Ibrahim Isaac Sidrak, Catholic Patriarch of Alexandria, is the religious leader of nearly one million Catholic Copts and an important voice among Egypt’s 10 million Christians. Photo by Michael Swan.

Tradition, family up for grabs in Egypt

By 
  • September 21, 2014

Two revolutions and economic collapse, wars and revolutions raging just beyond every border, his people dispersed around the world, the Internet and mass media eroding old certainties — Ibrahim Isaac Sidrak has a tough job. 

Sidrak was elected Catholic Patriarch of Alexandria January 15, 2013. A youthful, 59-year-old theologian who studied at Rome’s Gregorian University, he leads a minority within Egypt’s Christian minority. He’s trying to find a way to stand firmly on shifting ground. 

“I understand now why many people won’t accept responsibility in politics or in the Church,” the visiting patriarch told The Catholic Register. “It’s not easy to carry the burden of authority. We are speaking about authority, but we have no authority now (in Egypt). The burdens and difficulties or responsibility, people don’t want to carry it or to face it.” 

A third of Egypt’s 87 million people are under the age of 14 and half under 24. Over the last five years this young population helped overthrow a military autocrat surrounded by a narrow, corrupt and wealthy oligarchy and then pushed out a demagogue and schemer supported by a secretive movement. President Hosni Mubarak, the autocrat, succumbed to the demands of millions of demonstrators in February of 2011. The Muslim Brotherhood’s man, Mohamed Morsi did the same in July 2013. 

As the religious leader of nearly one million Catholic Copts, and an important voice among Egypt’s 10 million Christians, Sidrak is aware that he faces a generation that has taken to the streets full of hope and democratic ideals twice in five years. Which means they have also been disappointed, disillusioned and dismayed by their authority figures for their entire lives. 

“There is a difficulty with the new generation, with young people, who after the revolution feel they cannot afford this obedience to the Church,” said Sidrak. “Little by little they are changing their mind.” 

North Americans might compare the sort of cultural, political and religious uncertainty of Egypt today with the 1960s, when the West was demographically much younger and cars, cheap gas, television and pop music all combined to force a cultural and political realignment. Authority, tradition, family and political allegiances are all up for grabs in today’s Egypt. 

Politically, Sidrak believes there’s good reason to trust former General and now President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. 

“With al-Sisi people feel there is nothing hidden. He is a man of trust. Perhaps we cannot always be okay with him, but we trust we can take it step by step and arrive at where we want to go,” said Sidrak. 

But there’s more than politics to the change sweeping through Egypt. 

Where in North America the change of the 1960s and ‘70s was fuelled by an expanding economy and the social mobility it brought, in Egypt economic collapse is forcing change. 

“In Egypt the economic element creates many, many problems,” said Sidrak. “Everybody has gone away to work in Sharm el-Sheik or outside of Egypt. So the family is not united anymore.” 

With husbands and wives living apart as they each chase after whatever jobs there are, Egypt’s new economic reality is creating a whole new form of family life. 

“The man has to go to work and he meets his wife once a month, once every two months and so on,” said Sidrak. “It’s a new context. It creates many, many problems for the families and for the Church.” 

The social shifts Sidrak faces aren’t just a matter of a temporary economic downturn. Egypt has gone through a massive, rapid process of urbanization. Over the last 40 years, Cairo has gone from a manageable city of less than 6 million in 1965 to a megalopolis of 18 million today. More than half of Egypt’s population lives in cities. Once discrete communities of Christians and Muslims have been put through the blender of city life — especially in the new and poorer neighbourhoods on the edge of the city. 

And some have come out of the blender to find themselves even more isolated and culturally besieged as part of a relatively new diaspora in North America and Europe. Toronto is suddenly a major centre of Coptic life. Where once a Copt was always an Egyptian (the two words mean the same thing) now there are Copts who are Canadian. 

There has been a Coptic presence in Canada for 50 years. But this has grown so quickly in the past decade that the larger Coptic Orthodox community has built the massive, splendid new Cathedral of St. Mark in Markham. Out in Etobicoke the tiny little Holy Family Coptic Catholic Church is bursting at the seams on major feast days. 

Sidrak and his Orthodox counterpart Pope Tawadros II find themselves searching for new ways to lead. 

“It is difficult. We are not before them. We are behind. They are going more quickly,” he said. 

Sidrak doesn’t see the diaspora simply in terms of the danger of spreading Coptic faith too thinly across the globe, the danger of assimilation. His own opportunity to travel and study abroad broadened his horizons. He wants no less for his people. 

“I tell them, ‘Don’t be Canadian in the bad things. Be Canadian in the good things, and there are many good things.” 

Though he spent years as a seminary professor, has been a bishop since 2002 and now as Patriarch will represent Egyptian Christians at the Extraordinary Synod in Rome in October, Sidrak believes his role is to be a pastor. He knows he is doing his job when people call him Abouna Ibrahim — Fr. Ibrahim — as if he were their parish priest. 

Sidrak is grateful for the example of Pope Francis, who has spoken specifically and concretely about bishops placing themselves among their people — pastors with the smell of the sheep. 

“People do not treat us as pastor or as priest (like) before, but as a human person,” he said. “If I am able to listen, to dialogue, to hear and not give solutions to every problem – but to listen and help to find somehow solutions, to be creative… Even for the patriarch or for the bishop, I cannot treat the people as if I am His Majesty. No, no. I have to be with them.” 

Sidrak speaks with affection of Pope Tawardros, who happened to be visiting Canada in September just as Sidrak was on his pastoral tour of the country. The Catholic patriarch refers to Armenian, Latin Rite and Protestant leaders as his colleagues and counterparts. Such collegiality across the fault lines of Middle Eastern Christianity has not been the norm down through the centuries. 

“We are in fact many Churches in the Middle East. That’s a fact,” Sidrak said. “I cannot say, let’s erase the Coptic Catholic Church or the Greek Catholic Church. Ecumenism has to make clear what is unity. And it has to, at the same time, work together.” 

Church leaders increasingly see the imperative of ecumenism in a region where Christians are becoming refugees. 

“The ecumenical work, I think, must begin and has begun,” said Sidrak. “The Christians lose. Christianity will be in danger in Egypt, in the Middle East. We follow what is happening in Iraq and Syria. It’s easy to damage sometimes and (it happens) quickly. But to repair, it takes time.” 

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