It is a little past eight in the evening at the house of Nadia and Youssef, a Coptic Christian couple living in Cairo. They have just finished an hour of watching CTV, a leading Coptic TV channel, allowing them to follow the spiritual addresses offered on a daily basis by leading figures in Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church.
Nadia, a 75-year-old retired teacher, is setting out her dinner table with a simple vegan dinner that she will share with her 82-year-old retired banker husband.
On the dinner table, she is putting toasted pitta bread and two bowls of mixed green salad and broiled black lentils, “with lots of lemon on top to help our immune systems face up to this new coronavirus,” she said with a deep sigh and a frail smile.
For the couple, this is a typical dinner for the Lent fast that many Copts observe for close to eight weeks from late winter to early spring.
However, the mood and the timing of the dinner are not at all typical. “Now we eat after we watch CTV and before we join our children and grandchildren via the Internet for a joint prayer at around 10pm,” Youssef stated.
This is a heartbreaking situation for this couple who would have normally been going to church on a daily basis with family and friends for the holiest of seasons in the calendar of the Coptic Orthodox Church.
But the church-going has been suspended for over two weeks now as part of nation-wide precautionary measures to contain infections by the new coronavirus, which can be spread in large gatherings, including church congregations, worldwide.
The couple had been hoping that before next Sunday (12 April) things would change and that they would be able to have the yearly joy of celebrating Palm Sunday.
But to their disappointment, the office of Coptic Pope Tawadros II announced earlier this week that churches in Egypt would not open for Holy Week or at Easter.
“Who would have thought that we would live to see this day? We cannot go to church to pray and meet family and friends; we cannot celebrate Palm Sunday; and we cannot even have our children and grandchildren over. Everything from prayers to family communication has to be done online,” Nadia lamented.
She and her spouse were talking to Al-Ahram Weekly from their dining room through FaceTime.
Nadia said that she was finding solace in the fact that she and her husband had modern and user-friendly IT equipment. This is not necessarily the case for everyone. “At least we can communicate and see one another. It is better than nothing,” she said.
Lydia, Kirollos and Magy are three friends in their mid-20s. It is also through the use of IT that these three have been able to continue with the community services they do through their church for the benefit of children and teenagers.
As members of the church scouts and Sunday school, each of the three has a group of people to reach out to with spiritual teaching and moral support.
“We simply could not just have everything come to a stop; and although we had no idea when the announcement of the closure came over two weeks ago that this would last through Holy Week and Easter, we thought we had to keep the routine going,” Lydia said.
Initially, the three had used a host of smartphone applications to keep their communication up with the groups they cater for. They then decided that they would essentially be using the Zoom application to provide not just their community services but also to join one another in prayers and in singing hymns.
“Of course, it is not at all the same as actually being there in church, but we don’t have a choice: stopping the congregations was essential for the benefit of public health. But it is one thing to stop church congregations for a while pending the end of the surge of the pandemic and another to deprive ourselves of the routine of this very blessed time of the year,” Magy said.
Magy will be playing the piano at her house, Kirollos will be playing the guitar in his house a block away, and on a parallel street Lydia will be joining in as a vocalist.
“We thought that keeping up the prayers and hymn singing would provide a source of strength for people, young and old alike, as we all go through this rough moment,” Lydia added.
And while the Zoom congregation does not provide the same joy as a church gathering, it has been allowing for much larger gatherings as well. “When we go to church, we cannot pray with friends and family who live overseas; but when we start praying and singing our hymns on Zoom at a relatively late hour of the evening, we come together with those friends and family members who live all over the world,” Kirollos said.
For those who cannot join online, Kirollos will later be uploading the prayers and hymns on Facebook for easier and more flexible access.
According to Sinout Shenouda, an advisor to the Coptic Church, for Holy Week there will be online prayers everyday live-streamed from as many churches as possible all over the country. For those who live in villages or cities with no access to the Internet and modern technology, the prayers will be aired on Coptic channels and possibly also on private channels whose officials have shown an interest in helping Egypt’s Copts observe their holiest season of the year.
On the evening of Holy Saturday (18 April), Pope Tawadros II will be leading the Easter mass with a small number of priests in line with social-distancing regulations.
“All over the country, people will be watching and praying; it is a very sombre moment indeed to have all the churches in Egypt closed,” Shenouda said. “But people have been bringing church home one way or the other,” he added.
For Nadia as for Magy, this is almost stripping Easter of much of its joy. But at least Nadia and Youssef will be receiving their children and grandchildren online to join the mass that will be aired as usual on Egyptian TV.
Nadia is planning to cook the usual Easter dinner dishes and to give them to her three children, “who will come to pick them up at the door,” so everybody will be able to share the end of Lent in a degree of togetherness.
Magy and her husband will make the exception of being with their parents to pray together in celebration of Easter. “We shall all be praying at the same time for God to save our country and the world at this very difficult time so that we can all overcome this ordeal and be able to be together in our houses and our churches once again,” Lydia said.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 April, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly