As they look forward to Roman Catholic Pope Francis’s visit to Egypt this week, Egypt’s Catholics might also be pleased by the public attention now being given to their history
It was sometime around the mid-1940s that Christine used to frequent the offices of her father Louis in downtown Cairo. There she would run from one room to the other and even step out of the offices to find her way into a nearby pharmaceutical business where the later famous singer Dalida was then working as a typist.
“I loved Dalida. She was very beautiful, and she would smile at me and get me to sit on her knees and to type a little on her typewriter. Those were such different times,” Christine said. She was speaking after having attended mass at the St Joseph’s Church of the Franciscan Order of Egypt.
Situated off Mohamed Farid Street in downtown Cairo, the beautiful church was built in the early 20th century after the land was offered to the Franciscan monks by the state and money was made available by a rich family belonging to the Roman Catholic Church. It was also in this very church that Christine and her two sisters were baptised six or seven decades ago.
For over 100 years, according to Father Boutros Daniel, now the priest in charge at the church, St Joseph’s had had its days of glory. “They might have dwindled a bit now, as the community has got smaller, but we are still celebrating, especially since our choir will be joining Pope Francis in the mass he will hold during his visit to Egypt that starts on Friday,” he said.
“When I was a child, this church, built to accommodate close to 1,000 people, would be so crowded that it was difficult to find a seat, especially at Christmas and Easter. The congregation was mostly made up of Europeans who had come to Egypt in the 19th century or had been born in Egypt to families that had come either after the opening of the Suez Canal or earlier,” Christine recalled.
She was herself born to an Italian mother, Nelly, who was born in Egypt to a couple who had both independently come to Egypt with their families in the late 19th century, and to a Belgian father who had decided to come to live in Egypt because of the wishes of the father of his new spouse.
“My mother would never have left Egypt. Her life was here. She never thought for a minute about going, especially as my father had successful businesses in Cairo and Alexandria. But then there came the nationalisation laws — a catastrophic time for all the foreigners of Egypt,” Christine said.
This was the moment, she insisted, when many people “just had to leave”. “Some felt it was the end of the dream they had had in Egypt, especially with the anti-foreigner speeches being given by former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser. Others were still hoping for better days, but the state forced them to go anyway,” she said.
Christine’s father “wanted to stay, not just because of my mother, but also because he hoped that the nationalisations would be reversed. However, this never happened, and he died of grief in his early 60s. He is buried in Egypt in the Catholic Cemetery in Old Cairo just like my mother,” she said.
Today, there are perhaps more Catholics in the cemeteries of Egypt than there are in the churches, Christine said. According to figures given by Catholic religious leaders in Cairo, there are today around a quarter of a million Catholics in a country of around 100 million.
The Coptic Catholic Church has the largest number of Catholic followers, a little under half of all the Catholics in Egypt. The other six main Christian Churches in Egypt were founded centuries later, mostly in the 19th century when waves of migrants came to Egypt first from the Ottoman Empire, especially Turkey and the Levant, to pursue trade or to flee persecution, and then from Europe in pursuit of economic prosperity or to flee various forms of conflict.
Today, there are various Catholic Christian denominations in Egypt, among them the Coptic Catholic Church, the Armenian Church, the Greek Catholic Church, the Latin Catholics, including the Franciscans, the Maronites, the Assyrian Church and the Chaledean Church.
Their congregations are mostly in Cairo, particularly in Heliopolis, a suburb built in the early 20th century that attracted many members of the then foreign communities in Egypt. Each Catholic Christian community today has at least one church, including in Alexandria, the Suez Canal cities, Tanta, Assiut and Minya.
“Some churches have a larger congregation than others. I would say that most of the Heliopolis churches have a considerable number of members, at least for Sunday mass and certainly at Christmas and Easter,” said Father Rafik Greish of the St Kyrillos Greek Catholic Church in Heliopolis.
He added that for the most part the congregation was ageing “after two waves of emigration forced many Catholics, among others, to pursue alternative paths, particularly as a result of the nationalisation laws during the Nasser era and the societal Islamisation that former president Anwar Al-Sadat introduced in the second half of the 1970s.”
In the first wave of emigration, Greish said, it was mostly foreigners who did not hold Egyptian nationality or those who had lost large businesses that left. In the second, it was fourth- or fifth-generation Egyptians of foreign origin who felt that the room for Christians in Egypt was getting smaller they decided to leave the country.
CHURCH IN HELIOPOLIS
Janette, Rosa and Sylvia are three elderly ladies from Heliopolis who attend the St Kyrillos Church. They leave together every Sunday, now that their families are almost all gone, children as well as siblings.
These three ladies have many memories to share about once upon a time in Egypt, when, they say, all the religions with their many communities lived together in coexistence and tolerance. Christmas was celebrated with Christmas trees and shop decorations in the streets of the downtown area and in Heliopolis on 25 December and 7 January. There were beautiful afternoon brunches in Groppi’s on Al-Ahram and Al-Adli streets in the downtown area, and there were lovely summer evenings when the love of life was shared by all, they say.
François, an Armenian Catholic, remembers a class at his primary school that had boys from almost every religion and every community in Egypt and “where what mattered was never where we came from or which prayers we said, but rather that we were schoolmates who enjoyed being together and sharing who we were together,” he said.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, however, François had to say good-bye to many of his old schoolmates, most of them Christians, but also others whose families decided they would have to leave the country due to economic or other reasons.
Now in his mid-60s, François has got used to sitting down to Easter dinner to enjoy the traditional meal of lahmajoun (a salted pastry filled with minced meat), monte (pasta with minced meat), topic (hummus with tahini and onions) and chorek, a soft bread baked especially for the feast, with considerably fewer friends than before, just as he sees the St Therese Armenian Church in Heliopolis not half full as it used to be.
Today, Christine, Janette, Rosa and Sylvia argue that what is left of the once large Catholic community of Egypt is mostly memories that are not well-documented and might be lost in a decade or two as a result of age or decay. Today, these memories are sometimes reduced to a few names on the façades of buildings and a set of Catholic churches, they comment.
Basile Behna, the descendant of an originally Chaldean Catholic who came from Mosul in Northern Iraq to Aleppo in Syria before ending up in Cairo in the 18th century, is convinced that some things will remain from the Catholic history of Egypt, if nothing else the cultural contributions that many Catholics have made to the life of the country through the books they have written and the films and music they have produced.
The Behna family is associated with a leading cinema production company that was established in the early decades of the 20th century before it too was lost to nationalisation, along with “negligence and dust”, he says.
It took Basile decades before he was able to reclaim the offices of the Selection Behna Company and get the dust removed from the archives before rehousing them in one of Alexandria’s oldest downtown buildings off Mansheya Square where they can be consulted by today’s audiences.
Father Boutros Daniel of St Joseph’s Church is also convinced that the cultural influence of Catholics in Egypt cannot be overlooked. The Catholic Cultural Centre and the many cultural activities that are associated with schools run by nuns and priests all over Egypt cannot be ignored, he argues.
Sister Takla, head of the Our Lady of Perpetual Succour School in Heliopolis, is a firm believer in the educational mission that religious schools have had in Egypt for decades. She said that at some schools it is not unusual to see fourth-generation students attending the same school as their great-grandparents.
Now in her late 40s, Nermine is soon to see the graduation of her youngest daughter, Farida, from the Sacré Cœur School in Cairo. This is the same school she attended as did her mother.
“Maybe they don’t have the same quality of teachers they did when I was a student and maybe many things have changed, but this school is the right place for children because they worry about manners and behaviour and not just about education,” Nermine said.
According to Sister Amal, who joined the Heliopolis School a decade ago when it was expanding with a new branch in New Cairo, “the interest that families show in having their daughters educated at Catholic schools is not just about the quality of education, but also about the quality of manners and style of conduct we try to help parents pass onto their children. This is a key asset of the religious schools,” she said.
Father Greish notes that the Catholic schools in Egypt are not only about French and English, “as there are many schools that provide services in Arabic in Upper Egypt and elsewhere to children who are obviously mostly Muslim.” This, he says, “is at the heart of the Catholic faith, as we aim to provide for whoever needs our help.”
Charities are an essential part of Egyptian Catholicism. Missionaries who attracted followers from within the Christian faith and were banned from targeting Muslims have long provided orphanages and elderly care, schooling, including boarding schools, and medical care in the country.
Caritas is a Catholic charity, now also registered as an NGO, which provides services across Egypt. It provides low-interest loans to people seeking to launch businesses, literacy classes for those who wish to learn, and a wide range of health services especially for women and children. It also offers help to refugees irrespective of faith.
In some cases, faith is taken into consideration, for example at the retirement community affiliated to St Fatima’s Church, a Catholic Chaldean Church, in Heliopolis, however.
“This is not designed to be discriminatory, but we are mostly dealing with women who are old and frail and part of our work with them is spiritual group activities that are designed to help them with loneliness and to keep up their faith,” said Dina Sabaa, its director.
She explained that it is not a requirement for all the women admitted to the house to be Catholics, but they do need to be Christians.
Renée, a Catholic lady, said that she was only “too happy to have come to this house” from her Upper Egyptian residence in Sohag after her son had immigrated to the US and she had failed to join him. For her, it would have been difficult had it not been for this house where she can be looked after in her old age.
“There are more and more elderly [Christian] people whose children have to go and pursue their lives in the US, Canada or I don’t know where, and it is in these places that we can spend the remainder of our days in peace and dignity,” Renée said.
Meanwhile, the dwindling number of Christians in the Middle East is becoming a major concern. A century ago, Christians accounted for around 20 to 25 per cent of the population, but in the region as a whole they have now declined to around five per cent. Even the very cradle of Christianity, the birthplace of Jesus in Palestine, has been suffering from a serious decline in Christian numbers, with only a few thousand Christians left in Jerusalem.
The only two groups that seem to have a solid chance to survive the fear of radicalism and/or economic decline and political instability are the Christians of Lebanon and the Copts of Egypt.
“The Copts, maybe, but not the Catholics. We are increasingly looked at as foreigners, and if a few more elderly people go and a few more young people emigrate there might come a time when we see Catholic churches shut their doors and only a few nuns serving in the schools and living in the monasteries,” said Lili, a Catholic lady in her late 30s.
Lili herself would have gone to join her brothers and her in-laws in Australia had it not been for her mother in Egypt. She added that her mother “does not want to leave and wants to have her funeral in the same church where my grandparents were married and where she herself was baptised” (the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Heliopolis).
But when her mother dies Lili is not planning to stay in Egypt. “I would always want to come back to visit, to walk in the streets and visit my old school and my friends, and maybe to pray in my church too, if it is still there. But the diverse Egypt, in the cultural not just the religious sense, is fast disappearing, and the country is becoming increasingly a place for Muslims and Coptic Orthodox only, and maybe in time for Muslims only,” she commented.
But this will not necessarily be the case, despite the many challenges facing the Catholic community in Egypt and “the many attractions that make so many people, irrespective of their faith, want to leave,” said Father Philip Nejem of St Fatima’s.
There are new waves of migration coming from troubled Arab countries to Egypt, and these, though having a largely Muslim population, also include a Christian component.
“We have some young couples coming with their children, just as we have elderly people frequenting mass here,” he said. He added that while the heyday of St Fatima’s Church, built in the early 1950s, is gone, it would be wrong to think that the days of the church itself in Egypt are numbered.
*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly