Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Bringing Christ's light to Luxor


In April, our Head of Press and Information John Pontifex travelled with a small Aid to the Church in Need team to Egypt on a fact-finding trip. It was his second attempt to visit the faithful in Egypt, after the original travel plans were put on ice as the 25th January Revolution gathered pace. In this series of blogs, John will be posting his diary entries from the trip, giving an eye-witness glimpse into life for Egypt's 10 million Christians - more than any other country in the Middle East.

Tuesday 12th April 2011

Our visit to Luxor was always going to be interesting but few of us could have expected it to be quite as we found it. We were particularly anxious to visit since Aid to the Church in Need staff had not been there for a number of years amid safety concerns. Despite the turmoil of the moment, we were given clearance to go.

Collected after the hour-long flight from Cairo, the first thing we noticed was a series of unmanned security check points. Introduced to the Bishop of Luxor, Joannes Zakaria, the first thing he told us was: “The situation is not very good. There is looting. People are carrying out many manifestations [protest marches]."

John Pontifex in front of ancient ruins at Luxor

Luxor is a beautiful city but tourists were still thin on the ground. Beautifully turned-out rickshaws with perfectly groomed horses stood idle behind the ancient remains in the city centre. There was an eerie quiet about the place.

Taking a late lunch, the bishop described the diocese: with 18,000 Catholics in a total population of four million, you realise the size of the diocese when you are told that it neighbours that of Khartoum, deep inside north Sudan.

Bishop Joannes said that in the last few years there were suspicious blazes on three church properties. One fire had broken out at a convent, another had gutted a parish church in a village called Hagazah and a third had badly damaged the bishop’s house overlooking the Nile.

But standing on the top of the rebuilt Bishop’s House, you felt that Bishop Joannes had had the last laugh. The view from there as the sun set over the hills behind was one of the most magical sights I have ever seen. The river continued to glint in the sun as the light in the sky turned red.

Bishop Joannes Zakaria and the view over the Nile from the Bishop's House in Luxor

The bishop himself is a character. Bearing a distinct resemblance to former (Labour) Home Secretary Charles Clarke, this burly bishop took us to sites, details of which cannot be published. When asked to indicate the government’s likely response to some of his activities, he simply bulged his eyes out at me and ran his finger ominously across his neck.

Others meanwhile are well documented, such as the extension to St George’s Church in Nag el Sigh, Luxor, which was completed with Aid to the Church in Need funds. The bishop explained that much of the work had taken place in secret one night. Visiting the church, the parishioners stayed behind to sing the Our Father in Arabic in honour of benefactors.

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