“Rejoice in the Lord always: and again I say, Rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4), was the joyful motto of the forum “Back to Roots”, the World Youth Week (WYW) of the Coptic Orthodox Church. The forum ran from 25 August to 2 September 2018 at the Logos Centre in the monastery of Anba Bishoi in Wadi al-Natrun in Egypt’s Western Desert. The WYW comes under the sponsorship of Pope Tawadros II.
Some 200 second- and third-generation young men and women of the Coptic Diaspora from more than 50 countries across the world were invited to spend one week at the desert monastery in Egypt. The participants, aged 22 to 28, are active members of their churches. Side by side with spiritual activity, they were treated to a cultural and tourist programme that included visits to Egypt’s renowned landmarks and monasteries.
Meeting the President
The highlight of the young people’s visit to Egypt was a meeting with President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi who warmly received their representatives, together with Pope Tawadros, on 29 August at the presidential palace in Cairo.
According to presidency spokesman, Bassam Radi, the President applauded the initiative to connect Egyptians abroad with their roots in Egypt, and to acquaint them with Egypt’s efforts, and progress in achieving economic and social development.
President Sisi expressed his appreciation of the patriotic role the Egyptian Church is playing under Pope Tawadros. He said Egypt was proud of her Coptic children and their achievements inside and outside Egypt. The President held an open dialogue with the young people, answering their questions on the developmental, economic and security conditions in Egypt. He cited many significant projects now underway, and explained that this phase aims at changing the present into a brighter future. He stressed that this can only be achieved through firmly establishing tolerance and coexistence.
The President also pointed out that the State gives special attention to young people, organising local and international youth forums, providing them with job opportunities in new projects and mega projects, and upgrading essentials such as education and healthcare.
The Coptic young men and women said that what they saw on the ground during their visit differed greatly from what the western media reported on Egypt, in the sense that conditions on the ground were positive and promising, not negative as is frequently depicted. They thanked President Sisi, noting that he shouldered the responsibility of Egypt during an extremely intricate period of her history and was able to save her from the perils of terrorism and extremism. They said they would act as ambassadors to their country, Egypt, and would speak of what they saw wherever they went.
First time ever
The opening ceremony of the forum, at Logos Centre, started with a word from Fr Raphael Tharwat, Coordinator-General of the WYW. “This is a unique event,” Fr Rapahael said. “For the first time in the history of the Coptic Orthodox Church, young Egyptians from all over the world have converged on Egypt for a forum. We currently have 33 Coptic dioceses outside Egypt, in more than 50 countries over the world.”
Fr Raphael explained that the forum was being held in 2018, seeing that that year features a number of major anniversaries. For one, it marks fifty years on the establishment of Coptic churches abroad in response to the need of migrant Copts. It also marks the golden jubilee of the Manifestation of the Holy Virgin Mary at her church in Zaitoun, Cairo; and 50 years on the opening of St Mark’s Cathedral in Abbassiya, Cairo, at the hands of Pope Kyrillos VI. There the relics of St Mark the Evangelist, who had preached Christianity in Egypt in the first AD century and whose relics had been carried to Venice in 828, were placed upon bringing them home from the Vatican.
The year is also the centenary of the establishment of Sunday School in the Coptic Orthodox Church at the hands of St Archdeacon Habib Girgis; Sunday School remains a mainstay of education in Church.
The forum is held with three main purposes, Fr Raphael noted. First, it strengthens relations between young Copts in the Diaspora and their roots in Egypt and the Coptic Church. Second, he said addressing the participants, “it brings to you the joy of our spirituality, Church, and Egyptian roots. And third, our goal is to listen to you and all you have to say; because you are the future.”
Dream come true
The opening ceremony included a televised speech by Nabila Makram, Minister of Immigration and Egyptian Expatriates, who said that the WYW was an important step towards connecting second and third generations of Egyptians outside Egypt with their roots through lectures, seminars, visits, and meetings with prominent Egyptian and Coptic figures.
When it was time for Pope Tawadros II to speak, he expressed how happy he was with such a gathering of young men and women from all over the world. “This was a dream I have been attempting to realise since I became patriarch in 2012 … Now, thanks to continuous prayer and diligent efforts, it has come true.
“I would like to welcome our beloved young sons and daughters from the US, Europe, the Gulf, Jerusalem, Australia, Africa, Sudan and from Egypt,” the Pope said. “Because the place can accommodate just a limited number, we were able to send out only 200 invitations,” implying that he wished it could have been more.
“Today’s forum is the fruit of months of preparation,” Pope Tawadros added. “I am glad to see the participation of bishops and priests from outside and inside Egypt, and also MPs and public figures all of whom were keen to attend.”
The Pope spoke of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt as a Mother Church. “A mother always looks for and after her children,” he said. “We are proud of our Church’s history, her faith, heritage, hymns and saints, the martyrs and monks. When we look into your young, bright faces, we can see the brilliant future of our Coptic Church.
“You are the fruit of the dedicated efforts of your families, churches, and Church servants who all did their best for you to become figures of whom we are proud.”
Pope Tawadros reminded the attendees of the forum’s motto: “JOY … Rejoice in the Lord”, stressing that true joy comes not from without but from within the soul, as a gift of God. In the word “JOY”, he said, “J” stands for “Jesus”, whereas “O” and “Y” are the two main vowels in ‘Coptic’ and ‘Egypt’.
“Today,” he beamed as he concluded, “The number of my friends has increased by some 200 young men and women.”
Egyptian business magnate Naguib Sawiris was present at the forum to talk, together with other prominent figures, of their success stories in Egypt. Once he concluded his word, Pope Tawadros presented him with a souvenir gift, and the young people eagerly rushed to take selfie photos with him. He was all smiles as he complied.
The young people also got to meet Maggie Gobran, the famous Mama Maggie whose work with Egypt’s poor garbage collector community has reached world renown. She talked about the importance of social service, following in the footsteps of Jesus Christ who roamed about doing good. During the same session, the Coptic nun Tamav Anastasia spoke of her arduous work to earn a PhD in Coptic Studies from the Institute of Coptic Studies, affiliated to the Coptic Orthodox Church, and how this worked to enhance both the spiritual and personal aspects of her character.
During the week, participants from America, Canada, Australia, England, Europe, Asia and Africa experienced first hand the profound spiritual life of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt; even as they met and exchanged views, forming a worldwide network of Coptic youth. Members of each diocese planted at Logos a tree to immortalise their visit.
Visits and sessions
According to Watani’s Alexandria correspondent Nevine Kameel, the Alexandria church of the Holy Virgin and St Joseph in Smouha arranged 20 art workshops over the week at Logos Centre. The participant youth each chose whichever to participate in, according to personal preference.
Participants in the WYW visited the new Suez Canal, and new satellite towns, also historical and cultural sites such as the Giza Pyramids and the 4th-centuy churches of Old Cairo.
They visited St Mark’s Cathedral in Abbassiya where the Pope received them and told them about its grounds, landmarks and architectural style. They visited the shrines of St Mark and St Athanasius housed in the crypt of the Cathedral, and walked over to the the neighbouring Boutrossiya church which was the scene of a suicide bombing that claimed 28 martyrs in December 2016.
They then attended a special session at the Cathedral’s Coptic Cultural Centre in which an elite of public figures participated. The ministers of tourism, antiquities, and youth and sports, as well as ambassadors and a number of MPs and public figures were all there; the young had the opportunity to talk to them.
Fr Boulos Halim, spokesperson of the Coptic Church, talked to the attendants about the Cultural Centre, its foundation, role, the scope of its work and its importance to the Church. He also talked about the Centre’s activities and the 84 projects it has carried out during the last four years. Barbara Soliman of the Papal projects bureau then talked about the three axes that the bureau serves: education, healthcare, and human development.
Next came a thrilling visit to the Bibliotheca Alexandrina (BA), the modern-day grand library that emulates the famous Library of Alexandria of ancient times. The young people enjoyed the BA exhibitions and museums, and listened to a description on digital knowledge.
“We love you!”
In his speech during the closing ceremony of the WYW, Pope Tawadros thanked the President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi for taking the time to meet the Coptic youth representatives, Minister of Immigration Nabila Makram for her message, all officials and MPs who met the youth, as well as all who made an effort to make the week a huge success.
“This week was the first opportunity in the Church’s modern history for our young people to gather from all over the world in the land of their roots,” the Pope said. “It has convinced me that the future of our Church, which you embody, is a bright, strong one.
“The time we spent together has been so full of warmth, joy, and love.” He laughed as he said: “I really don’t know how we’ll manage without you!” to which the young people cheered: “Our Pope, we love you.”
Pope Tawadros handed each participant a certificate and a shield inscribed with: Nawwart Masr, literally “You brightened up Egypt”, a folk saying that means: “your presence has been so enjoyable”.
The Pope launched a hashtag #Enjoyegypt so that Egypt would be always on the world map as an attractive destination; it also aims at keeping the Pope in touch with the members of the youth forum.
Finally, it was time to join in eating the closing night cake, a huge one holding the
words: “1st World Youth Week of C.O.C (Coptic Orthodox Church), JOY”.
4 September 2018