In the heart of Egypt, between arid mountains and cultivable lands, a few thousand Christians survive in extreme misery. Forgotten by all, they are the descendants of the first Egyptian Christians. 18 hours of bus, laughter and singing, joy in hearts, narrative of a moving donation to the borders of Upper Egypt.
At the edge of Upper Egypt, 375 km from Cairo, the Holy Family stopped during their escape after crossing the Sinai desert. This was their longest step in Egypt: six months. It is in this area that the monastery of Deir El-Moharraq was built. Later in the same place, Archangel Gabriel appeared in a dream to Joseph to force him to return to Palestine following the death of King Herod.
Here, the desert gives way to green oasis, fertile crops, irrigated by clean water. As soon as we leave the monotonous road to sink into the land, we discover a landscape close to the one described in the history books. The slender palm trees, ochre dust, carts pulled by small white donkeys, smiling countrymen, smoking tractors seem coming straight out of our middle school manbooks.
Thousands of years ago, the first Christians of Egypt lived here. It is with respect and curiosity that we stride this land full of memory.
Early in the morning we are blessed to attend Coptic Mass at an historic site. An ancient site dating back to the famous Pharaoh era is home to a church today. A cave dug into the mount regularly lights up with the Savior's presence and sacrifice, in the golden glow of the rising sun. A steal of historic steps, a bunch of disparate shoes at the entrance, here we are in the holy place. The floor is covered in red, women and men are separated.
Father Anton celebrates the Holy Sacrifice amid traditional songs, long coptic melops with accents of supplication. Incense escapes in grey volutes, that rise to the assault of heaven, similar to our prayers. The fervor of every believer is palpable. Child and adults, everyone collects and humiliates themselves during the Holy Mass. As worship ends, we leave with a soothed soul from this (very) morning celebration.
A wind of grace blows in this place with peace and joy. The oriental are our elder brothers in Faith. They precede us, and we Christians of the West can only be admiring their ardour in faith. The bond between Christians of the East and Christians of the West is fundamental and must be maintained and strengthened. It's exciting to discover the oriental rites, and touching to see how much the Orientals welcome and respect us. They are great in their depth and simplicity.
A few kilometers later, we are at St. Théodore church in the small village of Rifa. Some 8000 Christians live at the foot of a mountain containing ancient pharaonic sites converted into a church. After getting off the minibuses, we are assaulted by children, curious to see the French coming from so far, for them. ′′Esma que?". The traditional question resonates infinitely at the entrance of the church enclosure. And the first names are, those of volunteers mingling with those of Egyptians. ′′Korolos", ′′Augustin", ′′Chenouda", ′′Claire", ′′Mariam", "Chloe"... Some are so hard to pronounce, but already reflect the brotherhood.
Barely extracted from this childish cloud, the priest of the place, Father Anton, reminds us of our mission of the day. We need to distribute 260 food packages to families in extreme precarious situations. Each package contains daily essentials: pasta, rice, oil, butter, jam, cheese, dried fish and chicken. The price of this package, 11 euros, may seem derisory but feeds a family of 4 to 5 people for a month.
These families have nothing. Outside the sanctuary, we spot their homes. The priest explains:
"They live at 8 or 9 or even more between four jerking walls. The roofs, made of fins, barely protect them from the weather. The cold cold of winter nights can only be fought by lights, lighted thanks to garbages that litter the street. The beathen earth floor turns into a quagmire whenever it rains. Of course they have no bathroom or kitchen... Animals, pigeons, dogs, are like home."
It is in this haven of peace and hope, between the high walls surrounding the holy place, that we will distribute our bags of food. Families are already beating down the doors, speaking loudly, eager to get their precious sesame. Distribution begins, they queue in line in a more or less disciplined atmosphere. In exchange of a ticket, every person, often women, widows in their black clothes, receives a package from our hands. One by one, we exchange piece of derisory paper for much needed food. Heads follow each other, smiles and thanks too. The avid hands that are reaching out to us show the impatience with which this gift is expected.
On the sidelines of this well-run distribution, the children have emboldened themselves. They know some English words and try to communicate with volunteers of SOS Chrétiens d'Orient. The little ones clap the hands, smile, that's it, a friendship is created, all in simplicity. Children are surprised at the blondness of some volunteers, their clear eyes, faces that others master with dexterity. Laughs fuse, ice is broken. While their parents supply, toddlers make amazing memories with these French people who came from so far to help them.
Behind the bright eyes and the ′′shokrane habibi", we see the modesty of a misery that we refuse to let triumph. Behind poverty lies simplicity and fraternity. ′′Thanks to God we have at least one roof over our heads."
We will return here, hopefully, so that next month these people still have as much joy in their eyes at the sight of their food packages you allowed us to give them.
′′A few words about the donation in Assiout? A strong moment from which I remember our team's brotherhood and the smile of the people met. This special donation was important to us all and it was felt in the stronger bond with each volunteer and the effort we made to make it work. An effort more than rewarded with smiles up to the ears, sincere ′′shokrane′′ and sparkling eyes." says Chloe, in the bus that brings us back to our peaceful comfort.
This monthly donation, worth € 3.000, helps to feed 260 families, or 1000 people. Thanks to your donations, these men, women, and children may survive. So wait no longer! Financing the purchase of a food parcel worth € 11.
Inès, volunteer in Egypt.