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Friday Prayers for Egypt: Russia, Air and Chemical

Flag Cross Quran

God,

For the first time in two years, Aeroflot returned to Cairo. Russia had suspended all air travel following a terrorist attack on a tourist carrier, and security precautions still prevent direct flights to the popular Red Sea resorts.

Let it not happen again, God.

But as Russian-Egyptian relations return to normal, give discernment in current affairs.

How should the government consider accusations of poison in the UK, and gas in Syria?

Let the truth be known, God, if only to the privy of world leaders. Let Egypt’s president act accordingly.

But give knowledge also to the world community.

Allow heads-of-state the discretion to maneuver. But disclose secret deeds done in darkness. Give no cover to illness in conduct.

None can stand on your holy hill, God. But the heart of a man may yet be made pure. May such men lead their nations well.

Help Egypt stand with many. As necessary, help Egypt stand alone.

Strong. In peace.

Amen.

 

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Current Events

Want to Help Christians Stay in the Middle East? Start with Your Vacation

This article first appeared in the July print edition of Christianity Today.

Middle East Christian Tourism
(Credit: robertharding / Alamy)

Call Ann Fink crazy, but the intrepid grandmother has a tradition to uphold. She’s toured Israel, Jordan, and Egypt with 8 of her 13 granddaughters. Victoria, a preteen, is number 9.

“Her parents are not afraid,” said Fink, a Pennsylvania native, while visiting Egypt with Victoria. “We believe we can die at any time. Only God knows when and where.”

Neither tourist knew just how much visits like theirs support the region’s beleaguered Christians.

From a high-water mark of $7.2 billion in 2010, tourism revenue in Egypt has fallen by 76 percent following the unrest of the Arab Spring. The decline has devastated the economy and, with it, Egypt’s Christians.

Copts, an estimated 10 percent of the population, make up more than half of tour operators and more than a quarter of the tourism workforce, according to Adel el-Gendy, a general manager in the Tourism Development Authority. Christians have better connections to the West, he said, and are often more skilled with languages.

Gendy, a Muslim, has been assigned development of the Holy Family route—25 locations that, according to tradition, were visited by Jesus, Joseph, and Mary as they fled Herod’s wrath. Relaunched with government and church fanfare in 2014, the route is close to being designated as a World Heritage site by UNESCO, he said. But the project has struggled as tourists stay away.

The route runs through Old Cairo, which boasts churches dating back to the fourth century but feels like a ghost town. Souvenir shops are open, but their lights dim. “Our income has dropped by 90 percent,” said Angelos Gergis, the Coptic Orthodox priest at St. Sergius Church, built above a cave where tradition says the Holy Family stayed three months. “We are assigned to assist 100 poor families in the area, but we used to help so many more.”

There are no tourist fees at Christian religious sites, but many visitors leave donations. “You can see things in Egypt you won’t see anywhere else,” he said. “And if you have any sympathy for us, please come. Your visit does help…

Please click here to read the rest of the article at Christianity Today.

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Current Events

Friday Prayers for Egypt: Bread and Entry

Flag Cross Quran

God,

Facing a severe decline in tourism, Egypt doubles the entry fee.

Facing corruption in the bread market, Egypt scales back supply.

Both decisions can be seen as sensible, God, but outcry is loud and execution haphazard. Give wisdom for right policy.

Immediately the government postponed the visa price hike, and hints a final decision has not been made.

Immediately the government distributed thousands of smart cards, to better document the citizen ration.

The tourism sector protested, and the government responded. The lower class demonstrated, and the government acted.

But God, aid in better pre-consultation. Widen the circles of policy discussion that all stakeholders might first come to consensus.

And aid in better administration. Wise projects poorly implemented can sometimes double disorder.

May tourists come. May people eat.

Open the gate that leads to peace; supply the bread that leads to life.

God, preserve Egypt as she finds her way.

Amen.

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Current Events

Anglican Bishops Defy British Embassy to Kick-Start Egyptian Tourism

anglican-global-south-at-pyramids
Photo: Andrew Gross

In a defiant gesture of faith from beneath the Pyramids, Anglican bishops sent a message to the world this week:  Egypt is safe.

And this on a weekend the UK embassy warned against visiting public places.

Representing twenty of the more conservative provinces of the worldwide Anglican Communion, delegates to the Sixth Global South conference in Cairo visited the Giza pyramids and dined on the Nile in a show of solidarity.

‘I appeal to you as an Egyptian, please return and visit Egypt,’ Bishop Mouneer Hanna Anis, chairman of the Global South, told delegates.

‘Our economy depends on tourism, and when it is down, thousands of Egyptians cannot earn a living.’

The tourism sector employs roughly four million Egyptians, representing 12.6 percent of the work force. But according to the Central Bank of Egypt, tourism revenue declined by nearly a half – 48.9 percent – year-on-year to September 2016.

The 31 October, 2015 crash of Russian Metrojet Flight 9268 over the Egyptian Sinai desert, claimed by the Islamic State, had a disastrous impact.

Russia, who represented 35 per cent of arrivals, has since barred all flights to Egypt, and the UK at 12 per cent have canceled flights to resort areas in the Sinai.

Ghostlike

luxor-temple
Photo: Darren Haley

In Cairo the pyramids stood empty. In Luxor there was just one family at their hotel, where staff threw a party for their one-year-old’s birthday, to show their appreciation.

American Darren Haley said:  ‘It was sad to see just how much Egypt has to offer and how few are willing to take the journey.  Egypt is history just waiting to be explored.’

Egypt is struggling to promote tourism with an ongoing Islamist insurgency.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs reacted furiously to UK and other embassy warnings that they said could ‘harm the country’s economy.’

Without identifying the threat, the UK embassy issued a warning 7 October to avoid ‘large gatherings and public spaces,’ specifically mentioning museums.

‘Most terrorist attacks target the security forces,’ reports the embassy website,‘but it’s likely that foreigners, including tourists, will also be targeted.’

So the bishops’ stance is all the more remarkable.  ‘I wanted the Anglican delegates to see a different picture of Egypt than what they see in the media,’ Bishop Anis told Lapido.

‘It is unfair to call Egypt unsafe, as we have seen there is no place in the world safe from terrorism.’

Before the Russian airline crash tourism was showing signs of recovery. Revenues had increased 45.3 percent compared to a year earlier.

Rebound

Egypt hopes a second rebound is coming.

Officials are finalizing negotiations with the Russian authorities to restore flights. Egypt Air resumed London-Luxor travel on 3 October.

On 10 October Egypt completed restoration work at the shrine of King Tuthmosis III in Karnak Temple.

Last month the ransacked Mallawi Museum in Upper Egypt was reopened for the first time since pro-Morsi rioting in August 2013.

But even throughout this tumultuous period, tourists have come.

‘We have never had a bad experience, even during the uprisings of the last five years,’ Bishop Timothy Ranji of Kenya told Lapido. Every year since 2004 he has brought thirty clergy to Egypt for religious pilgrimage.

‘Egypt is secure, full of lovely people, and I invite everyone to come,’ said Archbishop Tito Zavala of Chile.

‘I am an ordinary person here. There is no need for bodyguards.’

anglican-global-south-bishops-at-pyramids
Photo: Andrew Gross

This article was published first at Lapido Media.

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Current Events

Pilgrims’ Process: Why Christians Closest to the Holy Land Visit the Least

Via_dolorosa_Jerusalem

This article was first published at Christianity Today in the June print edition.

Walking down the Via Dolorosa, Nabil placed his hand on the wall where Jesus reportedly stumbled on his way to being crucified.

I am a lucky man, thought the 58-year-old. I can feel the Holy Spirit in my body.

This wasn’t how the Coptic Orthodox pilgrim had expected to feel in Jerusalem’s Old City. “Most Egyptian Christians want to visit as part of their faith,” he said, noting that he saw many elderly women dressed in black, weeping at each station of the cross. “Not me. I’m retired, I have nothing else to do, and I like to travel.”

Touring the Holy Land has been a transformational experience for Christians worldwide. In 2014, more than half of the 3.3 million tourists who visited Israel were Christians, according to the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Of these, one out of four was Protestant.

But among these tourism figures, the Arab Christian community is nearly a no-show. In 2014, Jordan sent only 17,400 tourists (which were not differentiated by religion). Egypt, only 5,200—all Copts. Lebanon forbids travel to Israel entirely.

So Close Yet So Far

There are many reasons Arab Christians don’t tour Israel. The ancient sites are right in their backyard, so familiarity breeds complacency. And economic and political conditions hamper travel.

“I grew up minutes from Mary’s Well in Nazareth, and walked to school daily past the Church of the Annunciation,” said Shadia Qubti, a Palestinian evangelical. “It’s where I met friends for coffee.”

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

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Culture Religion

From Garbage to Glory

Cave Church

From my new article for Christianity Today’s Behemoth publication:

The Pyramids of Giza used to be in the middle of the desert. Eventually Cairo’s urban sprawl pushed right up to the Sphinx. The Citadel of Saladin towers over the city. The southern approach requires an overpass straddling the City of the Dead. In Tahrir Square, the Egyptian Museum and its famed mummies were overrun with the bedlam of a revolution.

Tourism has dropped dramatically since then, but intrepid travelers can hardly help notice the encroachment of squalor on the glories of antiquity.

What most miss is the reversal: A glory rising out of the garbage. To create it, 40 years ago one man had to literally trudge through a pigsty. Today it is simpler to reach the massive cave church complex in the Muqattam Mountains on the eastern edge of Cairo. But the journey still requires a pungent assault on the senses.

Women and children pick through 15,000 tons of the city’s collected refuse, sorting out recyclable waste from the biodegradables useful for wandering livestock. Men haul burlap trash bags twice their size into garbage trucks poised to tip from overfill…

The article tells the story of how a Coptic Orthodox priest inhabited this world and gave birth to one of Egypt’s most beautiful sites.

Please click here to read the full article and see the photos at The Behemoth.

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Current Events

Friday Prayers for Egypt: Russia, Give and Take

Flag Cross Quran

God,

Russia is a strange ally. The week begins with the declaration her airliner was brought down by a bomb. It ends with agreement to build a nuclear reactor.

Help Egypt in the back and forth. Negotiate the give and take.

Egypt is maintaining caution in making any pronouncements on terrorism, waiting until the commission concludes. Russia had been with them, then with the UK stopped the tourist flow.

Is it pressure politics or necessary precaution? Rebuke Egypt if she is playing games. Protect Egypt if others are.

But rebuild the tourist sector, God, and with it Egypt’s professional reputation. Help her standardize operations and keep all safe. Thwart those intent on causing her harm.

And may building a reactor result only in good.

God, honor Egypt with the energy she needs. With nuclear comes risk, and maybe temptation. All assurances are given that intentions are peaceful. There is so much to gain, so much to go wrong.

Keep Egypt safe from error. Guard against negligence. Handle waste. Hinder sabotage.

Between now and completion, make Egypt ready.

In relationship with Russia, may Egypt both benefit and avoid entanglement. In all international affairs, help her stay sovereign. Help her do right.

May Egypt neither give nor take, God. May she bless. May she experience your example, and imitate.

Amen.

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Current Events

Friday Prayers for Egypt: Russia, Floods

Flag Cross QuranGod,

It is sad to pray that a tragedy will have resulted from negligence. It is sad to pray about negligence that helped produce a tragedy.

In the space of a week, God, Egypt witnessed both. May the former not have long term consequence. May the latter bring long term change.

A Russian tourist plane crashed in the Sinai on its return trip home. Scores are dead, including children, with rescue operations ongoing. Initial reports suggest technical problems with the airplane.

But the crash occurred near the focal point of Egypt’s terrorist activity. Soon it will be clear, but God, may all have been a tragic accident.

Either way, God, comfort the families. Rescue those still alive. And for the sake of Egypt and her economy, may vital Russian tourism not be scared away.

Only a few days earlier exceptional floods swept through the city of Alexandria. Torrential rainfall overwhelmed a drainage system ill equipped and unaccustomed. The governor resigned, though he had inquired about capabilities in advance. Several people died, damage is extensive.

God, comfort the families. But hold responsible the officials high and low who failed in due diligence. May this tragedy result in a city stronger in infrastructure. May it result in a nation unwilling to sweep problems under the rug.

And God, may it not take tragedy to spur Egypt to action. Grant Egypt stability, but lift her from lethargy.

As people fail to vote and candidates fail to inspire, instill in Egyptians a sense of deep personal responsibility. May they engender reform to hold the rest accountable.

And where there is only accident, God, help Egypt to rally. Spare her further suffering and may better days come.

Amen.

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Current Events

Friday Prayers for Egypt: Dead Tourists

Flag Cross QuranGod,

Forgive Egypt. Forgive her for the accidental killing of Mexican tourists. Forgive her for the haphazard way she handled the press. Forgive her for blaming the victims. Forgive her for false reporting in local media. Forgive her for awkward and self-referential condolences. Forgive her for the damage to tourism. Forgive her for the insufferable pain inflicted on the Mexican tourists and their families.

Forgive her, God. But may she also repent.

You have given government authority to protect citizens and society, God. Help Egypt to root out the terrorists the tourists were mistaken for. But you have given authority in trust. Help Egypt restore it.

Transparency and accountability have been promised by the authorities. May they fulfill their word, and extend it to governance in general.

Forgive Egypt, God. Save her from herself and her many entrenched sins. May this terrible accident be a rebuke that jolts her into reflection and change.

May it jolt her to repentance. May she weep over what she has done.

Comfort the victims, God. Give them strength to forgive.

Amen.

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Current Events

Church Donations in Upper Egypt: Ideals and Reality

Fr. Yu'annis
Fr. Yu’annis

A few excerpts from my recent article at Arab West Report:

Fr. Yu’annis sat in his small office waiting for a delegation to come, fearfully aware it might not. Having made all the arrangements, he was eager for a prominent Coptic businessman to visit the hundred year old church in his village, see the plot of land he had purchased, and envision together how a small hotel could lure religious pilgrims following the route of the Holy Family.

Being a practical priest, Yu’annis put aside the objection that his village of Qufada is not actually on the official route of the Holy Family. Several kilometers from the central city of Maghagha in the governorate of Minya, Qufada is a bit of a backwater. The nearby villages of Ishneen al-Nasara and Dayr al-Garnous are no closer, but they each boast a well from which the Holy Family is said to have sipped.

Unlike these, Qufada is not mentioned in the ancient manuscripts of the church. No matter, thought Yu’annis, given the geography it is certain they passed through. In any event neither Ishneen al-Nasara nor Dayr al-Garnous have a hotel either, so there is an opportunity to exploit. God knows his people need it.

After describing Qufada and Fr. Yu’annis’ local relations, here is a little more about his project and the man he hopes can implement it:

With this in mind, Yu’annis bought a plot of land next to the church in hope his hotel idea might result in tourist income and local employment. He secured Hamdi’s support and pays him a small sum of money each month to secure the premises. That this is necessary undermines somewhat an absolute understanding of Muslim-Christian harmony; Hamdi once remarked in frustration that though Christians are only 15 percent of the village, the one church is larger than all mosques put together. Correct or not in his estimation, it is personal relations and greased wheels which keep communal peace.

But the peace is present, so Yu’annis proceeds. And thus he sits in hope for the arrival of the delegation, which turns to frustration when it does not arrive.

The awaited businessman is Munir Ghabbour, owner of the luxury Sonesta hotel in Cairo and a number of enterprises beside. Now 70 years old, Ghabbour wants to use his wealth to leave behind a Coptic legacy, strengthening that of the Holy Family. Many churches along their route are operational but decaying. Poignantly similar are the Christians; poverty and emigration, not to mention pockets of religious extremism, eat away at what was once a flourishing Coptic presence.

Mounir Ghabbour
Mounir Ghabbour

I wrote about Ghabbour in reference to a new government initiative to promote Holy Family tourism here. The priest and businessman have a relationship stretching back many years, but the key to the project is support of the church:

But the lynchpin for the deal is a different person altogether. Bishop Aghathon heads the diocese of Maghagha for the Coptic Orthodox Church, responsible for all spiritual matters and many temporal ones beside. Yu’annis could not fail to inform his bishop of such a high profile visitor, who promptly requested to receive the businessman in the local cathedral.

Or rather, the old cathedral. Poorly built and suffering severe structural damage, Bishop Aghathon had long petitioned the government for a new building. For years he was frustrated, and thus he went political. Small demonstrations were held and the bishop complained in the press. His demeanor was much different than that of his predecessor Bishop Athanasius of Minya, who died in 2000 and had his diocese divided into several smaller dioceses. Bishop Aghathon was appointed to Maghagha, and proved less adept at fostering local relations.

This, at least, is the opinion of Yu’annis, who found his own success in securing building permits halted after the death of Athanasius and the ascension of Bishop Aghathon. Relations also faltered between the bishop and the priest, as the latter’s attention increasingly focused on his own village. Previously the twenty-four churches he facilitated were scattered throughout the area.

But Bishop Aghathon’s political approach finally proved successful after the revolution. In May 2011 the Maspero Youth Union formed during a massive Coptic sit-in near Tahrir Square, protesting the burning of a church in Cairo. Completely unrelated to events in Maghagha, during negotiations with the then-ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, Coptic youth activists included Bishop Aghathon’s cathedral permit within their list of demands. It was granted, and construction of the new cathedral is currently ongoing.

But in the old cathedral he received Ghabbour and his delegation and planned the events of the day. First would be a visit to Ishneen al-Nasara, then to Dair al-Garnous, and finally, if time permitted, Qufada. Back in his village Yu’annis waited, unable to have a say in the bishop’s ordering of affairs.

He continued to wait, as the bishop showed the businessman other project opportunities. I describe the diocese and local conditions, but then come back to the priest:

All the while, Yu’annis waited in Qufada, making occasional phone calls about the delegation’s whereabouts. Bishop Aghathon urged the businessman back to the cathedral, and said Qufada was an hour away by car, at least. In this he appeared to pad his calculation over estimates in the original schedule, and told Ghabbour he could visit Qufada next time. That village was not on the Holy Family route, he persuaded, and the church had recently been renovated anyway.

It took a comparable amount of time to return to the cathedral, where a multi-course meal awaited. Delicious, time could have been spent in Qufada instead, had the bishop honored the priest’s original intention. Yu’annis himself then traveled to Maghagha, exchanged pleasantries with the bishop, and greeted his friend. They parted ways fifteen minutes later as Ghabbour needed to return to Cairo for an appointment. Yu’annis was disappointed, but understood how the formalities of church hierarchy needed to be honored first.

But it is not simply a matter of formality. In the Coptic Orthodox Church the bishop is one step removed from the pope and near-autonomous within his diocese. No priest can act without his approval; no church project can progress without his oversight. Ghabbour cares little for local squabbles, he simply wants to leave a legacy and assist area development. Working with the bishop can unlock any door.

But for Bishop Aghathon, working with Ghabbour can fund any door. The businessman remains in control of his own money, and will only pay for projects that are viable and fit his vision. The bishop’s pitch appeared to convince him, along with the appearance of the churches. If anyone comes to visit and sees this, he said, we will lose face. But Ghabbour’s vision is larger than churches, and includes his priestly friend. All he needs is land and an idea. Yu’annis has the former, but may need to modify the latter.

All three individuals are looking to intervene in an area of decline, through a tradition that may also be fading. From the conclusion:

Does this mean the Holy Family tradition itself does not have many days left either? To be sure this is not a warning for ‘days’ but years or decades, but as the Christians of Iraq are demonstrating, the existence of community is precarious. Coptic Christianity is not similarly threatened, but if trends continue toward poverty and emigration, will enough remain to care for the churches still being built and renovated? Or will they be the permanent reminder of a bygone era, symbols of a history cherished by believers elsewhere?

Perhaps then the tourists will come, and the hotel will be necessary.

Please click here to read the full article at Arab West Report.

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Current Events Religion

How Egypt’s Goverment is Trying to Get Christians to Follow Jesus

Holy Family in Egypt Icon 1

This article was published at Christianity Today on December 23, 2014.

The sound bomb exploded right behind the Egyptian Museum on Cairo’s Tahrir Square, throwing Ibrahim Morgan’s Swedish tour group into a temporary panic.

Then they settled back down and finished their tea.

This latest tactic in Egypt’s Islamist insurgency is meant to instill terror without harming civilians. It seeks to convey a message to citizen and tourist alike: Egypt is unstable.

This has been the dominant narrative abroad regarding Egypt, thanks to three years of instability, four presidents, and two revolutions. However, some locals like Morgan disagree.

“We know it is nonsense what the media says about Egypt,” Morgan said after the November 28 incident. “This group is here and they have had a great time.” The Swedes nodded in appreciation.

But relatively speaking, they are among the few. Since hitting a highwater mark of 14.7 million visitors in 2010, Egypt’s tourism numbers declined by a third, devastating the economy. The sector represented more than one-tenth of Egypt’s GDP, and tens of thousands have lost their livelihood.

Once stability—or its perception—returns, the numbers will likely rebound. The Giza pyramids, the temples of Luxor and Aswan, and the medieval mosques of Islamic Cairo will long attract international visitors.

But in October, the government launched a unique campaign to increase a segment representing only 1.9 percent of total tourists: Christian pilgrims. To do so, Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehlab and Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II promoted the most noteworthy biblical example.

“Jesus was the first ‘tourist’ to Egypt,” said Tawadros at the launch event, according to AsiaNews. “For us, for our community, his stay in this land has been a blessing for the present and for the future.”

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

Holy Family in Egypt Icon

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Current Events

Friday Prayers for Egypt: Targeting Tourism

Flag Cross Quran

God,

Terrorism in Egypt turned a page this week. Until now the targets have almost nearly all been related to the security apparatus – the army and the police. But when a suicide bomber boarded a tourist bus in the Sinai, killing three Koreans and the Egyptian driver, the game changed.

The claim of responsibility announced an economic war, and related though unconfirmed statements warned all tourists to leave within two days. The Egyptian economy and tourist sector – already troubled after three years of instability – may be hard pressed to bear further damage.

God, protect Egypt. Foreign visitors have no share in the current struggle. Whatever evil is behind this action, spoil their plots and bring them to justice.

For foreign visitors have a huge share in restoring stability, in support of the nation but also the current authorities. If they come, they spend, and they send a signal to the world that things are ok in Egypt.

Protect them, God. Give them courage to come and honor their hosts.

But bless these hosts, God. Equip the state to protect both its citizens and guests. Keep the political struggle far from violence, and have the authorities be worthy of honor.

So for all involved in the political struggle, establish a respect for law, order, stability, and transparency. Where there is transgression, hold accountable. Where there is manipulation, expose.

End terrorism, God, and establish justice. End polarization, and develop consensus. Punish crime, and restore morality.

And within this process, God, allow many tourists to come and be blissfully ignorant.

Amen.