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Shaping a New Future in Egypt

I hope they have a future,” says Sister Joanna with a smile. Standing inside the small chapel of a Catholic school near Cairo, the petite Egyptian nun gazes outward, thinking. The four walls of Immaculate Heart School offer a refuge from Egypt’s revolutionary chaos, providing a safe place where young women have an opportunity to learn and grow. Eventually, equipped only with their education and faith, Sister Joanna’s students will leave, rushing back into the fog of an uncertain tomorrow. She adds, “What they see now is all black.” (For reasons of safety, this article uses pseudonyms for the school, students, and staff.)

This flourishing city of 18 million has grown tense and, at times, unwelcoming in the violent wake of the Arab Spring. Horrific stories of virginity tests, violent protests, unrestrained mob attacks, brutal religious killings, and kidnappings abound in daily conversation.

“It is rough for the revolution, for those who made the revolution,” Sister Joanna continues. “You can feel others want to destroy this revolution for the young. Young people want many, many things. They want to live their future. You can see their hands are empty. They need to grab something; they can’t grab anything with the situation they have now. Many, many of them have lost their way.”

Egypt’s future remains in doubt. Power struggles abound as the military vies for control, an elected parliament is dissolved, and a formal constitution needs to be written. A small ray of hope emerged in June 2012 with Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Muhammad Morsi. However, Morsi’s relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood makes many Egyptians nervous, especially Christians. Since its inception in 1928, the Brotherhood has had strained relationships with Christians.

While institutionalized discrimination toward Christians existed throughout Hosni Mubarak’s administration (1981–2011), particularly in terms of hiring and land-use practices, prospects for unity between Christians and the Muslim majority have since deteriorated. Open conflict and bloodshed have replaced security.

A Safe School

This situation presents more obstacles to Sister Joanna and the Salesian sisters at this school. Working with Christian and Muslim girls, the sisters offer students the opportunity to practice their own faith. Catholic schools are among the few places where interfaith relations are encouraged and practiced. While there are individual religion courses for Muslim and Christian students, the school strives to enrich all students with moral lessons shared by both faith traditions.

“As soon as they come to school, they forget everything outside their walls. They feel at peace and safer,” Sister Joanna explains about the school where she has served as the administrator since 2005.

Her job has included ensuring that her pupils and teachers feel comfortable and secure. Approximately 500 girls, ranging in age from 4 to 14, attend the school.

“We teach how to live in life,” says Jamie Hanan, an English teacher for the younger children. Jamie, a Muslim, prefers to work in Catholic schools.

“You teach morals of both religions: honesty, living in peace, and how to respect your parents. And students observe how adults treat each other,” Jamie explains.

“The girls start the day in prayer, but it’s very general. Close your eyes, and everyone prays, ‘God, keep us safe.’ They thank God for everything,” Sister Joanna adds.

Until recently, most students were Muslim; now the majority are Orthodox Christians, with only a few Roman Catholics (see sidebar). Even with the school’s current Christian majority, Sister Joanna says the school focuses more on morality and spirituality than on specific beliefs.

“They don’t feel the differences, really. We treat all the same way—even the teachers. They all have the same rights. We are very good with them and with the parents,” she says. “We love youth. We love them—any school or any religion. It doesn’t matter for us. [We want] them away from harm, to keep them from thinking and falling into bad things.”

Jamie says the nuns have a very strong bond with their students. “Some girls tell secrets to the nuns before their parents. All of us teach the girls here as our children.”

When asked about how she and her colleagues have fared in the outbreaks of sectarian violence, Sister Joanna replies: “People respect nuns. They respect us because of our education. We have the best schools.”

Strong Salesian Roots

Sister Joanna can attribute the educational greatness to the mission of the Salesian sisters, a group founded in 1872 by St. John Bosco and St. Mary Mazzarello. In Italy, the religious community served underprivileged and disadvantaged youth through education and recreation. Over the next 140 years, the Salesian family has grown to become the second-largest religious congregation across the globe, counting 34,000 priests, brothers, and sisters, serving in schools and missions on every continent.

Setting out to spread the word of the Gospel and work with poor youth, the Salesian sisters entered Islamic Egypt in 1896. Eventually, their schools earned a reputation for providing excellent education. While Egyptian Christians have often been scorned and discriminated against for not following Islam, many affluent and ambitious Muslim families send their children to Catholic schools. Today, 16 groups of Salesians reside in Egypt, with the sisters running two schools in Cairo and one in Alexandria. Despite a few close calls with violence after the 2011 revolution, the Salesians decided to remain in Egypt and continue their mission.

It is this pervasive attitude that led Jamie, a devout Muslim, to become a teacher at a Catholic school. “I was taught by nuns,” she says. “The nuns here have a spiritual way of treating you. They influenced my character. I began to learn from them.”

Jamie says these values are not observed in government schools, and children often get away with bad behavior. She says the nuns stress morality and prayer in school, regardless of religion

Grateful Graduates

These morals and values have led to deep relationships between the Salesians and their former students, who are welcome to visit every Thursday. John Massry attended Immaculate Heart when it was an all-boys’ school. A professional musician who spends much of his time on business abroad, John agrees with the values of Catholic education.

He wishes more people had the same education he did, especially as Egyptian citizens attempt to build a democracy. He worries at the outcome because rampant government corruption and continual abuses of power have changed little.

John says that students are still not prepared for the reality of the situation. “It’s about security,” he says. “I walk around. I’m not comfortable.”

Maria Kamal, 20, shares many of John’s hopes and concerns. Alternately for and against the revolution, Maria hopes that Egyptians can handle democracy. A more recent graduate of Immaculate Heart, she says much of Egypt’s future depends on whether Egypt’s elected president will lead people toward tolerance while carrying a strong vision—or whether he will be more tyrannical than Mubarak.

Maria is currently majoring in business administration, hoping to work in a bank. She credits the Salesians with her success thus far, saying, “The first day in college, I felt special. I have something not owned by others. We know more.”

Her revelation is not unexpected. Egypt ranks 113th in the world for the average number of years of education per person. A 2010 report by Egypt’s Institute of National Planning, in cooperation with the United Nations, calculated that 10 percent of Egyptian children, 82 percent of whom are girls, never enroll in school, while another 17 percent drop out before completing secondary school. Not helping matters, 28 percent of all teachers lack required pre-service education formation.

Maria happily adds, “We had better English.” While she sees the ability to change, she notes that most of the people in Egypt are poor and have had very little education. Even many of her classmates at the university lack the ability to learn and socialize with others.

Another Catholic school graduate currently studying for a university degree, Fatima Gamil, feels she, too, can get ahead of her peers. She appreciates the interpersonal skills she learned from the Salesians. Her classmates at this all-girls’ school, she feels, can interact with young men far better than the girls who went to mixed-gender government schools.

“Many of those girls think if you put a boy with a girl, there will be a relationship,” she explains, laughing at the thought. Her friends sitting nearby follow suit. “No trust between boys and girls. Not the majority. As a Christian, we are not so shy. We can interact with others. We are now in our first year in college. We interact more with boys, as brothers and sisters.”

Life Outside the School

The Christian girls have many Muslim friends and are not afraid to engage others. As Fatima points out, “We are lucky. We had the benefit of a good education, and we spend our time with people who had a good education. Most people are not so lucky.”

However, the young women have felt their share of discrimination. Maria and Fatima, along with the majority of Coptic Christians, have a tattoo of a cross on their left wrist, demonstrating their pride and devotion to Christianity, often a mark they receive as young as 6 or 7 years of age.

The symbols, as well as Christian names, become a source of harassment when they enroll in government schools. Even public school teachers will pressure students, Sister Joanna explains, questioning why they wear the cross and sometimes insulting them.

“It’s getting worse now,” Sister Joanna says. “They hear that people kidnap girls to make them Muslim. Girls walk in the street with fear. Parents fear for their children, fear something [will] happen.” This adds to the strain women already face in Middle Eastern society, with its expectations of modesty, patriarchic leanings, and limited professional opportunities.

Recalling her youth, Sister Joanna says Egyptian mainstream society has changed its attitude toward women and Christians. Growing up in Alexandria, she watched as her father worked long hours in the transportation department, only to be passed over time and again.

“My father worked very, very hard but never got to the position he was supposed to because he was a Christian. Even you can see now: it’s getting worse,” she says.

When she was 16, her father was killed in an accident. Her bereaved mother passed away months later, leaving her children to move in with their aunt and uncle in England.

Sister Joanna returned seven years later, toward the end of the 1970s, following the oil crisis that had devastated Egypt’s economy while more traditionally conservative nations gained economic influence in the region.

“Things were changing in Egypt. It wasn’t like before,” she says. “[Before] we could walk freely in the streets; not like now. Now it’s a bit difficult. At that time, women wore miniskirts. We could wear those things at those times. We didn’t have a veil or this before.”

She continues: “You could see, you could feel—the Muslim Brothers, something different in the country. The Khomeini mentality was being perpetuated in Egypt. I could feel that it was different from the years before.” Joanna became a Salesian sister in 1971, joined the school staff in 1980, and has also served in England, Italy, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria.

Over the following decades, jobs disappeared, poverty increased exponentially, educational standards decreased, and hostility between Christians and Muslims intensified. She watched helplessly as her former pupils grew more despondent in the years after their graduation.

“It keeps them really down. Even for religious lessons, it’s not like we divide. Our Christians don’t have the rights for religious lessons. The government schools will tell them, ‘We don’t have the teachers for you.’ Sometimes, they get into the Muslim lessons and listen to their religion. They are forced to listen to those things. It’s not like they have the choice.”

Shaping a New Future

Frustration and lack of opportunities overshadow not only Christians but all Egyptians. Educational failings, limited freedom, stifled economic opportunities, and systemic corruption created the pressures leading to the 2011 revolution.

Some of Sister Joanna’s staff stood among the thousands of protesters who took to Tahrir Square that January and February. “We were surprised at first because we never thought we could do this,” Jamie says.

Even Sister Joanna has taken part in the political process, having voted three times since Mubarak’s government fell in 2011. “We as nuns didn’t interfere much in politics. We live our lives for the children, and that’s all.”

On the other hand, like many people surviving through Egypt’s revolution, the school’s five sisters are very frightened for the future. “Unfortunately, nothing good happens,” Jamie remarks. There are 13 Egyptian Salesian sisters.

For her part, Sister Joanna hopes there is a brighter future for her students. Despite the uncertainty and fear she sees in the eyes of her students, past and present, she highlights the freedom they have acquired. “They are more open now,” she says, reminiscing, smiling at the group of visiting former students as they wander off together. “Now they discuss.” She pauses, then smiles wryly as she admits, “A little bit naughty, more than before.”

Then she takes a more serious tone. “I want them to understand whenever someone hurts them that you don’t have to do the same thing to them. Just let it pass, and you will see that one day this person will be converted. And just give them time.”

She continues: “From my own experience, I learned you don’t have to hurry for answers straightaway. You can’t just push a button and get what you want. You need time to think and see: if we live really the Gospel, the love of the Gospel, something will happen to the other person—something not normal, something higher than normal.

“We tell them to keep strong because, bit by bit, they are going to learn from you. You had the experience of a good education. God gives you this grace, and you have to keep it, and you have to teach others how to live these values,” she says.

In her office, Sister Joanna speaks more candidly about church fires, mob attacks between Christians and Muslims, and questionable elections. Despite all this, she says, she must believe that Egypt will survive and be greater in the end.

“We tell them God told us: he is not going to leave us. Never. Never. It is written in the Bible, ‘My people in Egypt.’ God will never, never leave us here . . . ,” she says.

“Yes, we have fears now,” Sister Joanna acknowledges. “We’re sure now that evil will not prevail on us. This is what Jesus is saying to us.”


Christians in Egypt

Christianity arrived in Egypt shortly after Jesus’ ascension into heaven (see Acts 8:26–39). Coptic Orthodox Christians, now led by Bishop Pachomius, comprise almost 10 percent of Egypt’s population. A successor to Pope Shenouda III has not yet been elected. The Coptic Catholic Church, which is in full communion with the bishop of Rome, has fewer members. Other Christian denominations are represented in Egypt in smaller numbers.