Egypt's Christians Huddle, And Wait for Better Times

CAIRO, Egypt—Thirty-year-old Maurice abandoned everything—beautiful women, a comfortable expatriate lifestyle, and a promising business career—for Egypt's wild and isolated desert plain. And waves of his peers are doing the same.

“Thirty years ago, there were six monks here,” says Maurice, who joined his 1,000-year-old monastery last year. “Now there are 150.”

Infatuated by the solitude of the desert, Egyptian Christians in their 20s and 30s are clamoring to join ancient monastic orders— and renounce their secular environment that offers few opportunities for an ambitious younger generation. Most of the country's Christian population of 8 million belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church.

The trend is a measure of a broader Christian movement in Egypt—a quiet but steady return to religion despite harassment from state officials and Muslim extremists.

For some Coptic Christians, it's a quest to redefine their religious identity, blurred by decades of secular values and social conduct. For others, it is a search for space in the overwhelmingly Muslim country of their birth. Copts represent a cross-section of the Egyptian population, from the poorest rag-clad garbage collectors to powerful landowners who own construction companies and fast-food franchises.

Older members of the community say they are shocked by the religious fervor of their sons and grandsons. “We (Copts) wanted to have a secular state where citizenship comes before affiliation to religion,” said Dr. Milad Hanna, a prominent intellectual in his 60s. “But the younger generation is now fundamentalist just like some Muslims, except that the Christian way of being fundamentalist is more introvert than extrovert.”

Many call it a natural reaction to Muslim fundamentalist movements sweeping Egypt and the rest of the Middle East. Despite periodic attacks by militants on Coptic churches and villages in the south, observers say native Christian zeal grows stronger every year. Since 1992, militants have targeted government officials and Copts alike in their quest to establish an Islamic state.

The worst terrorist attacks in Egypt this year so far have been directed against Copts. In mid-February, gunmen killed nine Christians attending a youth meeting in a church in Abu Qurqas, 160 miles south of Cairo. On March13, attackers believed to be Muslim militants opened fire in the main street of another predominantly Christian village in the south, killing 13 men in only a few minutes.

“The Church is caring for young people in particular in its efforts to foster the awakening,” said Dr. Gawdat Gabra, the director of the Coptic Museum in Cairo. He says the combination of a highly charged sectarian religious environment and a highly organized Church eager to guide impressionable youth is responsible for the current Christian renaissance.

Holding mass meetings for almost 10,000 faithful Copts, Pope Shenouda III uses his down-to-earth, almost evangelical preaching style to beguile his listeners in Cairo's gargantuan Coptic Orthodox cathedral every Wednesday evening. He is the first pope in this once ritual-bound Church to hold such gatherings. Clerics credit him for his efforts to guide young people and foster a blossoming Coptic youth movement that encourages lay participation among its members.

At the beginning of every gathering, he answers written questions from his audience, many of whom look to be in their 20s and 30s. One young woman says she has fallen in love with her Muslim neighbor, a taboo in most Coptic families. “Don't let life make you forget your religion,” he admonishes the masses, raising his aged hand for emphasis. “Pray that God sends you someone else.”

Other members of the clergy have eschewed ritual in favor of spreading a populist message, though in recent years the Church—once known only for its elaborate incense-perfumed masses—has excommunicated some self-styled preachers with huge popular followings for their radical ideas.

But others are officially permitted, like one Father Semaan, who fascinates thousands from his stage in a newly-built coliseum towering over a desperately poor neighborhood of Cairo.

“Do you love Jesus?” he cries to the crowd, his figure highlighted on huge video screens and his voice amplified by Japanese speakers.

“Yes,” his fascinated listeners shout back in reply.

At the heart of the revival is an ongoing monastic renaissance in the Coptic Church's 12 functioning monasteries—some of which date from the fifth and sixth centuries A.D. Egyptian Christians consider monks to be the holiest living members of their ancient Church.

“It is partly a reaction to the materialism that has prevailed in the world over the past 50 years,” said Dr. Gabra. Those joining the monasteries come from both rich and poor backgrounds, from Egypt and expatriate communities in the United States, Australia, and Canada.

There are few Copts in the upper echelons of the political and military establishment. Many Copts feel they have been denied the political participation they once enjoyed before Gamal Abdel-Nasser came to power in the ‘50s. Several million left Egypt in the ’70s and early '80s before many Western countries tightened restrictions on new immigrants.

But the Church offers talented young Copts a career ladder like no other. Sister Demyana, a translator for the pope who is in her early 30s, says “almost all of the Church's 12 monasteries have doubled or tripled in size [during] the past decade.”

The growth has been so remarkable that the Church has founded a new monastery, Mar Girgis, to accommodate the increase in numbers—a difficult feat in a country where building new churches requires special permission from the president.

Almost all of the monastery's hundred students are in their 20s and 30s. Clad in light blue cotton robes, novices intent on performing their duties scurry silently down newly-laid concrete paths shaded by fast-growing grapevines.

The Church has also resorted to buying pre-existing churches—abandoned buildings left behind by Greek, Italian and Armenian communities who left Egypt in the '60s—so as not to excite Muslim militants, who closely monitor priests in the south to prevent them from making repairs to Church property.

However, the high fortress-like walls of the monasteries conceal their inner goings-on—and free their inhabitants from current Christian difficulties. For young Egyptians, those isolated but peaceful holy sites have become the focus of large-scale group pilgrimages.

“In my mother's day, no one was interested in visiting the monasteries,” said 24-year-old Neveen Kamal, an office worker in Cairo who spends many of her weekends at the desert sites. “Now young people are much more interested in religion.”

Fifty miles northwest of the city, monks at the St. Bishoi monastery claim they welcome 3,000 visitors—most of them Egyptian—on a daily basis.

“There are no recreational areas where they can go as Christians. It's their only outlet for a day's retreat—and an opportunity for them to renew their faith,” says Father Maurice.

Inside the stone chapel, pilgrims sit for hours, their bodies protected from the cold floors by plush oriental rugs. They sing hymns in Arabic and chat softly with family members and peers. Before leaving, they kiss their palms and press them against the glass-protected coffins of Coptic saints.

Jessica Jones is based in Cairo, Egypt.

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