I live in the Cairo southern suburb of Zahraa’ al-Maadi, adjacent to Maadi which has a reputation for being a green, quiet district, more relaxed than urban Cairo. But Zahraa’ al-Maadi sprang on the green border of Maadi and its desert hinterland. For many years, the desert landscape dominated till, year after year, the urban sprawl of the new suburb swallowed its desert lands. Today, buildings of various height cover its modern, perpendicular streets. But even before these streets were populated with buildings, a church sprang up in a central square, and was known as the church of the Holy Virgin.
The beautiful church rapidly became a significant local landmark, and was spontaneously used by residents to guide strangers or passers-by to directions in the district. The church tower acted, especially in the evenings, as a lighthouse for any visitor to the neighbourhood which only the locals knew well.
As the suburb expanded, a mosque was built next to the church, a single plot of vacant land dividing them. Yet the square was still landmarked by the church of Holy Virgin.
I used to see the church clearly from my balcony, before it was concealed by surrounding buildings erected over the years. I would ask visitors who lost their way to park beside the church and turn on their car flashlights so I could give them directions on cellphone to my house.
My son grew up asking me: “What is that church? Why don’t we go inside? What do those who go inside do?”
I decided to take him for a visit to a church. I chose the church of the Holy Virgin on the Nile Corniche in Maadi, which is a popular tourist destination, and which I often visited together with friends and my eldest daughter who used to enjoy the visit. [The church occupies a spectacular spot on the eastern Nile bank in Cairo, and is built on the site where the Holy Family boarded a boat and headed south to Upper Egypt. It is famous for a 1976 miracle, when a large open book was sighted floating on the Nile water in front of the church. The book was retrieved; it was a Bible open on the page at Isaiah 19: 25 “Blessed by Egypt my People”. Known as the Floating Bible, it is now on permanent display in a glass case reliquary at the church, open on the same page in Isaiah].
I tried to explain to my son that there are religions other than our Muslim religion, and everyone has the right to practise his or her faith. I also explained who of our friends go to church for worship, and why we go to worship in the mosque.
My son could not see any difference between us who go to the mosque and our Christian friends who go to church. I explained that there was indeed no difference apart from our respective religions. I stressed that we were all equal; Egyptian to the core, no matter what any of his peers might claim contrary to that.
I felt a bit nervous since I realised that my convictions of religious tolerance were alien to those of many conservatives in our community. My daughter, years older than my son, had escaped a lot of the fanaticism that spread with the rise of post-2011 Arab Spring Islamism, but my son is nine years old and did not encounter the enlightenment of before. The church near my house, which I pass by every day, helped me explain to my son correct conceptions.
On Christmas Eve, I was keen for my son to watch with me Midnight Mass, which was broadcast live on TV. A discussion arose with my son and daughter on the right for every Egyptian to worship, and how at a time not so far back we were about to lose that right [when the Muslim Brothers, fanatic Islamists, attempted to take permanent charge of Egypt in the wake of the Arab Spring]. Thank God, this never materialised. Now our country is experiencing a custom that has been running annually since 2015: President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi visits St Mark’s Cathedral at Christmas Midnight Mass to wish Copts and Pope Tawadros a happy Feast of the Nativity. He is the first Egyptian president to do so. Christmas—Copts celebrate Christmas on 7 January—this year 2019 witnessed the opening of the Cathedral of the Nativity of Christ in Egypt’s new Administrative Capital. It is the largest church in the Middle East and, adjacent to it, is al-Fattah Al-Aleem Mosque. It is a clear declaration of the commitment of the Egyptian State to religious equality.
I told my son that, as an Egyptian citizen, he has all the right to practise his religious faith, as does his Christian fellow Egyptian, by Constitution, law and de facto.
Again, the sight of the church on the Nile bank sprang to my mind. Especially in the evening, the scene from there looks magnificent. It exemplifies the Egypt I know: the church of the Holy Virgin and its tower topped with the Cross, and the adjacent mosque with its minaret bathed in green light. Both illuminate the darkness of the night, and extend a path yet unknown to eternity.