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Churches reach out to refugees in Egypt
Pires was speaking at an annual meeting of the Middle East Council of Churches’ Working Group on Refugees, Displaced and Migrants in Cairo in mid-September. Working Group members had an opportunity to visit some of the Egyptian churches’ outreach work, which is supported by the World Council of Churches (WCC). Elizabeth Ferris from the WCC International Relations Team attended the meeting, and describes what she saw.
At All Saints’ [Anglican] Church, about 30 Sudanese refugees, all recent arrivals, waited patiently for identity cards that give them access to services. The church has a medical clinic, staffed largely by Sudanese medical personnel, and provides clothing, food, vocational classes and spiritual guidance. The cards also offer a bit of protection if the Sudanese run into trouble with the authorities. Most are here without documentation - victims of a war that has caused so much suffering over the past 15+ years. All Saints’ is a small church with around 75 expatriate families, but it is presently working with 4,400 individually registered refugees.
Other churches - St. Andrews, the Presbyterian Synod of the Nile, the Coptic Orthodox Church and Sacred Heart [Roman Catholic] Church - also assist the refugees. And they work together to ensure some coordination of services through an ecumenical committee. While St. Andrews concentrates on education for young children, Sacred Heart offers classes through junior secondary level, and other churches offer adult education. St. Andrews also works with the nearby German church to provide carpentry, handicrafts, sewing, and art classes for the refugees. The Coptic Orthodox Church assists refugees on an individual basis and provides medical care to 10 refugee patients a month who are referred by the Presbyterian Church.
Between two and five million Sudanese have come to Egypt in recent years, and more are arriving every week. African refugees from a dozen other countries have also sought protection in Egypt. The Sudanese face a difficult time in Egypt. They are not permitted to work, very few are recognized as refugees, and economic conditions are difficult.
"Sometimes Sudanese come and expect to live with relatives in Cairo. But the flats are small and already crowded. Landlords get angry and some of the Sudanese lose their apartments," one church worker explained. "Housing is a big problem." But the biggest problem is uncertainty over the political situation in Sudan and wondering when they will be able to return and resume their lives. In the limbo in which they live, the churches provide services that no one else can.
Yet, according to Fr. Cosimo, "It isn’t just a question of the refugees needing the churches. We need them, we need their witness. If the churches open themselves to the refugees, it will be a richness for them. Refugees bring their experiences to us."
Fr. Cosimo is pastor of the Sacred Heart Church in Cairo, a Catholic congregation which has opened itself to the refugees from Sudan. The church houses a school for 950 refugee children. All of the teachers are Sudanese refugees themselves. The ten classrooms are crowded even though the school has two shifts a day. The demand for education is great and children come from far away to attend. "We’re seeing more and more young people who are illiterate," Fr. Cosimo explains, "one of the results of the war in the south."
School principal Joseph John has been in Egypt for ten years and is proud of the many activities the refugees and the church have developed: computer classes, programmes for women, choirs, youth groups, adult education, classes in Arabic and English, and income-generating projects. "We’re also involved in reconciliation," he points out "By enabling Sudanese from different regions and different tribes to work together, we’re trying to contribute to peace in the country." Christian and Moslem students study together at the school.
Sacred Heart is a gathering point for Sudanese in the community. Six newly-arrived Sudanese families are camped in one corner of the compound. They have nowhere else to stay and the church cannot turn them away. In July this year, the church was besieged by a group of 800 Egyptians angry over a bus accident. The riot continued for several hours with the police unwilling or unable to control the crowds who threw stones, burned a car in front of the gates, and beat up several Sudanese approaching the church. Eleven people inside the compound were injured and were taken to the hospital. The Sudanese aren’t legally entitled to work, but of course they must work in order to survive. And tensions build.
But the church continues to be a force for healing and hope. Services are filled to overflowing, with people sitting outside the church buildings on Sunday mornings. As Fr Cosimo says, "the refugees have much to teach us."
The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches, now 337, in more than 100 countries in all continents from virtually all Christian traditions. The Roman Catholic Church is not a member church but works cooperatively with the WCC. The highest governing body is the assembly, which meets approximately every seven years. The WCC was formally inaugurated in 1948 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Its staff is headed by general secretary Konrad Raiser from the Evangelical Church in Germany.