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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