under the Holy See, Aid to the Church in Need supports the faithful wherever they are persecuted, oppressed or in pastoral need. ACN is a Catholic charity – helping to bring Christ to the world through prayer, information and action.
The charity undertakes thousands of projects every year including providing transport for clergy and lay Church workers, construction of church buildings, funding for priests and nuns and help to train seminarians. Since the initiative’s launch in 1979, Aid to the Church in Need’s Child’s Bible – God Speaks to his Children has been translated into 172 languages and 50 million copies have been distributed all over the world.
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