In the 1960s, alcoholism, violence and drug use were rife in Iz-Zurrayyeb, as in many areas of extreme poverty across the world. Yet in the early 1970s, something began to stir.
Ferahat Ibrahim was a young Christian printer living in Cairo, a passionate evangelist, part of an independent Coptic group that ministered among the poor of Egypt. He got to know Qidees, the man who collected rubbish in the neighbourhood where he lived, and spoke to him about faith in Jesus Christ. Qidees urged him to come to speak to his family and friends in the community at Mokattam mountain.
Reluctantly, Ferahat agreed to do so. One day, while praying there, a storm blew up, and from among the mass of paper swirling in the wind, a single leaf torn from a book drifted from one of the piles of rubbish to land at his feet. It was a page from the Bible in Arabic – Acts chapter 18, to be exact. Picking it up, he read some words originally addressed by God to St Paul: “Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city.”
Taking this as a divine calling, he began to go from house to house, preaching a simple message that God loved everyone without exception - including garbage collectors, the possibility of a new beginning and a call for people to repent, to change their ways in response to the love of God revealed in Jesus. Although he was not ordained, Ferahat never questioned the Coptic Orthodox baptism of these Christians, though recognised that in many cases their faith was no more than nominal and needed reviving. He would pray for people’s healing, or where he suspected something darker at work, would engage in the exorcism of evil spirits. Gradually, more and more people began to meet, looking for places to gather.
Being Coptic Orthodox by origin, as the church grew, they decided they wanted a priest, but not just any priest. They wanted Ferahat. So in 1978, with the support of the Coptic Pope Shenouda, he became Abuna Sima’an - an ordained priest of the Orthodox Church. He also began to recruit others from within the community as fellow workers in this fast-growing church. He remained ministering among the Zabballeen until he died just last year, in October 2023. 40,000 people turned up for his funeral.
Gradually, more and more people joined the fledgling church. Over time the whole neighbourhood changed. As drug and alcohol use diminished, money was freed up to be spent on healthcare and strengthening family life, education and a thriving children's centre. One of the first buildings that went up was a new Church to meet in. Inspired by the sight of a proper solid building among their flimsy dwellings, shacks and tents were replaced with brick-built apartment blocks that enabled the sorting to happen on the ground floor while families lived in cleaner apartments above.
The community persuaded the government to connect water, electricity and sewage facilities. Fr Sima’an’s wife Souad Hanna started a school that has in time become a launchpad for further teachers in the area. A centre began to provide for people with disabilities, rather than leaving them begging on the streets.
Sorting rubbish with no gloves leads to regular bouts of tetanus, and rates of sickness in the city are high. Nothing if not inventive, they built their own hospital. Pooling money raised from their work, and with the aid of a Finnish foundation, they built a state-of-the-art facility. Unlike the streets of the neighbourhood, the hospital is clean, modern, efficient and is as good as hospitals you’d find in any modern city.
The rocky area in which they live contains a number of caves. As the church building became too small, some of these began to be used as meeting places for worship. One cave filled with large rocks was painstakingly cleared, and hollowed out further by the residents to provide a 5000 seat auditorium for public worship. As more and more people came to church, even this was just not big enough, so they started to work on proper seating in another cave. This one now has seating for 20,000 people. It is the largest church building in the middle east.
Unlike most megachurches of this size, it is not Pentecostal but Coptic. The ancient Coptic church in Egypt, which claims its origin in St Mark’s visit to Egypt to preach the gospel after the Resurrection of Jesus, went through a revival in the 1960s which still carries on today. Monasteries which had been reduced to a few old monks living an austere life in ramshackle monastic houses, much like many such communities in the west today, suddenly found young men applying to be members of these ancient communities, many of which go back to the fourth century.
The walls of the Zabballeen cave churches have lovingly sculpted reliefs of biblical stories, usually relating to the need for repentance, or Jesus’ miracles relating to the poor – healing blind men, the paralysed or the woman whose period would never stop.
The streets of the neighbourhood are festooned with posters of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, the Coptic Pope Tawadros, and Abuna Sima’an (the unlikely equivalent is an English low-income area festooned with pictures of the local vicar!). The Coptic community in Egypt has been through troubled times. In the mid-2010s, a wave of bombings by Islamic fundamentalist groups killed and injured many Christians. 5% of the population of Egypt are Christian, yet the Zabballeen wear their faith on their sleeves. Their Christianity is not hidden. It is out on display. Presumably because it makes the difference between hope and despair.