The life and work of a Coptic human rights activist
Ahmes Labib Pahor
Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves; ensure justice for those being crushed. (Proverbs 31:8, New Living Translation)
Waiting at bedside for the sunken eyes to open and/or the swollen hands to move! The borrowed weakened heart is pumping, aided by a myriad of medicaments. The pulse is regular but the blood pressure persistently low. Now, a new factor has emerged and is rising, the lactate. After the long and incredibly brave struggle with disease, would that bravest of men succumb to lactates? Incredulous!
The lactates continue to rise; the end fast approaches. The tubes are withdrawn, one by one; and the monitors silenced, except for one, that of the heart. The nurse announces the end is nigh, a mere three minutes away. Somehow, it took a full two hours!
Fr John had already arrived and was praying and chanting. The dominant verse: “Remember me, O Lord, when I come into Your Kingdom”. The chant carried on non-stop till the last monitor was removed. It was 3 minutes before 7pm on Saturday 31 January 2015 when the spirit of Helmy Guirguis flew high, back to its Maker. Helmy’s face was an image of peace. I never had seen such a beautiful, moving send-off!
Badge of honour
The human rights work of Helmy Guirguis on the part of Copts started with two pioneers of that work among the Coptic Diaspora, Dr Shouky Karas of the US and Dr Selim Naguib of Canada. Helmy dedicated nearly half his life for this cause, working with courage, resolute steadfastness, and unceasing determination. He established the UK Copts and had it recognised as a charity. Though his human rights work was initially focused on the Copts, he soon realised that this work should be for all who are oppressed and any deprived of the right to worship freely. As time passed, he had a more Middle Eastern, then global, outlook. His loyalty to Egypt was exemplary. His human rights work gave him a “world citizenship” badge of honour!
Helmy’s heart bled for the grave injustice inflicted on the Coptic victims of al-Kosheh I & II (1999 & 2000). He organised a trip to Egypt as a pilgrimage for a dozen and half representatives of different churches in the UK so they could see first-hand the Copts and how they lived. The visitors were overwhelmed by the beauty of the churches and monasteries in Egypt, and the warm and loving welcome they received wherever they went.
Helmy worked indefatigably to make the European Parliament aware of the plight of the Copts. He travelled frequently to Brussels. He had a knack of building friendships and he had many friends in high places in the UK, Europe and the USA.
He was a founder member of Solidarity International, an umbrella body for most human rights Coptic organisations worldwide. He was an active and valued member and co-organiser of its annual conference held in Washington. He introduced to that organisation both Lord David Alton of Liverpool and Baroness Caroline Cox of Queensbury.
Childhood in Qantara
Helmy Guirguis was born on 29 October 1943 in Qantara Sharq on the east bank of the Suez Canal some 50km south of Port Said. He was the fourth of six siblings, four brothers and two sisters born to a father who owned a thriving store on the main street and was an archdeacon in the local church, and a homemaker mother. The senior Guirguis had a reputation for wisdom and would often be asked to arbitrate in disputes among the locals, both Copts and Muslims.
Helmy attended local school in Qantara where he would go swimming with his mates in the Suez Canal. He joined Qasr al-Aini Medical School in Cairo from which he graduated in 1969.
Qantara being on the Suez Canal, the Guiguis’s lives were inevitably tied to the wars which took place in that region. He was a child during the Suez War in 1956 but, when the hostilities of the 1967 Six-Day War started between Egypt and Israel, Helmy was in Medical School in Cairo. He rushed to Qantara and took his mother to Cairo. George, the younger brother, stayed on with his father. The war ended with Israel occupying the Sinai, Qantara had to be evacuated. George and his father were among the last to leave, barely catching the last train to Cairo. The experience left an imprint on Helmy; he would recount it often. The family left everything behind.
Qantara was hometown of Engineer Baqi Zaki Youssef whose ingenious brainchild method of bringing down the ‘invincible’ Israeli Bar-Lev line of defence, using water canons, allowed the Egyptian army to cross over into Sinai in October 1973 and change the course of history. Helmy’s older brothers, Fouad and Naguib, were classmates of Baqi’s two younger brothers Fahd and Bahgat.
Steadfast in faith
In 1969 Helmy sat for his final exams in Medical School, but he feared the result. He went with his brother Naguib to the old Patriarchate in Azbakiya, Cairo, to seek a word of comfort from [the modern-day saint] Pope Kyrillos VI. The Pope told Helmy: “Go, your mother is ululating [for joy] for you”. Helmy was stunned and, even though it was Friday [weekend] and no results would be announced that day; he rushed with his brother to Qasr Al-Aini. They entered just in time to hear the results announced. The names were read out in alphabetical order; he heard the name that preceded his. An anxious moment passed, then he heard another after his. He heaved a huge sigh of relief; these were the names of those who failed.
Helmy’s first assignment as a doctor was in the south, at a village in Qena some 600km south of Cairo. Helmy married Cecile in 1972.
Helmy displayed at an early stage his strong faith and iron resolve. An official who sold his soul to achieve a promotion he longed for tried to explain to Helmy that he needed to change his faith otherwise he would never attain high office. Helmy refused and in no uncertain terms expressed his unsympathetic sentiments towards forsaking one’s faith and principles.
In 1974, Helmy decided to go to England. He held posts in Doncaster, Isle of Wight, Ryde, Greenwich, and Ipswich; mostly in Orthopaedics. His last hospital post was in Solihull with Mr Polizoides, an Alexandrian Greek who had graduated from the Alexandria Medical School. The vast majority of his assistants were Egyptians. He used to love to speak and joke with them in Egyptian.
I met Helmy and Cecile after a church service in Birmingham.
Helmy suffered from a longstanding heart problem which stemmed from childhood rheumatic fever. After arriving in England he came under the care of Sir Magdi Yacoub who performed two aortic valve operations on him. In the second, Helmy received an artificial valve but, to his consternation, a throbbing sound would emanate from this valve in the dead of night. Helmy’s condition deteriorated and he needed a heart transplant. At that time, 27 years ago, very few heart surgeons in the world would do such an operation. Magdi Yacoub was a leader.
Helmy was on stand-by for the heart transplant when one day, as Cecile prepared a meal, the phone rang with the message the “new heart” was ready. An ambulance picked up Helmy, Cecile and Helmy’s younger brother, George. Cecile sat in the middle with Helmy and George on either side. The ambulance rushed through the London traffic going up the curbs at times to race to Harefield Hospital. Cecile was heavily pregnant and was violently sick by the time they reached the hospital. Magdi Yacoub was at the airport ready to take a flight to Egypt. He was called on the loudspeakers and went straight back to the hospital to perform the transplant. It is a fact that a recipient must receive the transplanted heart within a certain interval after removal from the donor. By a twist of fortune everything fell in place and Helmy was granted a new lease on life.
Mary Monica was born a month later.
Helmy and Cecile had waited fourteen years for the arrival of Mary Monica. In another twist of fortune, Cecile had got pregnant before Helmy’s heart transplant with the concomitant necessity of anti-rejection drugs.
Helmy used to go to Harefield for regular check-ups. This entailed angiograms and heart biopsies. The anti-rejection drugs affected the kidney and he needed a kidney transplant which he had in 2014. Helmy’s blood creatinine dropped from over 500 to 130 in 72 hours. However, it then started to rise. Something was seriously amiss! The transplanted kidney needed to be removed as it was necrosed. Both artery and vein were thrombosed. Helmy was then placed near the top of the national list of kidney transplant and meanwhile he had a shunt to prepare him for dialysis. He was admitted to the QE, the University Teaching Hospital in Birmingham, for his first dialysis. He never came out!
Helmy was a visionary; I know this first hand. We would argue about a topic but time and again he would be proved right. He insisted the Islamist regime of Mursi would not last long; “a year”, he used to say. This was at the time when Mursi held all the reins of power and an overthrow was unforeseeable. And behold, in a year’s time, he was out.
When Sisi became President, Helmy was delighted. Again, he was overtly happy to see Sisi attend St Mark’s Cathedral on Christmas Eve to wish the Copts Happy Christmas. It was another turn of fortune that Helmy lived to see that day, just before his last admission to hospital.
Helmy was a perfectionist. When he spoke about orthopaedics and the operations he performed, his love to this line of surgery was all-too-evident. He had a good series of hip replacements he had performed which were worth publishing. He dealt with trauma cases with such a successful outcome that would have enabled some of these cases to be candidates for a single case report. He was highly regarded as a GP and the Chief Executive would quote his performance as an example of what a GP can achieve in terms of targets.
His perfectionism spilled over to other fields. He was the man to ask about the latest news, not just in Egypt, but worldwide. He subscribed to several newspapers and would spend hours scanning them for the best and most useful to put on the UK Copts website. He would go through all the comments the site received and weed out the extreme and outrageous. He honoured moderate views and abhorred extremism.
Best of the best
Helmy was the man to ask about the best flights to take, the best cars to buy, and the best hotels to stay at. He would spend time on the net, or even on the phone, to sort a question a friend posed to him regarding any of the aforementioned. He had his own concoction of tea that was the best to drink (two parts Russian tea specially bought from Paris plus one part Lipton tea); and the turkey he cooked was the best to taste. He would buy the best and most fashionable cloth and hat; and eat the best dry dates on the market. Helmy and Cecile’s house was always open to friends. You could depend on Helmy to enliven a meeting with a quip, a joke or an anecdote. He had many friends and his company was always enjoyable.
Mary Monica’s wedding is coming up in July. Helmy organised everything except the honeymoon.
He sorted his affairs in readiness to meet his Creator.
Helmy had a great faith; he would say: “God will not allow that”; and time and again I’d say to him: “you have a greater faith than I have”. While on his deathbed, in the midst of the peaks of agony, he would say: “let it be Your will, Jesus”.
On 3 March, the Royal Society of Medicine (RSM) in London commemorated Helmy. In attendance were Bishop Angaelos, Lord Alton, Fr Antonius Thabet, and many of Helmy’s friends. In attendance also was Cecile, Mary Monica, George and Vivian, Cecile’s sister. Many at that meeting delivered tributes for Helmy; a few excerpts:
“He was Father of Coptic advocacy. History will speak his legacy and accomplishments. He had great integrity and honesty and this is why he was taken seriously.” (HG Bishop Angaelos, General Bishop, Stevenage, England)
“Physician to our sick society.” (Lord Alton)
“Apostle of peace.” (Lord Alton)
“Your memory and legacy will live in our hearts for ever.” (Prof Magdy Ishak, Chairman, Egyptian Medical Society)
“Knew his facts well. He argues respectfully but keeps pushing the point.” (Dr Nabil Rafael, President, UK Coptic Medical Society)
“A friend of justice around the world.” (Mervyn Thomas, CEO, Christian Solidarity Worldwide).
Ahmes Labib Pahor, PhD, FRCS, Consultant Oto-Rhino-Laryngologist in Birmingham, England (retired).
11 March 2015