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on the world of CNEWA

a pictorial journey to Egypt by John E. Kozar

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During my recent pastoral visit to Egypt, in a rural Christian village in the Upper Nile area, I had a fraternal exchange with a group of diocesan Catholic clergy, all of whom live and work in very similar surroundings.

In the middle of our conversation, a group of beautiful children came up to me, obviously not used to having a visitor from a foreign land. I noticed on the wrists of the children a tattoo of the Coptic cross. I asked each of them to show me their tattoos in more detail. They were proud of this insignia of their faith. Though small, these crosses given at baptism are cherished for life.

Then the elder priest in our group pulled back the sleeve of his cassock and showed us his cross — much larger, a bit faded, but still distinct as a Coptic cross. The children were very attentive. Then he said something very profound: “As we age our skin stretches and the cross grows larger.”

Maybe for the children, he was alluding to the size of the tattoo, but to me and the other priests he demonstrated a depth of wisdom in his faith: As we age, the crosses in life tend to get larger and heavier, but we carry them and we cherish them, as Egypt’s 8.5 million Coptic Christians do so well.

Egypt is often left out of discussions about the “Holy Land,” yet it is the land where St. Joseph took Mary and Jesus for safe haven. Sometimes the ancient history of the Pharaohs, the pyramids and the many archaeological treasures diminish the biblical importance of this land.

But Christians in Egypt, unlike in most of the Middle East, are truly at the bottom of society. Generally, they are the least educated, own very few businesses and are considered “second class,” or the outcasts of society. Many live in sprawling urban ghettoes, where many make a living picking and sorting garbage. Others live in very poor rural villages where they till the soil as indentured servants to wealthy landowners. One sister said, “They don’t dare take one head of grain to eat.” In either setting, however, their faith is alive.

Despite being extremely poor and living in horrible conditions, such as sleeping on a mud floor with their oxen and pigs, they relate to their local parish as an extended family and do everything needed to sustain each other, even to the point of taking in orphans or those children or elderly who have no one to care for them.

In the rural areas, most of the mothers must work in the fields along with their husbands and older children. Volunteers from the local parishes provide daycare and watch over the children of these workers in the fields. They also teach them usable skills that improve the quality of their lives. This is another way for them to display with pride their Coptic cross tattoo.

How can garbage collectors and sorters who live surrounded by mountains of garbage in Cairo’s ghettoes be considered productive? How can they sing “Alleluia” at Mass on Epiphany? It is possible because so many of them look to the cross on their wrist for their cherished identity. They are not outcasts. They are not “second class.” They are brothers and sisters to Christ, and he is their Lord.

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