During a recent interview with Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), Msgr. Ibrahim Sedrak, Coptic Catholic Bishop of Minya, Egypt, took the opportunity to discuss the social and pastoral work being done by his Church in a region where Christians are a minority and where a patient and consistent dialogue is needed.
“The Catholic Church is a leaven in the dough,” began Msgr. Sedrak. His social activism in a minority context is considerable. This social and pastoral development gives the Church (which is at least eight million strong) a respected public persona in a population of more than 80 million inhabitants.
In the Diocese of Minya, where there are 50 000 Coptics of the Catholic rite, the Church supports “marginalized categories of people such as the handicapped, the deaf, the mute and the sick.” The bishop explained that prisoners are also helped along with their families. “Over time, there were even children who were becoming criminals! So, little by little and with care, the work done with them diminished significantly the number of those who would otherwise choose the same road as their parents had. There has been great progress,” he said proudly.
In the area of education, there are more than 185 catholic schools in Egypt, five of which are in the Diocese of Minya, and they hope to build another. Education plays a crucial role, according to the bishop, as it lays a foundation for a better society and encourages a more open dialogue between Christians and Muslims. Many Muslims have developed a willingness to dialogue after seeing firsthand the good conduct of individual Christians.
This dialogue is sometimes complicated by the daily discrimination encountered by Christians at all levels. “Personally, as a Christian leader, I have problems building a church, without a doubt. According to the rule, nothing is clear.” But, Bishop Sedrak added, even Muslims find that laws are often “weakened” by “corruption” and “a disorder that invades everywhere.” He estimated that from the political point of view “even Muslims are suffering.”
On the subject of interreligious dialogue, the bishop remarked, “In Egypt, one must distinguish between Islam and Muslims.” He continued, saying, “With Islam, I cannot go very far, because we will be discussing dogmas – convictions which will never change. However, with Muslims, people who live with me every day, I can dialogue.”
This is especially true with Muslims who have attended Catholic schools, as well as those who have used the social services put in place by the Church which are open to everyone. “One must distinguish between simple, everyday people who are seeking their daily bread [and Islam]. If you are of service to them, you are considered to be a good person… and then they will like you!
The Synod: Having the courage to speak the truth
Bishop Sedrak also participated in the Synod on Africa which was held at the Vatican from the 4th to the 25th of October. Commenting on the Synod, the bishop said, “This assembly of bishops, experts, those interested in the Church in Africa – this is already a fruit. Sharing our experiences, our misfortunes and difficulties; getting along is already a fruit.”
The bishop also commented on the Synod discussions concerning the “prophetic role of the Church.” He said, “Prophetic role: as in, having the courage to speak the truth when it is needed. Saying yes when needed, and saying no when needed. Not always evading problems, that is a prophetic role in my opinion.”
Another remarkable happening for Msgr. Sedrak is the fact that he can ‘count himself’ among Africans. “Before, as an Egyptian, I did not consider myself to be an African, but now, I have something new.” Along with this ‘new sense of belonging’ to the Church of Africa, the bishop of Minya was touched by the Holy Father’s conduct with regard to the Synod. He “leaves his work to be present with us…and he was really there!” A situation, he reckons, that “changes a Churches’ mentality; meaning: there are not great and small; there is but one Church.
Not leaving, despite it all
Bishop Msgr. Sedrak also expressed concern about the exodus of young people from Egypt, especially by Christians. He explained that it is easy to leave the country and he believes that at times this exodus is supported by the national government and even the international community.
The bishop summarized his views, saying “I believe that to be Christian in a country that is majority Muslim is a vocation.” He also said that standing your ground requires prayer, courage, wisdom and strength… and a helping hand from outside. “Egypt, we must help, because it is a very important country at all levels: for Africa, for the Middle-East and even for the world”!
Last year, Aid to the Church in Need provided more than $500,000 in aid to support Church projects in Egypt.