Why did I go? A week in Egypt in January hadn't been in my plans, but I had a phone call just before Christmas 2018 saying that Bishop Joanna (St David's) was due to go on this trip of church leaders to Egypt to visit projects supporting women and girls, but she couldn't make it, and absolutely nobody else was available - so could I go to represent the Church In Wales please? I hesitated - there have been attacks on Christians - but my real worry was my daughter's wedding, 2 weeks after getting back. However my heart told me it was a call I should answer, and so last Christmas Eve, my friends at Embrace the middle East booked my flight into Egypt.
Epiphany in Egypt: We arrived in Egypt for Coptic Epiphany celebrations and went to All Saints Cathedral, Cairo for the Friday morning service - in a 95% Muslim country, Friday is the day of worship. In many ways the service was just like ours - universally recognisable Anglican order of service, hymns, notices, warm welcome and coffee after - but here in Cardiff we don't need armed guards and metal detectors at the gate, road blocks outside to prevent car bombs, or to coordinate singing with the amplified call to prayer at surrounding mosques.
Embrace the Middle East organised the trip. Set up in 1854 as the 'Turkish Aid Missions Society' becoming the 'Bible lands society' in the 1950s (the producers of the familiar Bethlehem carol sheet), and now 'Embrace', an ecumenical Christian charity that aims to tackle poverty and injustice in the Middle East, currently Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Egypt and Syria. They raise funds to support education, healthcare and community development projects, co-produced with local partners. I was impressed with their partnership approach, which showed real change in the lives of Egyptian women and girls, and was clearly using donated money very efficiently. More information is on their website at https://www.embraceme.org/about-us
Projects we visited: Egypt is a middle income country, but has huge inequality, and many people live in abject poverty, with little access to health and education services we take for granted. Women and girls are especially disadvantaged in their society, so our visits to projects funded by Embrace, were specifically to see how women and girls could be supported.
We saw many children benefitting from nursery school places, including autistic and disabled children, who otherwise miss out. Women can take adult literacy classes so they can read medicine instructions and food prices, to better care for their children. A peace building project helps Christian and Muslim young people to meet together and forge friendships through art and media projects. Harpur hospital, about 50 miles north of Cairo, provides subsidised good quality healthcare, surgical training and has built a nurse training school. We saw community hubs in Cairo and Alexandria that offer women supports, like education, home visiting, vocational training in sewing, weaving, hairdressing and other trades to increase chances of employment. Rather touchingly, we often saw a picture of Jesus pinned up in front of machinists' workbenches - the personal relationship with Christ that motivated so many people we met, seemed rarely far away. We heard remarkable stories of how microfinance business loans had helped women take control of their lives and support their children through incomes from small businesses, such as retailing onions, groceries or clothes.
'My dear daughter' project buddied up young women in their early 20s with 12-14 year old girls - like big sisters, we could see the relationships helped to keep the younger girls in school, build their self-esteem and confidence. They were aware of the strong cultural pressures to undergo FGM, but now that all faith leaders - Christian and Muslim - have publicly spoken against the practice there are clear signs of significant changes - only about half of girls now being cut, compared to 98% previously. Some women had been sexually exploited then blamed for the consequences. The Think and Do project rescues women from the street, gives them refuge, and over a year re-establishes their self- worth, teaches them a trade and re-establishes them in a community.
Part of the Cairo cathedral compound is given over to Refugegypt, their permanent commitment to supporting refugees. A stone monument facing the cathedral proclaims 'Out of Egypt have I called my son' - from the prophet Hosea 11:1, quoted in Matthew 2:15, and we heard how seriously these Egyptian Christians take their reputation as a country of refuge. I suddenly had a new understanding of the familiar stories of Joseph, Moses, and the Holy Family's flight into Egypt.
The great work of Egyptian Christians: All the projects we visited support both Christians and Muslims, in great generosity of spirit and action. This practical Christian offer to all-comers regardless of faith, was a hallmark of our trip. I was struck by the dedication of all the Christian communities we met - Coptic Orthodox, Anglican, Catholic and Evangelical - they were impressively focused on living their worship 7 days a week. They attend their church services of course, but as a means to an end, to inspire the rest of the week’s work, not churchgoing as an end in itself.
Challenges of our visit: I was surprised by how much I was unprepared for the deeply embedded culture of inequality for women. It's a much more difficult issue than I realised - and it was something I thought I was up to speed with! That also means that issues like contraception, abortion, disability and gay rights are not even on the agenda - its barely possible to have a conversation about their existence, let alone what should change to create an inclusive society. However this underlined for me that the way forward must be through establishing relationships - eating, worshipping, walking and talking together to find our shared strengths, develop trust and look for the ways we can grow in understanding together.
What next?: The trip to Egypt has been a fantastic privilege, but has left me with things to do and say. Firstly, I’ve realised it was a pilgrimage, with some pretty sights but other pretty awful ones, like children sorting through rubbish as a job. I've realised the value of pilgrimage to renew our understanding of God's world and our place in it, and how vital prayer is to set the direction. Embrace has great prayer and Lent resources which I'm planning to use. Secondly, my trip showed me the value of mixing with other Christians - sharing a week and worship with other traditions (Church of England, Methodist, Catholic and free church; Coptic worship, retreat community life), has opened a new window for me. It’s been like visiting distant cousins and realising how much fun they are. Maybe we should look afresh at how we contribute to - and receive from - Cytun here in Cardiff. Third and last - As well as our inward prayer, worship and pilgrimage, we have to actually do something active to make a difference - this can be daily spending on fair trade products, volunteering or direct giving. God only requires us to do what we can; but he does need us to do whatever we can to help our brother and sister Christians who are doing Christ's work in Egypt and the Middle East.