Saturday, 2 July 2011

Building the Church in Egypt in secret

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.

Saturday 16th April 2011

I can't tell you where I have been or who I have been with.

It’s just one of those things. If I said, the people concerned will be in trouble. But that doesn’t stop me from telling a good story without any of the crucial information being left out.

It’s the story of how a chapel was created under the noses of the security personnel stationed there precisely to prevent the work from going ahead. How it happened is like this: the clergy wanted to turn one of the rooms in a church-owned building into a chapel. After the state police had received a tip-off about the plan, the Church had to think again.

Then somebody had a brainwave: the sister of a priest occupied the neighbouring building. She received the building materials – timber for the pews, concrete for the chapel pillars, stone for the altar etc – and bit by bit they were passed across through a hole in the roof. The chapel was duly built with the state police outside oblivious to what was going on.

A church in Egypt

Truth to tell, church building is really difficult in Egypt. Under the old regime, a church could only be built with the personal permission of President Mubarak himself. There are strict limits on the number of churches it is permissible to build. The state police and local government authorities have a track record of nipping church-building plans in the bud, claiming widespread local opposition.

Even if churches do get built, so often within months of them going up, a mosque – huge by comparison – is suddenly erected. And yet, the bishops feel they must build because vast new cities are being built to cater for a fast-expanding population where up to 1.5 million babies are born every year. The average age is about 26.

We visited some of these new cities and they are truly enormous – housing estates spreading into the desert as far as the eye can see. One bishop told us how in one of the cities the authorities repeatedly blocked his plans for a church. He reiterated the frustration he experienced, his repeated representations to the planning authorities.

“We must build,” he said, “otherwise our faithful will start abandoning the Church. We cannot accept no for an answer. It’s simply not fair. We must build,” and then he added in a whisper “and we are building…”

Find out how you can help Christians in Egypt

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