Catholic social programs foster Christian-Muslim understanding in Egypt
AL-MUKHALFA, Egypt -- On a recent summer evening, the local representative of Egypt's ruling Muslim Brotherhood party paid a visit to the almost entirely Coptic Catholic village of Al-Mukhalfa, known as "Little Rome" deep in Egypt's south.
"When you are threatened, we are threatened," party representative Yusuf Sherif told an audience of about 80 people who were crowded into the small courtyard of St. George Coptic Catholic Church. A quarter of them were teenage girls from the church choir, on standby to sing.
"When a Christian girl is harassed by a Muslim, we defend the girl," Sherif said.
"Our church is open to all those who need it," responded Coptic Catholic Bishop Youssef Aboul El Kher of Sohag, Egypt, when it was his turn to speak.
"We have many ministries for social good, such as women's health and combating illiteracy. We are in the service of everyone," he told the crowd. Then the teenagers burst into a song praising Egypt "everyone loves."
The Muslim-Christian exchange was part of an initiative established by the local Coptic Catholic Church to help Egypt recover from years of authoritarian rule and the turmoil that overthrew it in January 2011.
Such church-related initiatives and programs are providing sorely needed social, education, medical and economic help to Egypt. They serve as important platforms for understanding between the country's Christians and Muslims, especially now, at a time when tension and insecurities are high, say those involved in the Catholic aid efforts.
"We have always had maternity health centers, preschools and illiteracy eradication campaigns and classes," said Father Romany Adly, who attended the St. George parish program.
"These are opportunities for the Muslim and Christian communities to mix and interact," he said, explaining that under the initiative his own parish about four miles away held seminars on preventing child malnutrition, which many Muslim mothers attended. He said the Coptic Catholic medical clinic in his village has served mostly Muslim families for more than 26 years.
"In my time working with the Coptic Catholic Church, I have been very much impressed," said Britton Buckner, head of programming for Catholic Relief Services in Egypt, which funded the initiative in addition to the other economic, education and safety net programs it finances here.
Buckner said that members of Egypt's Coptic Catholic community told her that living peacefully among Muslim neighbors was a priority for their church in the post-revolution nation.
"They are very much out in the forefront and want to promote working together for the betterment of the country," Buckner said.
Speaking anonymously, Egyptian Catholics expressed fear for Christians under the country's newly elected President Mohammed Morsi of the conservative Muslim Brotherhood despite promises that minority rights will be respected.
Coptic Christians in Egypt number about 8 million people; about 200,000 are Roman Catholic. The vast majority of Egyptians -- about 74 million -- are Sunni Muslims.
"This is the beginning of great hardship for Christians. The Muslim Brotherhood is slowly taking over," lamented a Coptic Catholic priest who asked to remain unidentified.
But the priest also said church-funded health projects serving mostly Muslims in his village have helped create bonds between the country's two faiths that he prayed would be unbreakable even in the face of "increasing instability in the country due to (the recent political) changes."
"Our assistance and activities have allowed (Muslims) to know us better and see us up close," he said.
Asked if she feared trouble ahead, Sister Manal Yacoub, a member of the Franciscan Sisters of St. Elizabeth, responded "Rabbina mawjoud," Arabic for "God is present."
She said she'd taught Muslim children for years at the Franciscan school her order runs in the city of Nagada, where parents consider her and the other nuns who teach there almost like family.
"We teach brotherly love and respect to the Muslims as we do to the Christians," Sister Manal said. "We attend Muslim weddings and funerals. The (Muslim) parents look at our school as their own, and all this absorbs in a way any ill feelings they might have" toward Christianity.
Ahmed Jalal, is a 48-year old civil servant from Tahta, where he lives with his wife and three teenage children, and works as a veterinarian.
"We like Catholic schools. I am Muslim, but I sent my daughter to the sisters' school in Tahta because the level of education is high, and we know they teach good hygiene, and good behavior and they don't allow using bad language," Jalal said.
"The only problem is that it is too expensive," he added, saying that he could only afford to send his eldest daughter.
Builders of peace
Just two days before beginning a pastoral journey to the Middle East, Pope Benedict XVI launched an appeal to all Christians in the region to respond to social and political tensions and insecurity by being hopeful, active builders of peace and reconciliation.
At the end of his weekly general audience Sept. 12 at the Vatican, the pope thanked Middle Eastern Christians for their courage in remaining in the region, and he prayed that God would strengthen their faith and fill them with hope.
Saying he was looking forward to visiting Lebanon Sept. 14-16, Pope Benedict thanked those who support Christians in the Middle East and called for continued aid "so that they might be able to continue to give witness to Christ in those blessed lands, by seeking communion in unity."
Pope Benedict said his Lebanon trip would allow him to meet with leaders of the Catholic communities and civil society, as well as with representatives of the nation's richly diverse religious groups, including other Christians, Muslims and Druze.
"I thank the Lord for this richness, which will not be able to continue without living in permanent peace and reconciliation," he said.
"That is why I urge all Christians in the Middle East, whether native or newcomer, to be builders of peace and agents of reconciliation."
History has shown that the different Christian communities have played an "important and often fundamental role in interreligious and intercultural dialogue" in the region, he said.
Giving his blessings to all those in Lebanon and the Middle East, the pope prayed that a much needed peace, in respect for "legitimate differences," would come to the region.
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