Clambering up to the top floor of the narrow house, the feeling of anti-climax was overwhelming.
“Look there,” said the young priest, enthusiastically. What he was pointing at was a small opening in the roof, operated by a makeshift window.
It was only when I returned downstairs and heard the full story that I realised what all the fuss was about.
It turned out that in the face of unrelenting government opposition, Coptic clergy in this part of Upper Egypt had devised a cunning plan to create a chapel. Using the opening in the roof, they had passed building materials through from the neighbouring house and thereby converted one of the rooms into a chapel.
Now people coming to “visit friends” are secretly attending Mass. This story – eerily evocative of a classic Cold War scenario – sits uneasily with the media image of modern Egypt, with its “Facebook Generation” who thronged Cairo’s Tahir Square clamouring for change.
But if the story shows anything it is that Egypt has a long way to go if it is embrace the brave new world envisioned by so many of its burgeoning youth. More particularly, a culture of discrimination and intimidation against minorities – especially Christians – can hardly be thrown off overnight.
Indeed, even before we set foot in the country, it had become clear that the pro-democracy movement of Tahir Square fame was set in opposition to hardliners determined to create an Islamist country rigorously in line with Sharia law.
Our quest as a fact-finding team from Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need was – among other things – to assess which vision of Egypt looked likely to prevail. As it happened, our mission very nearly failed at the first hurdle. With a cruel sense of irony, providence decreed that our original trip dates should coincide almost exactly with the overthrow of President Mubarak.
By the time we did eventually get to Egypt – with significantly less confidence in our sense of timing – it was clear that a largely unforeseen phenomenon had radically altered the balance of power between the pro-democracy campaigners and their Islamist opponents.
Driving – or, rather, inching forward – through Cairo’s jam-packed streets, the priest who collected us from the airport uttered what was to become a familiar refrain: that the extremists were much better organised and far greater in number than anyone had guessed.
Unable to give precise information, the general consensus among bishops, priests, Sisters and lay people was that Salafists – hitherto ruthlessly oppressed under Mubarak – now represented a serious threat.
Lay people in parishes described internet videos from extremists warning Egyptians that it was now “legitimate” to harm or even kill women appearing in public without a veil.
Others told the story of a group of Salafists who were being held responsible for chopping off the ear of a Christian in Assiut, Upper Egypt. Extremists maintained that the violence was a legitimate means of “executing justice” after the man had refused to convert to Islam.
Up and down the Nile, from Luxor to Port Said, the message coming from Christians was that the Salafists were now making their presence felt both physically and in the media.
As one senior Catholic priest put it: “The Salafists are now released from their cage.”
That extremist Islam should evoke so much fear within Christian communities is no surprise. On May 7, a mob of Salafists set fire to the Virgin Mary Church in the Cairo suburb of Imbaba. At least 12 people died and more than 200 were injured. Two other churches were attacked.
During our trip senior clergy highlighted the political advance of the Muslim Brotherhood. Although espousing non-violence, their Islamist vision of Egypt is said to leave little room for Christians and other minorities. Their achieving 20 per cent of the seats in the 2005 parliamentary elections prompted Mubarak to carry out a crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood.
Further political success may come the Muslim Brotherhood’s way. The interim military government which followed Mubarak has announced parliamentary elections in September and presidential elections two months later. Reflecting on the potentially huge political changes to come, one bishop told us: “Under Mubarak the Muslim Brothers were under Gestapo control; they were underground. Now they are very visible. They may get up to half the seats in the next election. This is a great concern for us. There was a strong message awaiting us when we met Coptic Catholic Patriarch Cardinal Antonios Naguib in his office in Cairo. A gentle, self-effacing man, Patriarch Naguib wasted no time in saying: “Now is the moment to really participate in the evolution of society. What matters is to have confidence in our beliefs and to have the strength to express our message.”
The problem for Patriarch Naguib is that the Catholic Church in Egypt is small and lacks influence. With a total of 250,000 faithful, Coptic Catholics are dwarfed by their Coptic Orthodox cousins, who number more than eight million. Senior Church figures in Cairo with close Vatican links indicated that when Mubarak’s regime wanted a Christian perspective on an issue it rarely, if ever, turned to the Catholic community. In any case, relations between the two churches are tense. Doctrinal differences may be few but pastoral problems abound, with Coptic Orthodox leaders demanding re-baptism of Catholics wishing to marry a member of their Church. One evening as we tour Upper Egypt we visited a Catholic church under construction. We learned that work had been halted for two years after local Orthodox leaders and their community had complained to the local planning authorities.
But change on such a seismic scale could yet help to break down the walls of division between the two churches. Coptic Orthodox Pope Shenouda III’s ill-fated decision to publicly back President Mubarak in the early days of the so-called January 25 Revolution resulted in his faithful defying his orders; they continued to protest in favour of political change. Senior clergy told us that since that fateful time the Orthodox lay faithful have increasingly broken ranks from their bishops, sensing that the moment is theirs. Indeed, social change runs far deeper than ever could be realised by the likes of us foreigners visiting the country for a brief period. Egypt’s high birth-rate (the average age in Egypt is about 24) means that the country’s entire infrastructure is playing “catch up” as Egypt tries to keep pace with a massively expanding population.
Huge new cities are being built on the edge of historic ones such as Luxor, Giza and Minya. Looking like a scene from a science fiction film, the part-complete cities have freshly laid roads stretching in almost every direction. Either side of the immaculate new roads, houses, flats and community centres were beginning to rise up out of the desert, half-built structures spreading far and wide.
With their satellite dishes already in place, the young families occupying the homes that had been completed seemed to bear out comments from senior clergy that the pro-democracy movement was “not just a bunch of teenagers but is made up of ordinary young people with the ordinary aspirations of most people in the West”.
And the Church is also seeking to take its place in the vibrant new cities. Senior clergy across the country took us to visit newly acquired buildings to be transformed for use by Church communities.
In one case, a bishop taking us round a parish centre under construction suddenly paused and said: “This is the first time I have actually been here. It’s normally too dangerous to visit.” I asked him how the authorities would react to the disclosure that the building was being converted for Church use. His eyes bulged as he slowly drew his finger across his throat. He went on to say it was “essential to the Church’s life and mission” that the faithful should have a building – a place to call their own – in the new cities.
Here, too, there is cause for optimism. The reduction of the security apparatus bequeathed by Mubarak means that it is far easier for bishops to develop Church activities without the interference of the authorities. Until now, building a Church has only been possible with the personal authorisation of the president complete with signature. In May came news that the military regime was considering plans to ease the restrictions on church construction.
Buildings are one thing; people are quite another. The past five months have set everyone in Egypt – not least the country’s Christian faithful – on an emotional rollercoaster, encompassing extremes of hope and fear. The one constant has been uncertainty. Amid turmoil on a scale not seen for generations, the faithful seek solace in a Church whose heritage claims St Mark the Evangelist as its founder and in a liturgy whose language is as old as the Pharaohs. As a charity, Aid to the Church in Need is committed to helping Christians in Egypt – supporting seminarians, providing Mass stipends, help for Sisters, Child’s Bibles, catechesis and other Christian education as well as construction of parish centres. For some the future holds only fear. They look to the West in search of sanctuary and a new life in a new country. But for many others this feeling they have of being boxed in, unable to control their destiny, is alleviated by the sense that now is the time. With elections ahead and the emergence of a new political and social consensus, they see a small window of opportunity just like the one through which was passed the secret building materials used to create the forbidden chapel.
That sense of hope was for me captured by a young Christian trainee medic who told me: “Yes, there is cause for fear but we Christians in Egypt are proud of our Christian identity. I love Egypt so much. It is my country. We trust in God and we pray: ‘Jesus, take care of us’.”
John Pontifex is head of press and information for Aid to the Church in Need (UK). For more information, visit Acnuk.org