The lack of sleep did cost us the next morning, though, as we were due to pay a visit to the area bishop for breakfast at 8:00am sharp. In the Coptic Orthodox Church the bishop is only one level below the pope, and carries great authority and responsibility. Christmas duties pressed on everyone, but he allowed us about an hour of his time, and the exchange of greetings was necessary on both sides. For us and the priest, it would have been an offence if we did not honor him with a visit, however short. The same would have applied if he failed to receive the foreign visitors in his area. Needing to receive the governor in only an hour, however, he allowed us a few questions, gave us Christmas gifts of wooden and cloth crosses in addition to an icon of the Virgin Mary, and allowed us our leave. The priest himself was due at his church in the village, so we left promptly.
The responsibilities, however, were simple. All he had to do was sit in his office and receive Christmas greetings. It made for little conversation as every two minutes in the morning another child would enter, kiss his hand, and then leave. This continued for about two hours, interspersed with a phone call of Christmas greetings every minute in between. It was somewhat boring, to tell the truth, but it was a complete cultural experience.
All during this time the church grounds were an open playground. As parents enjoyed a morning of rest their kids gathered and exploded miniature firecrackers one after the other. They were clearly enjoying themselves, but as I sat in the office I could only imagine the chaos outside, except for when the kids threw their fireworks inside. Surrounded by walls, the noise was deafening, but the priest did not seem to mind at all. I got increasingly perturbed, but what can you do when this is normal and accepted behavior? I have noticed that priest may have a slight hearing problem; after twenty-plus years of service, these bi-yearly celebrations can perhaps take their toll. My imagination of the chaos, however, can be presented as reality by Julie, who was outside with the girls, and will take over the authorship of this next session.
I don’t think Emma enjoyed herself too much. I wasn’t exactly sure what it meant that we would go sit at the church and “play” all day. I knew Emma liked to play with kids, but the sheer number of the kids would probably overwhelm her. What I imagined came true. We arrived to a crowd of children, dressed in their new Christmas clothes. They surrounded our car, knocking on the windows and holding out bags of chips to our children who were behind the closed windows. It really felt like a Hollywood star experience, and we were the celebrities. As we entered the courtyard through the church gates, the kids followed the car. We parked and got out and they just kind of stared and smiled at us as we exited the car. I offered typical Christmas greetings, “May you be well all year,” as I carried Hannah and Jayson carried Emma. Wherever we walked with them, the kids followed, not saying much, but not leaving us alone either. Emma was overwhelmed, but handling it okay. Jayson and the priest went into the office, and told us we could play out in the courtyard. So, holding Emma’s hand, and Hannah in the other arm, we walked around, surrounded by kids. We eventually went to a ledge that was in the sun and sat down in the warmth. The kids surrounded us, some of them saying in English, “What’s your name?” or, “How are you?” to the girls, and not getting much of a response. The firecrackers either started then or else that was when we noticed them, and from that moment on, Emma’s hands were up on her ears every time she was outside the office. It probably looked kind of funny to the kids, but I felt bad for her. They offered her the firecrackers; I’m not sure what their thought was: Does she hold it as its lit and then throw it, or is it just something for her to hold in her hand? I kept refusing and told the kids that she doesn’t like noise; it scares her and hurts her ears. This seemed a foreign concept to them. They offered chips or cookies, which was about the only thing the girls responded to positively. They asked me their names and I told them. An older girl asked if I knew a certain game, and I didn’t understand her. She said they wanted the girls to play with them. I said, “Okay, we can try. If you all start playing, the older one may join you.” But everyone just stood there. I wasn’t sure what they wanted us to do. How do fifty children play exactly? I didn’t see a ball and it didn’t seem they were going to organize a big game, yet, we had the directive to “play.” One of the older boys started trying to disperse the crowd to go play so maybe we could move around or get up, so I took both girls by the hands, well, Emma by the elbow because her hand was covering her ears, and we walked around the courtyard, looking for people playing, yet still being followed by a crowd of children who were NOT playing. The noise of the firecrackers was really getting to Emma, and at some points, the kids would throw the lit noisemaker near us. I don’t really think it was malicious, but it did seem intentional. I think it just enthralled them to see someone so affected by the noise, as they obviously weren’t. Emma said she wanted to go to daddy, so we all went into the office, where we finally could sit in peace for a bit. For the next few hours, we either sat in the office, where we usually had some sort of snack from someone, or we walked around the courtyard, Hannah’s hand and Emma’s elbow in my hands, walking around, followed by children and the sound of firecrackers. When it got too much, we would reenter the office and sit for awhile again. After awhile, the thought of “playing” all day at the church, didn’t sound too fun!
Ok, Jayson is back. Around noon the priest’s brother came into the office and offered to take us to his house in the village where we were to have lunch around 3:00pm. That seemed a very good idea for the girls, but I thought it best that I stay there in the office. I walked with them to his home, about five minutes away, to keep all propriety, promising the priest I would be back shortly. All seemed fine with the brother’s family, and by the time I came back the ATM had opened. The priest had stacks of bills which he was distributing one by one as each child entered, kissed his hand, and received his $0.045 cents. This apparently was a custom for the holidays.
When this ended the sitting became much more enjoyable. The men of the village now came to pay their Christmas greetings, and several of them would sit and talk for a while, especially the ones who were working abroad or in Cairo and came home for the occasion. I even met someone who was working in Jordan, as a gardener in the church we worshiped in way back when. Many of these people only return home once a year, but some can come more frequently. It is especially hard because most have left their families in the home village.
Julie and the girls were able to take a nap before lunch, and I took mine afterwards. By this time, though, the news was filling the village. Six Christians were gunned down as they existed Christmas mass. Not everyone really knew what was going on, but all expressed concern, though not surprise. Many Christians have surrendered themselves to the idea that the country is against them, and this was just the latest confirmation. Even at that early point, however, there were complicating features, or at least rumors. This event was said to be connected to an ongoing controversy related to a nearby village, in which a Christian was said to have raped a Muslim girl, and the Muslims then responded against the Christians at large as the perpetrator of the crime escaped. In Upper Egypt the practice of revenge killings is not uncommon, and this may have been a continuation. Or, it may have been terrorism clear and simple. ‘Terrorists’ was the word on most of the Christians’ lips.
After lunch ended we left the village, returning to Maghagha, and things were quiet as the priest had to leave for family responsibilities, allowing me to write much of this summary. We had dinner earlier that night, at around 11:00pm, but we had put the girls to bed around 9:00pm. With a full stomach once again we weren’t much in the mood for sleep, and enjoyed good theological conversation until 2:00am, taking full advantage of our time together. It was another long but good day, but with a pall over the events of the day.
The events also could threaten us, as surely the security would be increased throughout the country. Would we be able to continue our program? The next day we were to visit two places reputed to be visited by the Holy Family during their escape to Egypt, and another place which was a pilgrimage site for a modern day saint. Would we be sent home immediately? Would we be confined to the priest’s home? There was no worry about safety whatsoever, but as we finally did collapse into sleep, there were concerns aplenty. The ones highlighted here in this last paragraph pertain to us, but may our prayers highlight those concerns of the country, pertaining to all.