Reflections from the Nile

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin - Without a Doubt

Last time I shared with you some of the details of our recent CRS trip to Egypt. Now I'd like to offer a few personal reflections from my time there.

One of the first impressions a visitor to Egypt might receive is that of a country facing substantial economic and social problems. Illiteracy and unemployment rates are very high. Approximately one-third of Egypt's 70 million people live in poverty and average citizens regularly have to wrestle with a poor infrastructure and lack of basic services.

All of this takes place, however, in a fascinating mélange of old and new, ancient and contemporary. It's not unusual to see Egyptian women with traditional Muslim garb draped over tee shirts, jeans and tennis shoes. More than once we walked the dusty streets of a remote little village lacking basic sanitation only to turn the corner to find a group of young people watching a soccer match on the Internet. The country is a combination of camels and computers, pyramids and Power Point. How all this will come together to address the pressing needs of the country remains to be seen I guess.

The second thing that impressed me was the sincerity of religious practice among Muslims, about ninety percent of the total population. We first encountered this reality in traveling on the national airline, Egypt Air - no alcohol in sight! Five times a day the call to prayer echoes from thousands of mosques throughout the country, in cities and villages. The young Muslims who served as our interpreters explained how seriously they approach the holy fast during Ramadan. And on the road between Cairo and Alexandria the rest stop even had a small mosque so that people could pause, rest and pray. No separation of church and state here! It was rather refreshing to see how religious faith permeates daily life.

And yet there was plenty of room for religious diversity and practice. I've already described how in just a couple of hours one morning we toured a Coptic Church, a Greek Orthodox Church, a synagogue and a mosque. We also visited a Latin Rite Cathedral and a Franciscan monastery. We didn't encounter any public discrimination against religious practice and in fact even learned about a law that prohibits employers from making Christians work before 10:00 a.m. on Sundays so that they can attend religious services.

It seems fair to mention, however, that the mutual understanding and respect among the various faiths is very fragile and could be easily shattered by local or international events.

I was really impressed by many of the young Egyptians we met during our visit. Some are members of CRS staff in Egypt and do excellent work in facilitating and leading various programs. They are confident, mature and well educated. Their language skills are outstanding, an ability that invariably puts Americans at a disadvantage. The young people we met during the Muslim-Christian dialogue were also impressive - respectful, well-informed, passionate and articulate.

We had some really interesting conversations with the young Egyptians and their political perspective is challenging. While they obviously have a deep distrust of and anger toward American foreign policy, they are also friendly to American people and still look to America not as the "Great Satan" but as a land of promise and opportunity.

A number of people have asked me if I felt safe during the trip to Egypt and indeed I did. As we traveled from town to town our hosts made us feel very welcome, even honored, and invariably shared gifts and refreshments with us, even when they had little to share.

There is certainly a heightened sense of security, however, including metal detectors and armed guards at the hotels and tourist sites. Whenever we left Cairo and traveled south to Upper Egypt we had to notify local officials of our itinerary and then be accompanied by police. We were told that their armed presence with us was partially for security but also for oversight, to ensure that we didn't stir up any trouble in the villages we visited. In each village we were also greeted by local militia armed with rifles and shotguns, elderly gentlemen who served as much as an honor guard as a security force.

Meeting people face-to-face really gives a different perspective than reading headlines about international politics. I will always remember a comment by one of the community leaders during a town meeting. In welcoming us he emphasized that despite international tensions we came together as friends. And he observed to all present: "If we could all just get rid of our governments the people of the earth would probably live in peace."

Other snapshots of Egypt: out-of-control traffic, life-threatening drivers, and constant horn-honking; dirty neighborhoods and relentless pollution; irritating vendors and aggressive merchants; smoking in public places including restaurants and train cars; very late hours for breakfast, lunch and dinner; young Muslims, males in contemporary Western attire, females in traditional Muslim garb, meeting on the bridges that span the Nile and courting in very public shows of affection; elaborate weddings that take place late at night and on any day of the week.

In short, my impression of Egypt is that of a country where the past, present and future converge in a unique way. Without a doubt it has a long and noble history; the present offers lots of problems and challenges; but the future is promising, full of potential and growth. The people of Egypt are our brothers and sisters who want the same for their children as we do for ours - peace and justice, freedom and prosperity. We should pray to the God and Father we share that their aspirations and dreams will be fulfilled.

(This column originally appeared in The Providence Visitor)