“BLESS”! What an apt acronym for the Coptic Orthodox Bishopric of Public, Ecumenical, and Social Services, the bishopric established in 1962 to serve as the arm of the Church in the field of Social Development. Today, BLESS has a leading role in the diaconal services of the poor, underprivileged and marginalised communities throughout Egypt.
As BLESS marks 60 years on its foundation, Watani talked to Anba Yulius, Bishop-General of Old Cairo Churches and Bishop of BLESS for seven years today.
The first obvious question Watani put before Anba Yulius was:
In brief, what does BLESS do?
“BLESS is a ministry that caters to every Egyptian who needs to live a decent, dignified life removed from dependability. Such an end can only be achieved not through handouts but through development. BLESS offers development services to all Egyptians, not merely to Copts.
“We especially target communities under poverty line. We look for them, go to them, study their needs, and work to alleviate their difficulties through development efforts. We monitor the progress, and leave once the development achieved is sufficiently sustainable without our being there.
“Egypt includes some 5000 villages and 200 slum areas, so there’s a lot of work waiting to be done. BLESS operates in 40 communities at a time; every community needs on average from three to five years for development to bear fruit.
“Of course, we are not the only ones in that field. There are many other development partners in the Church who minister in this field, but BLESS is the oldest and most experienced, and also enjoys excellent relations with the government and local governments.”
BLESS is now 60 years old, and you are one in a line of bishops who have been in charge of it. How did you receive the assignment of running BLESS seven years ago?
“It was a total surprise. My predecessor Anba Yu’annis, currently Bishop of Assiut, had been in charge of BLESS for 20 years of dedicated service. He was a great father who raised a generation of ministers for this service, and who enjoyed strong, wide ranging relations with officials. My character was opposite to his; I preferred to have a low profile and to work away from the light. But I believe that ministry should neither be sought nor rejected; it must be accepted. Anba Yu’annis did a great job of patiently explaining everything to me before he handed me the ministry of BLESS.
“I had always been a very good administrator, and this served me very well in my new ministry, despite it being an administrative challenge on a much wider scale than I had managed before.”
So how did you start at BLESS?
It was very important to draw a strategy. I started by studying the situation as regards what was required of the ministry. I formed a committee of consultants in all fields, including the legal, financial, human development, resources, training, programmes, and so on. We met regularly to draw a plan of action. We also met development experts in Egypt, Muslims and Christians. We familiarised ourselves with Egypt’s needs and national programmes. Then we set a plan of action for BLESS.
“Among the challenges we faced was that 75 per cent of the workers and staff were over 50; young people made no more than 15 per cent of the workforce. This meant to restructure in order to include many more younger people. This we did gradually, to maintain a peaceful working climate. And we continue to develop ourselves.”
What ups and downs did BLESS encounter?
The biggest obstacle we faced was a resistance to change. It was worse when we started, because there were big changes. Now it is better. I have tried to handle it with constant encouragement and attempts to narrow differences.
There’s also the challenge of keeping up with technological advances on all fronts, which has necessitated constant training and capacity building for workers. It was a blessing that our foreign partners offered our staff training whenever needed.
Another problem we faced was head-hunting for specific jobs. It’s not always easy to find the right person for the right job.”
How does BLESS minister to communities in need?
BLESS has various programmes through which it ministers to a community. There are programmes for health care, education for youngsters and for adults, caring for the vulnerable and for those with disabilities, economic development, rural development, ability building for youth, empowering the community, sustainability, home upgrading, social studies and research, social care, planning and follow-up, enhancing social peace, and environmental programmes.
“Once we decide to minister to any community, our studies centre at BLESS determines the major needs and priorities of that community, and thus we start. Regular monitoring and follow-up ensures all needs are met and, once development has reached adequately sustainable levels, we can leave and start somewhere else.
“We attempt to add whatever service that may make development more effective. We added computer learning to our nursery schools, literacy classes, and enhanced education. On the other hand, we close any activity or class that becomes redundant.
“Among the main conditions we implement while working for development, apart from sustainability, is to empower women and defend rights. It is not easy to change old thoughts or customs, but once this is achieved development flourishes.
“It is of utmost importance that our ministers and staff undergo regular training to ensure they achieve the best results in their work.”
You are charging fees from the community members receiving your services. Why is that?
This is a biblical concept. Jesus asked those he served to participate in one way or another in the process. He asked the man born blind to go wash in the pool of Siloam; He asked the Jews to lift the stone when He raised Lazarus from the dead; and He performed the miracle of feeding the multitudes through the five loaves and two fishes provided by a little boy.
“It is vital that people participate even in a little way towards their development. It also helps to make them value the work.”
Who are your development partners?
“Our partners come from inside and outside Egypt. Prominent among them are Diaspora Copts in the US, Canada, Australia, Europe, UAE, Qatar, and Oman. Among our strong supporters are Bishop Angaelos from London, Bishop Arseny from the Netherlands, Bishop Gabriel from Austria, and Bishop Damian from Germany.
“In Egypt, we collaborate with NGOs including the Anba Abra’am Society, al-Rai wa Umm al-Nour (The Shepherd and the Mother of Light), and the ministry of Father Daoud Lamei.
“We also partner with the official programme Haya Karima (Decent Life), a national mega project which works holistic development in Egypt’s villages. President Sisi said that part of the finance for Decent Life comes from outside Egypt through BLESS. We were also invited to partner with the government in the national project for development of the Egyptian Family. It makes us proud that the Church is in a prominent position to serve Egyptians one and all.”
How do you view the ministry of BLESS throughout its 60-year-ministry, and what vision do you have for the future?
“The most significant aspect of BLESS is that we don’t work alone. We partner with official and civil entities inside and outside Egypt. Even those we minister to are development partners because they resolutely take active part in the work.
“I hope that in future there would be a development office in every diocese, supervised by the respective bishops. BLESS would act as trainer, consultant, and technical supervisor to all.”
What is the raison d’être of BLESS and its core concept, the seed that brings abundant fruit?
“Our raison d’être is summed up in the Bible verses 35, 36 from Matthew 25: ‘For I was hungry, and you gave me food; I was thirsty, and you gave me drink, I was a stranger, and you took me in; naked, and you clothed me; I was sick, and you visited me, I was in prison, and you came unto me.’ Jesus also said we should love our neighbour, the ‘other’ as ourselves. In our Divine Liturgy, the Church prays for the sick, the poor, widows and orphans, those in distress, even students and those in need of jobs. But besides praying, we minister to them and serve them. We strive that our lives be ‘a Christ-like fragrance rising up to God’ (2 Corinthians 2: 15). We do that with love. Love is the universal language understood by all, young and old, rich and poor.”
5 October 2022