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29 September 2000

Churches reach out to refugees in Egypt
Elizabeth Ferris

"If the churches don’t help the refugees, nobody else will," said Mr José Pires of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) about the work of the Egyptian churches. Unlike other countries with large refugee populations, there are practically no other nongovernmental organizations working with 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."

WCC work with refugees

Since its foundation as a Refugee Service in 1946 (preceding the formation of the WCC itself), the WCC's work with uprooted people has been based on what its member churches, and wider ecumenical constituency, do. The work has four main objectives:
  • to facilitate diaconal service to and with uprooted people as a central part of the life of the churches;
  • to influence policy at the global, regional and national levels by projecting a Christian perspective on ethically-based responses;
  • to change the situation facing uprooted people by supporting and facilitating practical actions of solidarity at the local level;
  • to address the causes which force people to flee their communities.

    The main priority is to empower the churches to engage in solidarity, advocacy and ministry to and with uprooted people. Capacity-building binds and underpins all activities.

    The WCC programme works actively with counterpart international Christian organizations and related international civil society organizations. It has also developed a critical partnership with the main international organizations addressing the needs of refugees, internally displaced persons and migrants: the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the International Labour Office (ILO), and the International Council of Voluntary Agencies (ICVA).

    The WCC's Global Ecumenical Network for Uprooted People brings together representatives of regional working groups on uprooted people. The Network met from 24-26 September to consider issues for common ecumenical advocacy and to develop recommendations related to the policy and work of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). UNHCR is commemorating its 50th anniversary this year (see below).


    UNHCR, the United Nations refugee organization, is mandated by the United Nations to lead and coordinate international action for the world-wide protection of refugees and the resolution of refugee problems. UNHCR’s primary purpose is to safeguard the rights and well-being of refugees. UNHCR strives to ensure that everyone can exercise the right to seek asylum and find safe refuge in another state, and to return home voluntarily.

    By assisting refugees to return to their own country or to settle in another country, UNHCR also seeks lasting solutions to their plight.

    UNHCR’s efforts are mandated by the organization’s Statute, and guided by the 1951 United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol.

    International refugee law provides an essential framework of principles for UNHCR’s humanitarian activities.

    UNHCR’s Executive Committee and the UN General Assembly have also authorized the organization’s involvement with other groups. These include people who are stateless or whose nationality is disputed and, in certain circumstances, internally displaced persons.

    There are 274 UNHCR offices in 120 countries worldwide including headquarters. The organization has over 5000 staff members, 83% of whom work in the field, and its total budget for 1999 was US$ 1.17 billion.

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    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.