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Hearing the Voice of God in Africa

Faith and fervor uplift the church of Alexandria

by Don Duncan

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Manal Malek Abdo professes a dynamic experience of faith — faith lived through deeds.

“All of my actions say I am a Christian, that I follow Christ’s way,” she says, sitting in her living room in central Egypt. “From Christianity, I learned how to live by example and to love others through my work.”

For thousands of years, ethnic Christians — or Copts — have formed a major constituency of the Church of Alexandria, which in Africa includes a number of other Eastern churches, Catholic and Orthodox.

For centuries, relations among these Christian communities have been rocky, even hostile. And while leaders are working together to strengthen the bonds of unity, Catholic Copts in villages say they feel more uneasy with their Orthodox Copt brethren than with their Muslim neighbors. In Izbet Chokor, a village near the city of El Faiyum some 60 miles southwest of Cairo, one Catholic, Mrs. Abdo, builds bridges to strengthen the two sister churches.

The youngest of seven children born to a family in El Faiyum, she began her faith formation in the Orthodox tradition. She attended a Coptic school, and credits her family with instilling both a strong connection to their parish and an active inner life.

“What I learned from my parents,” she says, “was to listen for God’s voice everywhere, regardless of where that might be.”

This lesson would inform one of the most important decisions in her life when, at age 24, she married her beloved, Ramsis — a Catholic Copt.

“We first met at a clinic near my work,” she says. Her future husband had accompanied his sister to have her infant son inoculated. “I was teaching in a school; he was working three doors down from the school.”

Some had objected to their marriage, which also led to Manal’s reception into the Catholic Church. Although saddened by the controversy surrounding the marriage, she took comfort in her family’s support.

“My father had no problem whatsoever with the marriage and becoming Catholic. He said: ‘Do as you feel.’ We prayed and we looked for a sign that it would all be fine.”

Listening for God’s voice and looking for signs would help her through the difficult times that followed her marriage as well, especially when her infant daughter died suddenly.

“I first had a dream that I would be having a baby and to be ready for pregnancy. Then, before my daughter died, I had another dream telling me that this daughter was not for me,” she says. “This was God talking to me again in dreams and letting me know what to prepare for. These signs helped me to know before the tragedy struck and so to prepare for it in some way.” In this way, she says, her faith helped her to begin to cope with so great a loss.

“My relationship to God is like a friendship,” she says, “and he has made many signs, many miracles in my life.”

Today, she lives her faith through her work with the parish community of St. Paul in Izbet Chokor, where she is deeply involved with various social and educational services. Through the church’s service center, she administers extra lessons for local students and runs handicrafts workshops for young women.

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