Outside Mar Girgis Church in Heliopolis, Nadia and her son Ahmed are exchanging Coptic Christmas greetings with the gatekeeper. Nadia has just taken Ahmed for his last medical check-up at a small clinic, annexed to the church, where he has been treated for a month for a bad fever.
Nadia is a cleaning lady in her 30s and it was at the house of a client that she heard the church has a clinic with “some very good doctors who provide care for anyone – Muslims included.”
Fully dependent on charities for medical care, Nadia thought it was a good idea to take her nine-year-old son to the church's clinic.
“I usually go to clinics attached to a mosque near my home in Ain Shams [a poorer area on the outskirts of middle-class Heliopolis] but because Ahmed was getting sick over and over again I thought I should try the doctors in Heliopolis,” Nadia says.
Nadia is not shy in revealing her early hesitation to seek medical help at a church. In a typical statement of faith-bound social inhibition she says, “I don’t have a problem with Christians – I clean their houses and they are very good people – but the idea of going to a church, you know...”
But Nadia soon realised she would not have to enter the church at all. The gate to the clinic is far from the church entrance and the patients are both Muslims and Christians. For her, it was a relief to find veiled women “so I was not the only one.”
This medical service is subsidised by church donations and receives some limited other funds.
Community services are an integral part of the role of churches in Egypt – Orthodox, Catholic and Evangelical alike. Some of these services are limited to churchgoers. These include Sunday activities for kids, visits to elderly people and even marital counselling.
Sunday Schools are very important. In addition to providing kids with an opportunity to learn about their religion, they train kids to serve their community – helping the poor and treating the ill.
“Sunday School is a Coptic service but we do venture into the wider community to help with projects like training mothers to cook healthy and inexpensive meals and to help them develop a skill to increase their limited resources,” says Dalia, who volunteers at a Sunday School in Heliopolis.
Dalia says it is “generally a good experience” because “we just don’t go there as a group of Christians, we get in touch with local NGOs which can help us reach beyond the Christian residents of the neighbourhood.
Social services were promoted by Catholic and Protestant missions in Egypt from the middle of the 19th century.
Missionaries, who attracted followers from within the Christian faith and were banned from targeting Muslims, provided orphanages and elderly care, schooling, including boarding schools, and medical care.
A few decades later, this role took on a more civil face as non-governmental organisations were established by Catholics and Protestants. Today, Caritas and CEOSS are the most prominent Catholic and Protestant NGOs.
“Our mission is to provide a message of hope for all Egyptians with no religious inhibition, but also with no religion teaching. We are strictly an NGO that aims to help society in general,” says Magdi Garas, a leading member of Caritas, which operates across Egypt.
“We provide loans at low interest rates to people seeking to launch businesses, and we provide literacy classes and a wide range of health services especially for women and children,” Garas explains.
Caritas, however, is best associated with leprosy. “When we help leprosy patients we cannot think of their faith; we just think of their pain and isolation within society and we think of how to help them.”
Caritas also supports people with physical and mental disabilities. “We have recently expanded our services for the handicapped and we even provide a hotline to help them access our services both on a regular and an emergency basis,” says Janette Farid, a worker with Caritas.
“This is not a strictly Catholic club – this is a myth – we are actually an NGO that was started by Catholics but we are an Egyptian NGO above all.”
Nabil Naguib of CEOSS is keen to avoid religious debates. “We work in lots of villages and poor neighbourhoods and we are always very sensitive to avoid the complex zone of religion. When we know religion might come up, like when we work on reproductive health promotion, we use Muslim workers if the target audience is largely Muslim, and we also rely on the help of kind Muslim clergy,” Naguib stresses.
He adds, “But for the most part we are providing education and helping to alleviate poverty – so there is not much room for religious debate there.”
Caritas and CEOSS are keen to disassociate themselves from links to the church but this does not stop them working alongside churches on social projects.
“We sometimes count on the help of nuns in health matters, for example,” says Garas.
At times, especially during the last decade, Naguib and Garas say, there were ‘some hostile gestures’ made towards their work. “We would hear radical preaches blaming humble women and men for seeking our help and telling them that we would want to convert them to Christianity – this is a very big joke,” says Naguib.
But the volume of faith-based harassment faced by NGOs like CEOSS and Caritas is much less than that faced by those who work directly with the churches.
Michael is a paediatrician who volunteers for a few hours every week at a clinic attached to Mart-Morckos Church in Giza. During the last few years, he says, he has lost several patients, mostly little girls, “because the local sheikh ordered the parents not to take the girls to a Christian doctor.”
“They fear the girls will be converted through medical care. This is not just an absurd thought but also impossible because Muslims are not allowed to convert by law, and I really don’t see how anyone could convert a little girl of seven. But it is these radicals that have been trying to block all doors to social co-habitation. Helping the needy is a crucial part of the church's work; we travel all over the country to help the sick. We don't seek out Christians to help – Jesus Christ treated the ill not the faithful,” Michael says.
The charity work of churches, say Fatemah, a gynaecologist at the Al-Rahma Mosque clinic in Haram, has been a source of inspiration for charity by mosques over the last 30 years.
“When this clinic was started over 25 years ago, I remember my uncle telling me that he got the idea from a nearby church after he saw women taking their kids there for medical check-ups,” Fatemah says.
“I think the concept of clinics attached to a mosque was copied from churches. It is a good thing that we learn from one another. We also established classes where teachers volunteer for a few hours to help students from poor families.”
Fatemah who herself attended a school run by nuns, is full of admiration for the charity work of churches and nuns. “I think this is one of the best ways to confront sectarianism – helping one another.”
“I know it's very rare for a Christian to seek help at a mosque clinic in the cities but I know through my volunteer work that it does happen in the villages, especially because there is not always a big church in every village. But I am convinced that this kind of social service is a very special example of Muslim-Christian communication,” Fatemah says. And, she adds, “it is true that at times of tension, this kind of service is challenged, but I think it remains stable for the most part.”