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A Mountain To Move

Move! Move!
Farahat realized that he needed to know more about the people of the mountain - how they had come to be there etc. - so he could learn to serve them better. Very little o£ their history was known in the outside world.
The presidency of Gemal Abdul Nasir (1956-1970) was well known for social upheavals and movements of population. The most famous was his decision to move the Nubian people off their land. This was to make way for the Aswan High Dam that was to provide electricity from the south of Egypt.
The Nubians had struggled for centuries to defend their language, their customs and culture from outside pressures. Unlike the Copts, they succeeded in keeping their language alive to this day. Their customs include giving their children 'the baptism of John'. But with no Church of their own Christianity never took deep root among them. The Arabs cut them off from the Coptic Church and their faith faded away.
Nasir moved them off their homelands to make wav for the dam lake, Lake Nasir. He put many of them in a complex of villages near Aswan called Medinat Nasir, or 'Nasir City'. But while all this was going on, the World's media missed another movement of population around the same time - the decision to move thousands of low-income Copts to Manshiyat Nasir, or 'Nasir Suburb', this was a barren site on the lower slopes of the Muqattam Mountain.

  • The Zeballeen Story
    During the centuries of Islamic rule that led up to the modem period, Egyptians who did not convert to Islam had to pay for the privilege of remaining Copts. Those who could afford to do so were probably wealthy, but it was not until 1855 that this special gezyah tax was lifted. By then, with the constant burden of extra taxation, many Copts had become very poor. As a result, some became zeballeen - slum dwellers who carted away the rubbish of the various towns that came to comprise Cairo.
    The people we now know as zeballeen can be divided into two separate social groups. Those who were first on the scene came about a hundred years ago from the oases of Egypt. They collected household waste and sold what they could to be used as fuel for heating public baths or for cooking beans in oil In the end, they became middlemen who sold on these recycled products.
    This change of status happened as the second social group appeared on the scene. Landless peasants, mostly from Christian families, migrated to Cairo from the south. They took over the job of collecting household waste, under the supervision of the people from the oases who were there first. Their Muslim supervisors were forbidden by Islamic law to touch pork or come into contact with pigs, but as Christians the newcomers were free to do this. Therefore they could supplement their income by keeping pigs that were fed on the food scraps.
    There are seven zeballeen districts around Greater Cairo. The largest of these is Manshiyat Nasir, which was created in 1969 when the Governor of Cairo had thousands of rubbish collectors moved to the east of the city on to the lower slopes of the Muqattam Mountain. These low-income Copts had been moved on at least Once before, but in Manshiyat Nasir (New Nasir Suburb) there were no buildings at all and no services. The newcomers did not even have time to plan or prepare the area. They had to get to work immediately on bringing in the rubbish, so any attempts they made to build for themselves were very haphazard. When they did find the time, they turned their hands to leveling the ground and building tin shacks on it with pig-pens attached to them.
    Some 7,000 rubbish collectors get up at the crack of dawn every morning at Manshiyat Nasir. They go to blocks of flats, hotels and other parts of Cairo and collect Over 2,000 tons of rubbish. They take this home, emptying their carts in the backyard or in front of their shacks. The women and older girls sort the rubbish into organic and inorganic refuse, and the edible leftovers go to their pigs and cattle. They then sort the durable Waste materials according to type and color.
    The rubbish collectors gather the secondary materials such as glass, paper, plastic, tin, rags and bones into big bundles in front of their dwellings. They then sell them to the middlemen from the oases, who come with their vehicles to collect them. In turn, the middlemen sell them to factories for recycling.
    Any waste that couldn't be reused, such as the refuse from the animal enclosures, they used to leave on the paths. Eventually it would be burnt or sent to the incinerator or the rubbish tip in the lower part of the area. Understandably, the living conditions were deplorable, and there was a very real danger of fire breaking out as a result of spontaneous combustion from materials reacting together in the remaining refuse. When such explosions did occur, they put both f he environment and people's health at risk, as did the pall of thick black smoke that settled over a large part of the area.
    It was into this scene of poverty and spiritual deprivation that God had called the young man Farahat Ibrahim.
  • Manager of AL-Kiraza Press
    By this time, Farahat was facing a very difficult time at work; and as he could find no way to cope with the problems he faced in 1976 he went to the Patriarch Pope Shenouda, for advice. Seeing that Farahat was unsettled in his job at the newspaper, Pope Shenouda saw a golden opportunity to turn his talents to good use for the Church. ‘Don’t put up with it!' he declared. 'Stay with me.'2
    So it was that Farahat found himself called to leave his job with The Republic newspaper and instead serve under the Patriach's direct supervision. Pope Shenouda appointed him manger of the AI-Kiraza or 'Proclamation' Press. Among f he tasks of this press was to print regularly Al-Kiraza, the official magazine of the Orthodox Church. Working directly under the Patriarch's supervision was to Farahat a tremendous privilege, and one that gave him great insight into a life lived in full-time commitment to ministry. Sometimes he would see Pope Shenouda staying up into the small hours of the morning to meet some deadline or other. This encouraged Farahat to emulate such commitment to Christian service - rather than finding any excuse not to!
  • Beauty for Ashes
    The most momentous event of 1976 in Manshiyat Nasir was the fire that swept through the entire district. Yet the wholesale destruction it caused paved the way for a process of transformation. The residents gradually began to use local stone for building, instead of the scrap tin and corrugated iron sheets. They stuck to the original plan of their homes - one big room for living and working in, and an enclosure for animals attached to it. A Corrugated iron fence separated the pig-pens from the household. An office for environmental change also emerged, which worked with engineering consultants to plan and name the streets of the district. The result was the first meaningful map of the area, and it gave the residents the beginnings of a sense of security. With the rebuilding of their dwellings, they filed claims for ownership of the land with the local government.
    At the same time as the residents were rebuilding their homes, so the time seemed ripe to build a permanent church in this residential area below the mountain.
    Farahat had wanted to be a minister in many places including Sudan, yet he was very certain that God was calling him to be a minister in one specific church. The Muqattam church was being built from scratch. One day when Farahat was sitting with a friend, a man came up to them and announced to Farahat: 'I tell you that you will be the priest of this church and you will be the one to give it the name of Simaan.'
    This man was uneducated, knowing neither how to read nor to write, yet he knew when God was speaking to him. Once in a Bible meeting, he knew the Lord was clearly speaking to him about his addiction to smoking.
    Immediately the man promised to repent and threw away all the tobacco he had in his pocket. But when he got home he found his niece waiting for him. She held out her hand to him, clutching something in it. 'Look what I've found,
    - Uncle,' she said, expecting him to be very pleased with her. 'It's your tobacco - I found it in the church!'
    Although this humble prophet had informed Farahat that he would be the priest of the church, such an idea was still far from his thoughts. Farahat didn't have the qualifications that the job demanded and being a khaadim (lay-worker) seemed more than enough to be getting on with. But God seemed to have other plans and gave him a vision. Farahat saw himself entering a vast church that was to be built in Muqattam. In front of him he saw a tall rock blocking his path, but God flattened the rock and Farahat kept going and entered the huge church. Farahat felt this vision was a clear sign that it was God's plan that he would be there in the future. Yet he didn't breathe a word of this to anyone. God seemed to be giving Farahat a firm assurance that he wanted to use him - but Farahat felt equally strongly that he didn't deserve it...
    Meanwhile, on the morning of 18 June 1976, the Patriarch paid a surprise visit to the area.3 He was thrilled with the progress on the church building. He also climbed up to the cavern on the mountainside. There wasn't time for him to get right up to the top of the mountain, yet he could see its potential as a centre for worship, and as he went up he chanted Psalm 24: 'Who may ascend the hill of the LORD? Who may stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to an idol or swear by what is false. He will receive blessing from the LORD and vindication from God his Savior' (24.3-6).
    To Farahat, this was a fulfillment of the word that he had received from Joshua 1.3, 'I will give you every place where you set your foot. He felt very blessed and encouraged b the visit, which the Patriarch made with Farahat's own spiritual counselor, Father Zakariya Butros.
    Soon after, Farahat went to see Father Zakariya, and they were talking the older man mentioned that he was going to call the new church 'the Church of the Virgin'. But Farahat felt strongly that God was saying to him, 'Call it St Simaan AL-Kharaz ['St Simaan the Tanner'], for it was because of him that this mountain moved. The mountain belongs to the church of St Simaan AL-Khiraaz and the miracle took place through him.' So Farahat explained to Zakariya Butros that he felt God had spoken to him, and the two men agreed that the church should he called the 'Church of Simaan AL-Khiraaz'.
  • The First Caliph
    Farahat later discovered that Simaan the Tanner had lived 1,000 years ago in the period when for the first time the ruler of Egypt claimed to be the 'caliph' or leader of all the Muslims.
    This ruler invaded Egypt from the west at a time when the country was weakened by natural disasters. As the country has very little rain, the farmers depended on the annual flooding of the Nile to grow their crops. The flood fell short three years in a row. The devastating famine that followed led to the spread of epidemics, and whole dioceses just 'faded out of existence'.4 Altogether 'more than half a million people' died.5
    In the chaos, rebellion broke out in a city called Tunis on the north-eastern edge of the Nile delta. The rebels plundered Christian dwellings and forced women and girls away from their homes. This went on until the children of a Copt called Qashlan managed to contact the new government and get them to put a stop to the insurrections.6
    The Copts-now found themselves free to work in a whole range of crafts and professions. These included carpentry, furniture-making, metalwork and shipbuilding. They even held services 'on the decks of their boats and at the ports officially', 7 because the shipyard workers and the craftsmen - and even the sailors - were Copts.
    This was the beginning of the Fatimid rule in Egypt. The Fatimids were the first Muslim rulers of Egypt to claim the title of Caliph, or God's regent on earth. The first Caliph was AL-Mui'z Li Din Allah (the name means Upholder of the Religion of God). He had two passions: one was religious debate, and the other was his project to build himself a new capital called Al-Qahirah (the Victorious) or - in English - Cairo.
    We now use the term 'Old Cairo' to describe some built-up areas that already existed before the Caliph began his new city. Old Cairo covers parts of the capitals of the Muslim rulers that came before him. It also includes the even older town of Babylon. This had sprung up around a Roman fortress. Suspended over the two bastions of the Roman Gate is 'AL-Kenissa AL-Mu'allaqah' or 'The Hanging Church'. It is so old that some of its beams date back to before Christ. Many churches in the area testify that Jesus lived there as a boy after his flight from Herod (Matthew 2.13-14, 19). Others, such as the Church of St Barbara, commemorate Christians martyred under the Romans.
    The Caliph Al-Mui'z founded his new city of Cairo in the year 969. Its centre was to cover more or less the same district until the middle of the nineteenth century. At its heart lay the Al-Azhar mosque, originally built for the teaching of Islam in its Isma'ili form. Close to it was the shrine of Husayn, son of the fourth Caliph, ' Ali, and hi: wife Fatima, the Prophet's daughter.
    The Fatimids claimed to be descended from both Fatima and ' Ali. Being of the Isma'ili sect, their teaching was in some ways like the Shi'is of modern Iran. They believed that God sends leaders for every period in history, and since God is guiding these rulers they cannot make mistakes. The Fatimids claimed not only to be the caliphs (Political leaders) of the Muslim community, but also the imams (religious leaders). But the first Caliph did not claim full divine authority. Indeed, he was more tolerant than many of his contemporaries. He encouraged Muslim, Christian and Jewish teachers to debate controversial issues in his presence, on the condition that they did this without anger or contention.8
  • The Debate
    Yet not all those around the Caliph were of the same spirit. In his retinue was an ambitious man called Ibn Killis, who had been a vizier (government minister) under the previous regime. When the Fatimids came, he had changed sides and helped to contribute to the downfall of his previous masters. He had also converted to Islam to boost his chances of getting back his post as a government minister. Ibn Killis had a rival for this job whom he feared would be preferred to him. This was Ibn Mina, who everyone called 'the Fortunate One'.
    Ibn Mina was a Christian who was not willing to convert to Islam for the sake of obtaining high office. So Ibn Killis decided to exploit this point by challenging the Christians to a debate. He appointed a Jew named Moses to debate for him against the then Coptic Patriarch, Abraam. Abraam appointed a learned bishop called Anba Sawirus to take up the challenge. In the debate, Sawirus stung Moses by quoting against him his own prophet.
    'It is Isaiah ... who said about you, "The ox knows his master, the donkey his owner's manger, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand'" (Isaiah 1.3 NIV). When the Caliph heard confirmation from Moses' own lips that these really were the words of his prophet, he laughed aloud. Moses and his sponsor, Ibn Killis, were furious at being made to look foolish in front of their ruler. They considered how to take their revenge.
    After some thought, they found a verse in the Gospel of Matthew that they could use as a weapon (17.20).
  • The Ultimatum
    Ibn Killis and Moses went to the Caliph. They declared, 'We have found it written in the book of the Christians that whosoever has faith as small as mustard seed can move a mountain. So it is our right to demand that they prove their religion right by this means. If they cannot, they should be punished for the invalidity of their religion.'
    Mulling it over, the Caliph decided that here was a golden opportunity to improve the prospects for his new capital. If the Christians really could move mountains, then let them do so and clear a space for the expansion of his new city! And if they could not, then that would provide proof that their religion was wrong and should be abolished.
    Therefore the Caliph sent for Patriarch Abraam and presented him with the following ultimatum for all Christians. They must fulfill the gospel teaching by moving the eastern part of the Muqattam Mountain. If they failed, they would have to choose one of three penalties: first, they could convert to Islam on the basis that Christianity was invalid; second, they could leave Egypt and emigrate to another country; or third, the whole Coptic community would be put to the sword.
  • NOTES:
    1. See A'bd Al Fatah, N., and Rashwaan, D. (eds), ‘The Rubbish Collectors’ Community', pp. 265-9.
    2. Ibrahim, Qomos S., the Pope Loves Them, pp. 22-3.
    3. See note 2, pp. 30-1.
    4. Yohanna, Pastor M., 'The History of the Coptic Church'. Quoted in Anon., The Biography of St Samaan, p. 15.
    5. AI-Masri, I., 'The Story of the Coptic Church', part 3. Quoted in Anon., The Biography of St Samaan, p. 15.
    6. Anba Isodorus, 'Al-Khareeda Al-Nafeesa fi Tareekh Al-Kaneesa'. Quoted in Anon., The Biography of St Samaan, pp. 18-19.
    7. AI-Masri, I., 'The Story of the Coptic Church', part 3. Quoted in Anon., The Biography of St Samaan, p. 20.
    8. See note 7.


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