Maureen Jack, a World Mission Council member sends a second blog from her visit to our partner church, Synod of the Nile of the Presbyterian Church of Egypt.
In preparation for visiting Egypt I met Father Mark Aziz, the Egyptian Priest at St Mark’s Coptic Church in Kirkcaldy; he is to be an ecumenical delegate at our General Assembly this year. He was kind enough to share some information with me; something he spoke of with great enthusiasm and pride was a Coptic mission in a poor part of Cairo. Today I saw it for myself.
Because of links between refuse and pigs, and the fact that Muslims avoid pigs, which they see as unclean, refuse collectors in Cairo are Christian. Whole neighbourhood communities take on this work. The area we visited is fairly typical. We saw vehicles weighed down with huge bags of rubbish; elsewhere the bags were piled up along the streets outside people’s homes. Families live upstairs, with the ground floor of their homes given over to unpacking, sorting, and repacking the refuse, putting aside as much as possible for recycling. We asked about disease and our guide told us that there is a special department devoted to disease in this area and that the residents have developed a high level of immunity to disease.
Forty or fifty years ago conditions were much worse, with families living in tin shacks. It is perhaps not surprising that people resorted to alcohol. There was a high level of alcohol abuse and addiction. One refuse collector arrived to collect the rubbish from a house in another part of the city. The owner, also a Christian and a Sunday school teacher, smelled alcohol on the man’s breath. He visited the refuse collector’s home, felt called to minister to the community, and trained as a priest in order to be able to do so.
Father Simon wanted to create something beautiful for the people he served: a church built into the hillside made from quarrying stone to build the Pyramids. But in the early 1970s it was impossible to get permission to build a church, with authorisation required from the President himself. It was Ramadan, and each evening a cannon sounded from the nearby citadel to mark Iftar, the end of the day’s fast. And so each evening, at the exact moment its sound would be masked by the cannon, a dynamite charge was set off, blasting stone out of the foot of the hillside.
And so a cave was made. And so the cave church was born.
The front of the church, where the priest stands, is beneath an overhang of rock. The priest looks out on a huge curve of amphitheatre, with tiers of seating rising above him. We were told that it can accommodate 10,000 people, and often there are more than that at worship. At various points beside the sanctuary there are beautiful biblical scenes carved into the rock.
What a tremendous gift to a community. And it is good to know that the even greater gift to the community, Father Simon, is still there ministering to his flock.