Christian Witness in Egypt 

It’s not easy being Christian in Egypt. A few years ago, I came across an article by a writer named Matthew Schmitz about the zabbaleen of Cairo. The literal meaning of this word is “garbage picker,” and it refers to the residents of Mokattam Village, almost all of them Christian, who make their living collecting trash in Cairo. The zabbaleen receive no compensation for trash removal. Rather, they sort through the garbage to find salvage material for resale, and they feed the organic waste they collect to the herds of pigs that they raise for food and as another source of income.  The homes in their village are surrounded by the piles of refuse they collect, and Schmitz notes that “the overwhelming stench is occasionally interrupted by the smell of grilled pork.” Despite the difficult conditions, most of the residents have no desire to live outside the village. There, they enjoy the freedom to live together and worship as Christians at the monastery built on the mountain above the village, where it is safe from attack. In a conversation with the local priest, Schmitz learned that “despite the persecution, Egypt’s Christians are winning converts.” In Egypt, conversion from Islam to Christianity comes with a high social cost. They can lose their jobs, their homes, their families, even their lives. “But,” says the priest, “they consider all these troubles nothing for the sake of Christ. Their faith is so strong, they see Him.” 

Christianity has been present in Egypt since St. Mark the Evangelist established a community in the city of Alexandria, which became one of the most important centers of Christianity in the ancient Church. Prior to the legalization of Christianity by the Emperor Constantine in 313 A.D., there were many violent persecutions of Christians there. It was during such a persecution that St. Anthony of the Desert was born in 251. Anthony grew up in an obscure farming village about 60mi from Cairo in an unremarkable family of modest means. He was uneducated, and possessed no discernable talents. But he would become one of the most influential saints in the history of the Church and the father of Christian monasticism. Hearing the gospel proclaimed in his local parish, Anthony decided as a young man to give away all his possessions so that he might be free to live entirely for Christ. He lived as a hermit deep in the Egyptian desert, devoting his life to intense prayer and extreme self-denial, engaging in constant spiritual warfare against demonic attacks. Thousands of people of all walks of life sought him out in his solitude, wanting to learn from him. Many stayed to imitate his way of life. During a particularly terrible period of persecution under Emperor Maximinus Daza (310-13), Anthony led his fellow monks out of the desert into Alexandria where he gave encouragement and counsel to imprisoned Christians awaiting execution. His presence so unnerved the pagan judges that they banned all monks from attending trials of Christians.  

The suffering of Egyptian Christians like the zabbaleen is real and terrible. Sadly, relentless persecution threatens to diminish their number through emigration. With Christian images being illegal to display in the city of Cairo, the zabbaleen themselves are the only visible images of Christ there. St. Anthony’s feast day on Tuesday (1/17) is an opportunity to remember his spiritual descendants and a reminder of the powerful witness of those who seek not fame but simple fidelity to Jesus, even in the face of cultural, political, and spiritual trial. 

posted 1/14/23

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