My Journey to Egypt

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin - Without a Doubt

I'd like to tell you a little about my recent journey to Egypt, a trip taken in my role as a member of the Board of Directors of Catholic Relief Services. CRS, as you probably know, is the agency of the U.S. Bishops that provides charitable assistance and human development to poor and disadvantaged people around the world. On a regular basis Board members are asked to travel to countries where CRS is involved to visit the programs, promote accountability and offer encouragement to those who work there.

CRS Programs in Egypt began in 1956 at the invitation of then Egyptian President Nasser by providing emergency assistance to the victims of the Suez War. Over the years CRS has moved from large-scale food relief to long-term poverty alleviation and economic development programs. CRS in Egypt typically works closely with local "partners" - Church organizations and other non-profits - serving the material and human needs of people in cities, towns and villages.

In my journey I was very grateful to be accompanied by Father Mike Najim, a priest of the Providence Diocese who provided lots of practical assistance and personal moral support during the more trying moments of the trip. And the trip certainly had its challenges. It was extremely hot, dry and dusty. We spent long hours in crowded vans and poorly maintained trains. While we resided for the most part in Cairo, an immense, crowded and noisy city, we also traveled over unpaved, bumpy roads to visit pathetic little villages lacking proper sanitation facilities. The food and water were different for us. We were hassled by vendors, shopkeepers and porters. And the airports - Cairo and JFK in New York - can be described only as unfriendly and chaotic. I kept reminding myself that the inconveniences were a necessary part of the experience.

Nonetheless, our trip was interesting and rewarding. We saw fascinating places, had excellent discussions, especially with some young Muslims we met, and learned an awful lot about Egypt and the CRS programs there. We gained a new awareness of the debilitating burdens many people struggle with in their daily lives.

On several occasions we visited the poor villages outside larger cities and learned about the "microfinance" projects funded by CRS. Microfinance refers to the provision of small, low-interest loans to poor people allowing them to pursue specific projects and thus break the relentless cycle of poverty in which they are trapped. For example, we visited with one young woman in a local village whose loan allowed her to buy material and an old sewing machine so that she could make and sell clothes to other villagers. One woman received a loan to begin making and selling pottery to support her and seven children. Another was cooking and selling fried bean cakes from her home. One man and his son opened a small kitchen utensil store in his village. And one woman had purchased a cow which was living in the first floor of her shanty. After being fed and fattened it would be sold at a local market for a modest profit.

While it was very sad to see the faces of poverty, it was equally encouraging to know that CRS is making a tangible difference for so many people, especially women and children.

CRS is also trying to promote programs of solidarity among various groups as well as citizen engagement leading to better government. These efforts aim at attacking the long-term roots of injustice and poverty and not just their symptoms.

And so, for example, in Alexandria, Egypt's second-largest city, we participated in a dialogue between Muslim and Christian young people, approximate age 14-21. Recently, Alexandria had been rocked by riots between Christians and Muslims and this project was an attempt to dispel anger and fear and build bridges of communication and understanding. We were taken by the intensity of the young people and their passion about things political. We witnessed a lively debate, for example, about the Egyptian government and whether human development or democratic participation should be the priority.

In one village we attended an historic "town meeting" of the local government council and a volunteer committee trying to promote local involvement and take more responsibility for their own circumstances as they addressed issues such as education, communication, transportation, and the quality of food and water.

While Egypt is 90% Muslim it is also a country of religious diversity and we experienced that too during our stay. We met with the Apostolic Nuncio to Egypt, the Coptic Patriarch, the Latin Rite Bishop of Egypt and two local Coptic Catholic Bishops. We celebrated Mass in a variety of settings - in our hotel room, in a Coptic Catholic Church and the Latin Rite Cathedral. We traveled two hours with the local bishop to a little parish and concelebrated Mass in the Coptic Rite using at least four different languages.

One morning we visited the historic center of Cairo and within a couple of hours had visited the famous Al Azhar Mosque, an historic Coptic Church, an ancient Synagogue (where legend has it the Holy Family stayed during their exile in Egypt) and a famous Greek Orthodox Church.

We had one free day to do typical tourist things. We visited the Pyramids, the Sphinx and the Egyptian Museum. We visited little shops and watched a demonstration of how papyrus is made. In the evening we walked the famous Khan Al Khalili Bazaar, a vast, colorful, sweaty market place swarming with a nearly indescribable sea of humanity. The vendors are aggressive about getting customers into their little stores and use clever lines in several languages to engage them. My favorite, from the owner of one little souvenir shop: "I don't know what you're looking for but I know we have it here."

In short, our journey to Egypt was interesting, rich and rewarding. I came away feeling that we had accomplished our major goal - of learning more about the country and seeing and affirming the good work of CRS there. I will always be grateful for the kindness of the CRS staff who are so generous in their service and dedicated to their work, and of course the good people of Egypt who were unfailingly friendly, gracious and welcoming.

Next time I'll share a few additional personal reflections about our time in Egypt.

(This column originally appeared in The Providence Visitor)