Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Vulnerable Gulf Migrants Offered ‘God’s Karuna’ in Bible Society Outreach

Corona and God's Karuna

This article was first published at Christianity Today, on May 29, 2020.

There is no social distancing in a labor camp.

Living in cramped conditions, sometimes 10 to a room, migrant workers in the Gulf are widely considered among the international communities most vulnerable to the new coronavirus.

Seeking a share of the region’s petrodollars as remittances for their poor families and communities back home, migrant laborers far outnumber the Middle Eastern region’s citizen population—as high as 80 percent in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

And hailing primarily from Asian nations such as the Philippines, Indonesia, and India, they make up the great majority of the region’s more than 200,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases.

Yet from one of their languages emerges a homonym that may birth hope for the languishing workers.

“It is not corona, but karuna, which means mercy in Telugu,” said Prasad, a migrant worker from India, to the Bible Society in the Gulf (BSG).

“God is giving us the opportunity to turn to Him.”

There are 20 million Indian migrants worldwide, and 1.5 million are Telugu speakers working in the Gulf states. Many have lost their jobs or had their salaries reduced due to the economic shutdown.

The Bible society seized on Prasad’s observation to publish a new booklet in Telugu and English, appropriately titled God’s Karuna.

Its content reflects the upside-down nature of the COVID-19 world—and of God’s kingdom. There are frequent references to…

Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today.

Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Closing the Bible Gap in the Gulf

Bible Engagement Gulf
Image: Illustration by Rick Szuecs / Source Images: Pexels

This article first published at Christianity Today, on February 5, 2020.

Joining 80 leaders from 24 countries in Washington, DC, last September, the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) announced 2020 to be the Global Year of the Bible.

“Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ,” said WEA general secretary Ephraim Tendero. “In contrast to the sacred writings of many other traditions, the Bible is meant to be read and understood by all people.”

But what if they cannot read? This is the case for up to 40 percent of the 1.5 million Telugu-speaking workers in the Gulf states. Having dropped out of school in their native India, these migrants find that the crowded labor camps of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain offer the best opportunity to support their families back home.

But having come to the glitzy Gulf to gain a meager share of petrodollars, many find also the spoken—and storied—words of Jesus.

In 2019, the Bible Society of the Gulf (BSG) was awarded “Best Mission Project” by the United Bible Societies (UBS). Honored in the category of “Focusing on Audiences,” BSG’s pioneering audio and storytelling work among illiterates distinguished it among the 159 UBS branches worldwide.

“We help migrant workers rediscover themselves as children of God,” said Hrayr Jebejian, BSG general secretary. “Through the faith and hope of scripture, they gain the strength to navigate their many challenges.”

Jebejian’s book, Bible Engagement, noted during the UBS ceremony, described the long working hours, high rates of suicide, and…

Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today.


Migrants vs. Immigrants


Salama Moussa provides a timely reminder of the difference:

Migrants are pushed by local disturbances to seek work and survival in other lands, regardless of the land, as long as it welcomes them. Immigrants have a fixed destination and while they seek a “better” life, the definition of “better” is often broader than mere survival.

He also mentions a request difference in orientation:

Immigration carries with it the hope of integration, assimilation and acculturation. This process is rarely painless but almost always beneficial, for the immigrants and the societies that receive them.

Migrants carry the hope of returning to their homelands once the emergencies subside or sufficient material wealth is accumulated. For them assimilation and acculturation are both highly undesirable, as they would render the migrants alien when they return to their homelands.

The categories can be fluid, depending on the reception and success of either group. But he warns of the loud megaphones that often accompany the pro- and con- on either extreme of the national debate:

Matters are made worse by leaders on all sides. Some package easy national solutions indistinguishable from simple bigotry. Others are unable to see that tolerance should not be extended to habits and ideas that burst the old lands into flames.

The answer, he says, is to encourage immigration and stem migration. The latter is to help strengthen the countries of origin, that there be no impetus to leave.

Of the former, [my comment] every nation must have a responsible immigration policy, which can legitimately wax or wane over time according to national circumstances. But Salama Moussa’s take is spot-on:

The second is done by adherence to the bedrock values that have made many countries, especially in the West, a haven to the beleaguered.

Chief among those values is tolerance. The root of that very word is Latin for “supporting” and “enduring”.

This means that while accepting new immigrants we must assert that the values that opened the doors for them can not be subverted by any beliefs they bring along, and that we will work to see our values endure.

As we transition back to Egypt following a period of time in the United States, my mind is still taken a bit my American issues. Hopefully Egyptian and Middle East commentary will return over time, but glad to share insight helpful to either context.

Like immigrants and migrants and many others, our ‘sense of belonging’ is also fluid.



Friday Prayers for Egypt: Drowning

Flag Cross Quran


Over 150 people are dead in a disaster off Egypt’s Mediterranean coast. An equal number of would-be migrants were rescued, but the majority remain unaccounted for.

Most on board the overloaded fishing boat were Egyptian, with a sizable segment of other nationalities. Turkey and Libya hold international focus as a launching pad of refugees to Europe, but Egypt has tended to stay out of the headlines.

The armed forces have intercepted many efforts, and tragedy has not been a media marker. Until now.

God, have mercy on the souls of those who perished. Put right the world of those who remain alive.

Put right the world.

Egypt is refining its legislative deterrent, upping the punishment for human trafficking. But the president also calls for greater investment in areas with people more likely to flee.

Help Egypt to right its own ship economically, even as she integrates refugees from elsewhere. Give wisdom to Europe in who she takes in. Give prosperity to her neighbors, that none need apply.

And give contentment to those dreaming of a better life elsewhere. May they know your peace, which can settle any soul. May they know your power, which seeks the good of all.

But for now, may those in transit know your comfort. May those who find them extend your grace.

Put right the world, God. Too many are drowning. Put right Egypt, may she rescue many.



Young People in Upper Egypt

From the World Bank:

This study was published about five months ago; I came across it now. Very interesting statistics:

While the great stretch of land from south of the Egyptian capital, Cairo to Lake Nasser on the border with Sudan, the area known as Upper Egypt, has only 40 percent of the country’s population, it is where 80 percent of the severe poverty is concentrated.

Consider also these figures:

  • More than half the population of Upper Egypt is under the age of 29, and one third are between the ages of 15 and 29.
  • Upper Egypt is predominantly rural with 75 percent of its young people living in rural areas.
  • Upper Egypt accounts for only 40 percent of the country’s population but 60 percent of those living in poverty and 80 percent of those living in severe poverty.
  • The country poorest 1,000 villages are almost all concentrated in three governorates in Upper Egypt.
  • Over one third of all young people in Upper Egypt are in the poorest wealth quintile.
  • The official youth unemployment rate in Upper Egypt is 16 percent, which does not count the ‘jobless,’ those neither employed nor seeking work, a state that describes almost half of all young people in Upper Egypt.
  • 70 percent of young women in upper Egypt are jobless.
  • Illiteracy rates for young people in Upper Egypt are at 17 percent, higher than the national average, with illiteracy rates for females more than twice those of males.
  • Less than 4 percent of illiterate females are employed.
  • Returns on education in Upper Egypt are high, with labor force participation rates for female university graduates as high as 58 percent, higher than the national average of 47 percent, and 84 percent for male university graduates.
  • Almost all young women in Upper Egypt with no formal education are jobless.

While it is perhaps fitting the World Bank did not make a point to inquire about the religious affiliation of these youth, it would have been useful to see the results of a scientific study. It did state in the footnotes that nearly 6% of Upper Egyptians are non-Muslims, without providing a link to source or methodology. It also called Upper Egypt one of the areas with greater Coptic concentration.

Certainly Christians here will dispute these numbers, which indicate a weakened, slowly dwindling presence. If their greatest concentrations in numbers reach only 6%, what of the rest of the nation?

Well, most emigrants from Upper Egypt wind up in Cairo or Alexandria, so perhaps scientific studies might show these cities with the greatest concentrations nowadays. It should be a simple matter to establish census figures – every Egyptian has his religion printed on his ID card – but it is too politically and religiously controversial.

On the one hand, it doesn’t matter – Egyptians are Egyptians regardless of religion. On the other hand, it means everything – if 15-20% they are grossly marginalized; if 5-6% their rights are still important but their claims are greatly diminished. Will the state and/or the church have the courage to take this issue on transparently? Or is it best for everyone if it remains purposefully ignored?

On a closing, unrelated note, I was surprised to see a link to my report on the attack on the Coptic sit-in at Maspero. I’m glad that was helpful to the World Bank.

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Atlantic Council Middle East Published Articles

A Home with No Husbands: A Glimpse at Internal Egyptian Migration

Qufada Skyline

My article about life in an Upper Egyptian village published today on EgyptSource. Click here for the full article; excerpts are in the boxes that follow, interspersed by other material needed to be cut for focus or word count.

During a visit to the city of Maghagha to learn more about surrounding village life, the local priest brought me along to a family’s baptism party in Qufada, celebrating the forty day mark of their new baby boy. Earlier at mass the child received his rites of entrance into the Coptic Orthodox Church; it is conventional thereafter to invite the priest to their home for a meal.

The Coptic home of the now deceased patriarch, Shafik Khilla, in Qufada conveys few signs of luxury but has a dignity fitting proper village family life. The ground floor houses common areas such as the reception, kitchen, and bathroom facilities, as well as a place to store the family animals during the night. The upper level contains a single room for each of the five nuclear families who maintained residence. But is ‘nuclear’ a proper word when all the husbands are away?

Today, Shafik’s sons Masry and Ruweiss are elderly, peasant farmers like their father. They spend all day in the fields watching the animals, for if they were to join in the life of the house thieves might steal them away. The men return to bed with the beasts, privileged above them by life on the upper floor. Neither attended the church service for the baptism of their grandson.

Also absent were the three husbands of the home. Masry had three sons, Samir, Medhat, and Milad. Samir and Medhat married their cousins, the two daughters of Ruweiss. Milad had to step outside the family to marry, yet by appearance all six of their children avoided the genetic defects of intermarriage. All are in school or preschool.

In the article I describe how they found work outside the village. Speaking of one husband, the priest made his wife blush:

Milad, meanwhile, found a job as a clerk in Cairo, for which he earns roughly the same salary and comes home just as infrequently. The priest playfully asked his wife why she had missed early morning mass the week before. She looked at him sheepishly and replied, ‘Oh, you know, Father, my husband was home.’

The two younger wives also received education up to the high school level, which inspired Samir’s wife to also improve her situation. She took literacy classes from the church and recited in our presence a poem she crafted about Jesus and his love. Mother to three daughters, the priest wished for her a son. She demurred, denying cultural expectations, and expressed thanks to God for what she had. Still, the priest held up both his own example and described mine as well, where three girls were finally followed by a boy. He said he would pray.

Here is the root of the problem:

‘There is no opportunity to work in Qufada,’ states Fr. Yu’annis. ‘People finish their education, but because they have no land, money, or chance to open a project, they must search elsewhere. The only other option is to work the land as a peasant farmer. ‘Work can be found in the nearby city of Maghagha, says Fr. Yu’annis, but it pays poorly and transportation costs eat a quarter of the earnings.

And from the conclusion:

Amid the cries that Islamist government may whittle away the Christians of Egypt, a far more subtle phenomenon is underway. Christians, and their Muslim neighbors, are depopulating the villages of their ancestors, simply to find a better life elsewhere. Will Samir, Medhat, or Milad ever return to live in Qufada? How long can their families live there without them?

Demographic changes as these are not unique to Egypt. As the nation undergoes vast political upheaval, no less significant are these social realities. In fact, the question is fair: For the great majority of Egyptians, which is more significant – a president, or a husband?

Please click here for the full article. I’m glad for the chance to place more slice-of-life material in the blog, but the official version is crisp and better analysis – thanks to the professional editing which suggested to cut the above material in the first place.

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