My time in Egypt this last month…
I stayed in the slums of Cairo among the Christian community. In the morning I would wake up to the soft chanting of the early morning prayers at the beautiful white church next door. I would wake up as the sunlight shone through the old iron shutters catching the dust, to the prayer responses which ended with the sing song hallelujah.
It’s the same church that the night we arrived had a bomb placed on the entrance steps of the church in a plastic bag. Someone noticed, called the police and they defused it. The next morning the faithful came to early prayers as if nothing had happened. I had stood on the tiny balcony that same evening unaware of what was going on seven floors down, just next door. Instead I had been delighted with the small street where I could almost reach out and touch the building on the other side, and the crosses of the churches in the skyline. Down below, life here for the Christians is another story.
The women came in one by one with the local pastor. The shame is so great that they even don’t come together. Their stories are painful to hear. The first one tells of being raped by a group of men on the streets. She is taken to a home and kept there. He uses her and tortures her. The crosses that the community all tattoo on their inner wrist are marked with acid as he had tried to get rid of them. She weeps as she tells me he tried to make her convert to Islam. She refused and so he tortured her.
The translator breaks down. She blurts out her own story and it’s clear to me she can’t hold it in anymore. As we travel to different communities they come and keep coming, and tell their story of targeted rapes, blackmail and forced conversions. I am shocked at how endemic it is. The next place we go to we hear an old women’s story. Even she was stripped naked and humiliated.
I hear this often. Another old women tells us her husband died and she owed money. They told her to strip naked. They taunted her. And finally, told her that her debt would be forgiven if she converted to Islam. She refused and so they put members of her family in prison, including her pregnant daughter. The family lives in hiding.
I pass the steps of the church daily. And stare silently at the place the bomb was found. I didn’t see it in the news. The next day we go to where the Easter massacres happened on Palm Sunday. I walk among the pews and remember the pictures of the Palm Sunday fronds covered in the blood of the faithful.
I was in Iraq at the time with the beleaguered Christian community that has been decimated by the Islamic State. We had walked in huge processions to church, what was left of the 1.5 million Christians exiled from their lands by the Islamic State. Now less than 200,000.
I remember being so scared. After all the massacres and bombings of the churches. After all the targeted abductions and killings, the community gathered together again and went to church to celebrate the risen Christ. A target all in one place.
The images of the blood covered Palm Sunday fronds in the shape of the Cross . . . the plastic bag with a bomb at the entrance to the church . . . the charred blown-up churches of the Nineveh Plains . . . the scarred hand of a young girl raped and tortured for her faith. All flash through my mind.
Now the churches in Egypt have barricades and armed police. I can’t enter the churches without showing my identity document and saying I am Christian. I am reminded of the Jewish kindergartens and synagogues throughout Europe. First the Saturday people and then the Sunday people. That’s what the Islamic state banners said, flying alongside their notorious black banners.
How did we come to this, where the Jews and Christians have to be protected across Europe and the Middle East? How did we come to this, that we think it’s ok? How did we come to this, that there are no Jews left in Iraq, Syria and Egypt? That our children and our faithful are no longer safe? How did we come to this, that first there are no Saturday people and now we are seeing the targeted, determined attack to end the Sunday people?
It’s like watching a silent movie with a bomb on the steps and knowing that soon it will detonate.
(Charmaine Hedding is the Executive Director and Founder of Shai Fund (U.S. registered non-profit). She has worked in Africa, Europe, the Middle and Far East as an international consultant in development management for the non-profit sector, with a particular focus on the protection of persecuted minorities.)