Visiting Assiut, the diocese of al-Qussia and the Monastery of al-Muharraq

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Sun, 2015-04-19
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Visiting Assiut, the diocese of al-Qussia and the Monastery of al-Muharraq


AWR, Cairo, April 19, 2015


Much reporting, Egyptian and non-Egyptian, is Cairo based. Journalists rarely go to Upper Egypt, certainly not if there are no tensions to be reported, and thus biases are created in reporting. Upper Egypt only gets into the picture if there are troubles, however, day to day life of Egyptians and Muslims and Christians living together is neglected.


It was pleasant to visit the area with filmmaker Norbert Schiller and camerawoman Dana Smillie, who are working on a documentary on Christian life along the trail of the Holy Family.


On April 8, I was received by Coptic businessman Emad Aouny in Assiut. Christian businessmen have a strong position here and they are now, alongside their Muslim counter-parts, struggling with the governor of Assiut who refuses to replace buildings less than three stories high with taller buildings. The two conflicting interests are clear; preservation of the remaining older buildings vs. business interests that prescribe taller buildings since this, in their mind’s eye, makes more sense economically. Security in Assiut is good, Emad explained, and the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups are weak there. Emad took me to his friend Sheikh Agamy, Deputy Minister of Awqaf in Assiut.

Al-Qussia is a one-hour drive from Assiut. Here we stayed in the guesthouse of Bishop Thomas, since several of our interviews were conducted in Sarakna, a 90 per cent Christian village of around 10,000 inhabitants, located between al-Qussia and the Monastery of Muharraq.


It was good to meet with the Coptic farmer, Shehata (58), who took us to his land at that moment that his neighbor Abdel Hamid (79) from the neighboring village of Ankh was also working. Both their land had been owned by their parents and thus they have been neighbors all their lives and have never had any disputes together – giving an altogether very different image of Egypt of Muslims and Christians living in peace.

The village is rapidly changing and landownership is rapidly diminishing because of urban expansion, but wealth is increasing due to higher education and the opportunities of finding labor in other parts of Egypt such as Sharm al-Sheikh or the Gulf States, Europe or the USA. Migrants from Sarakna send remittances home to support their families. Moreover, the rapidly increasing wealth has had a tremendous impact on the appearance of Sarakna. The old mud brick houses that dominated the village only forty years ago have almost all been replaced by stone houses.


We met with a lot of people but did not hear the stories of persecution often reported by certain organizations in the West. However, this does not mean that there are no problems. Better education also means that people seek jobs that are in line with their education, but these are hard to find. Shenouda Maher told us that, for this reason, he would like to join his brother in Bakerfield, California, USA.


Lawyer Atef’s brother is Abuna Daniel in Bakersfield. He and his wife Jihan found good work in al-Qussia and for that reason, do not think of migration at any time soon.


The atmosphere is very pleasant, it was during the Coptic Orthodox Holy Week, and as one villager told us, “we are all one big family.” We walked around and participated in beautiful celebrations. No one in the village would dispute that a similar pleasant atmosphere would be hard pressed to find anywhere else, but the prospects for the future do not look good.


The Village head, Ramez Ekram, painted a particularly bleak picture of Sarakna’s future, were land is diminishing and it will be impossible to make a living out of the small plots that people own. The educated make efforts to leave and once they do, they will support their relatives back home, but what happens to the following generations?


We spent our during Sham al-Nassim, the spring feast which is the day after Easter (April 13), with our friends in the field. It was incredible to see how many families were all going out into the fields to have their traditional Sham al-Nassim breakfast. After our breakfast we went to the Monastery of al-Muharraq. The streets leading to the Monastery were fully blocked with small traders selling their wares. Inside the Monastery the crowd was even worse. Several priests I knew were leaving that day; father Boulos had to go on an errant to Cairo and Father Tadrous remained in his cell, and thus, could also not be reached through the intercom of the monastery. Father Philoxenos graciously received us but did not hide that this was not how he wanted us to see his monastery “but what can we do? Our Monastery is the only place between Malawi and Assiut where Christians can have a good time during their holiday. Opening our monastery on this holiday is a service to the community.”


See some of the photographs taken here.


Christian life in Upper Egypt is not easy for the less educated. They need to work hard to make a living, but this is no different for their Muslim compatriots.  But calling it persecution? That is not a description one can use for Christians in this part of Egypt.


Cornelis Hulsman,

Editor-in-chief Arab-West Report













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