Since February 2019, under the aegis of Monsignor Krikor, Bishop of the Armenian Catholics of Egypt, the teams of SOS Chrétiens d'Orient have been taking turns on the renovation work sites of the Armenian cemetery and the patriarchate, the bishop's place of residence. We met him one day in September during our traditional tea break. It was a good opportunity to look back on our collaboration.
On 9 May 2004, Monsignor Krikor Koussa, a Syrian from Aleppo, was ordained bishop in Egypt where he undertook the restoration of Armenian Catholic places of worship. "The Armenian churches were in a deplorable state and had to be renovated very quickly. The walls, floors and roofs hadn't been maintained for years," he tells us.
As early as 2017, with François-Xavier Gicquel, director of operations and Charles de Meyer, president of SOS Chrétiens d'Orient, he initiated the first clean-up project for the Armenian cemetery. Dating from the early 17th century, this cemetery has been transformed over the decades into a public rubbish dump by the inhabitants of the neighbourhood and its graves have been desecrated. Wounded by so much disrespect for the dead of his community, the bishop expresses his indignation: "It's the same everywhere here! We pick up a few bags of rubbish of all kinds every day! In spite of my requests, it goes on untiringly, this is the Egyptian mentality. They keep their flats clean, but the common areas are a mess and are used as rubbish dumps".
When the association arrives, the volunteers came face to face with disemboweled graves. SOS Chrétiens d'Orient immediately proceeds to buy new coffins to allow the dead to rest in peace.
Every week, since then, they go to the site to show the neighbourhood that they are present to clean up the cemetery, but every week, new rubbish awaits them, as well as dead animals, thrown over the surrounding walls, to make them "disappear" from the street.
Since the beginning of this workcamp, the cemetery has gained a new gate, has been cleared of dozens of bags of rubbish, and has seen dozens of volunteers take turns relentlessly so that it can once again become a true place of meditation.
But with the association, when one workcamp comes to an end, another starts! The roof of the patriarchate in Cairo awaits our volunteer friends.
In May 2020, Monsignor Krikor decided to call on French volunteers to support a new project: "I contacted Jérôme and told him about the damage caused by the rains in March and the necessary renovations that I could not do alone. He came to see the damage and the extent of the work and told me that SOS Chrétiens d'Orient could take care of it". Here in Egypt, even if bad weather is very rare, every year in March, heavy rains fall on the country. In the absence of adapted infrastructures, these are often deadly for the poorest.
This was the case last March when uninterrupted torrents hit Egypt and the patriarchate: "The floor coverings have come loose and the ceilings have been damaged," the bishop tells us.
He also explains to us that before the rooms were unusable, they were intended for the most destitute: "According to the Holy Father's desire in 2014, to open the churches, monasteries and bishoprics in order to welcome Syrians or Lebanese, respectively fleeing the war or the national political crisis, I hosted two young compatriots from Aleppo. For several months, they were able to find free accommodation and work here in Cairo. They left again in 2017, when the situation in Syria improved a little". Since then, only a few people have climbed to the roof. It is only in 2020 that we were able to appreciate the scale of the work that awaited us.
From then on, we started by removing all the furniture that had belonged to the seminarians. Iron beds, shelves, a wheelchair, chairs, but also administrative documents dating back to the former Armenian bishops, photos, notebooks... in short, a Room of Requirement worthy of Harry Potter, made in Egypt!
For several weeks, we had to clear the roof: a Way of the Cross was cleaned and then stored in the sacristy, the beds were lowered from the air thanks to a pulley. All in all, it was a real discovery of treasures: diplomatic passports of the previous bishops, correspondence dating from the middle of the 19th century, old cassettes, sacred books, icons... Everything to create a small museum. Monsignor mischievously confided to us: "I tried to have some of the objects you brought down repaired, such as the typewriter, but this is impossible here in Cairo. I am therefore thinking of making a kind of small museum with these photos and objects because they belong to the history of the Armenian community in Egypt".
In one month of work, the first phase of the rehabilitation of the patriarchate's roof has been completed. As for the cemetery, we have brought down dozens of bags of dust, windows, tiles, boxes containing administrative documents... We are now ready for the rest of the operations : the renovation of the rooms in order to accommodate people in comfortable conditions because Monsignor Krikor wishes to continue to dedicate this last floor of the patriarchate to the most destitute, fleeing the wars in the Middle East: "I want to stay for them, with them, like a priest, a bishop, a father, a mother, a brother". His devotion to welcomes them into his home within the Armenian Catholic Patriarchate that makes us proud of all these days of work!
For the coming months, the team of SOS Chrétiens d'Orient will be working on the ceilings, windows, floors and wall paintings. But other work sites are waiting for us. Many books, in several different languages are to be sorted out at the patriarchate, churches, especially in Cairo such as Saint Theresa. Support our projects to help the Armenian Catholic community in Egypt.
Pierre-Marie, volunteer in Egypt.