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Christians in Suez. Dialogue comes to life on the ashes of the Latin Church attacked by extremists

From Cairo, Father Gabriel Bekhit, Franciscan friar of the Province of the “Holy Family of Egypt”, recalled the attack against his parish on August 14 2013 perpetrated by Islamic extremists.  They destroyed and burnt down the church, the school and the convent. But on these ashes was reborn the faith of 100 parishioners and the dialogue with Muslims blossomed. “I thank God for the attack. The Lord made goodness flow from that evil deed”, said the parish priest

Padre Gabriel Bekhit, parroco della parrocchia latina di Suez

“It was August 14 2013. A group of supporters of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi attacked our Latin church devoted to the Immaculate Conception of Suez. They destroyed and set fire to the fittings, liturgical vestments and sacred texts. They decapitated the statues of saints therein. Not satisfied with the devastation they gave free rein to their violence by attacking our convent and the adjacent school.” Today Father Gabriel Bekhit, 48, Franciscan friar of the Province of the “Holy Family of Egypt” recalls the “dies horribilis” of the Christian churches of Egypt with a smile. On that day and in those that followed at least 60 Christian churches, schools, institutions, homes and shops owned by Christians were attacked, looted and torched by the Muslim Brotherhood and by the supporters of ex Egyptian President Morsi ousted by the Army 45 days before (July 3rd). A wave of devastating violence left hundreds of people dead and thousands wounded throughout the Country; also in Suez, a town located 300 km from Cairo, near the terminus of the Suez Canal.

Seated on an armchair in the Franciscan seminary, in Cairo, the friar related those tragic moments to a delegation of Aid to the Church in Need – Italy, led by its director, Alessandro Monteduro. “That day I was out of town, I managed to return to the church and the school only at midday. Outside there was a wrecked tank of the British Army set ablaze by the protesters. I wanted to go to the burning church, but I didn’t succeed. I took off my tunic to avoid being recognized and thus attacked. But it was too dangerous to go anywhere near the church, and I had to desist.

While I was there I saw the police apprehending three terrorists.

All that was left to be done was to assess the damage and support our people. A small flock of only 100 faithful.” In the months that followed the attack the Franciscan friar slept with several parishioners in the convent “without windows or doors.” Reconstruction work lasted less than a year “thanks to the help of the Army”, pointed out Father Gabriel. But not everything was rebuilt. Today, the remains of a statue of Saint Anthony “decapitated by Islamic extremists, without arms”, stands as an Icon of that destruction. “We decided to leave it as it is, in remembrance of those tragic events.”

“I thank God for that attack, for the destruction was followed by the religious rebirth of our small Catholic community and of us friars.”

To die in order to come to life again. Despite such heinous violence we felt we were being sustained by a force from the heavens that was enabling us to be there, to help our people. In fact – the friar remarked – we are all Egyptian. We experienced the rebirth of gestures of dialogue with the Muslims.

The Lord made goodness flow from that evil deed.

Today the church is packed with faithful.” Amidst strengthened security measures guaranteed day and night by the Army and by the Police, the life of the ecclesial community of the Latin parish of Suez goes on, also because, said Father Gabriel,

“our conditions are much better today than they were many years ago. The attitude towards the Christian population is changing, it’s no longer violent as it was in the past.”

What about the Islamic State’s declaration of war on Christians? “It doesn’t worry us – replied the Franciscan friar-. We continue bearing witness to goodness and forgiveness, by serving all those in need and most of all by offering education in our institute.” “School, training, education”, are almost magical words for the parish priest, and they are the best weapons to address the challenge of terrorism and radicalism. After all ,Saint Francis tamed the wolf of Gubbio, as reported in the “Fioretti” of Tommaso da Celano: “Come here, brother wolf, I order you in the name of Christ not to hurt me nor other persons … You dared kill men created in God’s image and likeness … Brother wolf, I want to make peace between you and them, that you may no longer hurt them and that they may forgive every past offense, and that men and dogs may no longer persecute you.”

Respect and coexistence. “What counts – added Father Gabriel – is to teach, educate to coexistence and respect, and counter the violent language that is found in various Koranic schools. There are many Islamic fundamentalists in Suez – he said – many of whom send their children to our school with over one thousand students, 80% of whom are Muslim.

They send our children to us but then they refuse to shake our hands.”

But the friar and his parishioners continue going on with their life without fears, as Francis did when he went “to the place where the wolf was.” In this case it is the seat of the Salafists that, the friar said, “is located on the opposite side of the church. The Salafists have never accepted the presence of friars in Suez. On our part we try to establish friendly and respectful relations with everyone.” And after a difficult beginning the dialogue is starting to bear the first fruits . “The atmosphere has improved. We exchange wishes for Ramadan and for our Christian holidays. Past Christmas the Muslim shop-owners in the area offered drinks and sweets to the entire parish.” It had never happened before August 14 2013.

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