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franciscan - January 1997

© The Society of Saint Francis, 1996

Holy Places, Holy People
An account of a visit to Egypt, Israel and Palestine

By Brother John Francis SSF

The idea of a visit to the Middle East suggested itself when a friend described the impact of such an experience at seventeen and the subsequent effect on his life. In 1989 Brother Seraphim SSF had urged me to see Egypt en route to the Holy Land: further visits for encounter, study and prayer showed the importance of this area, yet most visitors rarely see more than old stones and five star hotels.

With the help of Father Yohanna from the Coptic Church in Birmingham, the Bishopric for Ecumenical and Social Services in Cairo, the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC), and Ruth Ward (Southwark Diocesan Youth Officer), a month’s programme was prepared. The aims were, firstly, to understand something of the history, culture and politics of these lands; secondly, to acquire a knowledge of their faith communities; and thirdly, to meet with other young people.

To make this possible for six students we sought funding from many sources, and expected them to raise money: "Thankfully", says one, "my church has a fund to assist young Christians to have this sort of experience.” This article contains some of their responses.

We first flew to Luxor: "My mind is awash with images of Coptic icons, veiled Muslim women, Arab markets, holy places and beautiful young people"; "The pilgrimage began with a new sense of the mystery of God as a result of seeing Pharonic monuments. This prepared me for explorations further north where we considered the birth of Christianity in Egypt.” Then on to Beni Suef in Middle Egypt: "This is the real Egypt"; "my time there was incredibly humbling: I hope always to remember this when moaning about the most mediocre of things"; "Egyptian interest in us was overwhelming.”

In the fourth-century Church of the Virgin at Gebel el-Teir, Samalut we met with a family I had known for some time: "They told us of Islamic discrimination and the need for a strong united faith manifested by a cross tattooed on the wrist and by unquestioning, dedicated devotion to God" But there were also shocks: "When we asked the women if they minded not being able to be priests they replied, 'No, it's forbidden'. The idea wasn't worth contemplating or having an opinion about.” "Perhaps they identify themselves with the Body more than as individuals? They seemed less questioning than us, which in many ways seems admirable. Bible study at university took me through many intellectual loops! I am now convinced this is meaningless unless it changes your heart.”

The late Pope, Kyrillos VI, sought to revive people in faith and holiness. Monastic communities played a vital role and vocations are numerous: "A Copt visiting a monastery is like a cross between Spring Harvest and Walsingham; faith is contemporary and ancient.” We celebrated Mass in a fifth-century Chapel in Wadi Natroun, took part in the Liturgy and prayed at the Church of the Apparition of Saint Mary in Zeitoun, a poor suburb of Cairo. Here our Lady was seen (first by a Muslim) in 1968 and subsequently by thousands. "People show a devotion, through kissing holy objects, that is humbling, refreshing and exciting"; "Their devotion was part of everyday life, ordinary yet extraordinary"; "for the first time I began to realise the importance of honouring Mary.”

“It was encouraging to feel part of the Body of Christ on earth and with countless faithful heroes cheering me on from above!"; "I was impressed by their belief but shocked to hear how little their religion changes"; "A reassuring contrast to England where denominations perch uneasily on a shifting culture.”

Coptic Christianity, having withstood the winds of Islam for 1300 years cut off from other churches, flourishes. Tradition is taken seriously and young people, full of the Spirit and evangelical zeal see themselves in a historical perspective, a revelation for some!
Then on to Cairo ("I loved the moment when suddenly, looming out of nowhere, there are the Pyramids. It left me awestruck") and the Gulf of Aqaba ("Absolute paradise"). "In the few weeks we spent in Egypt I learned a lot about these remarkable people: the importance of their faith and enjoyment of life. Many we met had little yet still greeted us with love and a big smile!”

We travelled to Israel, described to us by one Jewish academic as "the only country whose inhabitants can choose in which century to live.” These words echoed loudly both at the Holocaust Museum and as we talked with Jews and Palestinians: "the true reality of politics in Israel has been revealed to us – it is shocking"; "The English media skims the surface of Israeli politics"; "The treatment of Palestinians has gone unchecked and unnoticed.”

Our visit to a refugee camp left a deep impression: "There seems much less moral decay than in Britain"; "A young man told us: 'If you discuss politics then you teach it. If you teach politics then you are political. If you're political then you can be arrested, imprisoned, interrogated and tortured'. Many young Palestinian men are.” The Christian village of Beit Sahour, which has developed a Centre for Rapprochement Between Peoples, was equally impressive. "I admired the youth here who are overwhelmed by politics and religion. Surprisingly they weren't desperate but more content than 'luckier' people in England.”

"I now question whether faith and politics can ever be separated" This became evident at the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem: "The glittering decorations and haunting singing convinced me of the problem of sensory deprivation in some Western churches"; "Christ came – and comes – to a world in pain, not to a Garden Tomb where everything is calm and peaceful and easy. Holy Sepulchre speaks to me of the faith of a suffering, as well as a triumphant, Christ"; "A supposed shrine to our Lord but in reality a battle ground for the hypocritical denominations that seek to control it." These complex and different cultural, religious and political contexts need to question us: despite history, Christians do live and (through organisations like the MECC) work together.

We discovered, amid hardship and injustice, that pride and hospitality to the stranger which is the mark of Arab society: that the more defensive you are the more vulnerable you become. "I find their community spirit a refreshing challenge. It frees people to show huge measures of hospitality and heart-warming displays of love and loyalty.” "I found God again in the devotion of these people. Not the God I have had rammed down my throat and who is never satisfied, who asks me to smile all the time and deny my pain; but the God who loves me exactly as I am, who allows me to be real and who shares my pain."

In August 1997 there is to be a similar visit for Young Adults to Egypt, and in the Summer of 1998 an open Pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Both will be focussed on exploring the faith and culture of these places rather than only visiting holy sites. They will give people the chance to explore these dynamic cultures and the vibrant faith which motivates them – do get in touch for further details. "I urge others to travel to these places and experience more about humanity, self and faith." §

Pilgrim Journey

The five hours jumbo journey from Heathrow to Israel
(only 4x12 minutes for the Israeli Air Force)
The timeless waters of the Galilee; the Jesus boats that stop, like time stood still

Our Franciscan pilgrimage set its face to Jerusalem,
chick-sized city and apple of the broody eye. Thermometer at 45 degrees Celsius.

Five a.m. on another Friday 2000 years after the event
We pilgrims enter Jerusalem by the Lion’s Gate to follow the Via Dolorosa to Golgotha
It happened here! (a few yards down, or to the right, what matter?)
Here it was: the middle-aged, the stiff-upper-lipped; we were moved to tears.

The Holy Sepulchre itself – stuffed with reliquaries but still alive with angels, saying, “He is Risen! Seek him among the living stones where he’s alive and well.”

Elias, priest and teacher, father, abuna, building the new nation of blood brothers
in Prophet Elias College, welcomes all comers, especially volunteers.
“I was born a baby, not a Christian or a Jew,” he says. Like Him at Bethlehem
(the Granary – the Place of Bread where Boaz set his heart on Ruth, the story goes)
City of David, the House of Bread: the Cosmic Christ was born just here –
the Word made Flesh, the bread of life, the Paradox.

The Holocaust Museum, sad litany of children's names: reproachful candles in a naughty world. Palestinian Christian children: for export only, nowadays.
Ghetto culture smoulders all along the Western Bank – the ‘empty land’ a myth.
The Gaza strip.

Back home: thoughtful, needing digesting time for miracles, & savouring the marrow;
the divine folly, the perennial paradox. The journey of a lifetime; a lifetime’s journey.

Compiled by Minna Harvey, with contributions from Pauline, Margaret x2, George, John & Liz


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