Coptic Missionary Conference In Cairo
I left home on New Year’s Day and caught the 9:18 am train to London Victoria. I’d worked out that Train and Tube to Heathrow was easiest. My father might have perhaps driven me to the airport but he has been very much debilitated with the flu this year, and was still unwell. In fact the journey to the airport could not have been easier. I arrived in London on time, bought a ticket to Heathrow and headed West on the District and then Piccadilly line. I had already checked in and had only one piece of hand luggage.
Security clearance could not have been more straightforward. There were no queues. Once in the departure lounge I found a sandwich to eat, sent some emails, and waited for the gate to appear. I still had a lot of work to do in preparation for the conference. Boarding was fine and I had a seat on the aisle. No one was next to me for the flight. I spent most of it working on lecture notes and materials. The turbulence over the Adriatic was extreme. We were falling about 100 metres and rolling from side to side. There was a lot of screaming. I was concerned about transit through Cairo Airport. I have only ever done it with other people! But I disembarked, then realised I had left all my notes on board and had to go and find them. Purchasing the Visa was straightforward and then I was out of passport control and customs and into the arrival hall. My lift was outside. Someone I had met in Venice at the previous Missionary Conference. It was quite late by now. We drove into Heliopolis and I was checked in to the Hotel Beirut, just around the corner from Father Daoud’s Church of St Mark.
The next morning, early the next morning by my body clock, I was up and ready to head to the missionary conference. I was collected by a member of the missionary service and we walked the two minutes to the Church. There were already some coaches outside and I climbed into one and sat at the front. I had thought the conference was being held in a place other than that where it was. In fact St Mark’s, Heliopolis, with a congregation of 15,000 and 17 priests, has a number of retreat and conference facilities which it has built in the new developments around Cairo. I was asked to pray and gave a blessing, but then the Agpeya was placed in front of me and it seemed I was to pray all of the Third Hour, which I did.
There was some loss of the route at one point but eventually we arrived in a very large compound with several attractive buildings in the Egyptian style and lots of grounds, some of which were irrigated. I was shown to the guest room and found a cup of tea from somewhere. Father Daoud was there and we greeted each other. It became clear that there would be several talks, and that I was engaged to do two. I was prepared for these. I would also take part in a question and answer session, and I would spend much of the time recording programmes with CYC. I had been preparing the CYC material on the plane. Over the two days of the conference I was either speaking to the 200+ participants in the event, or was answering questions from the Copts who had a great interest in our experience in the UK, or was trying to grab something to eat or drink.
The CYC filming took place at a little villa also owned by St Mark’s Church, and within the grounds of the Orani Retreat and Conference Centre. I think Orani means the Mount of Olives. I had some notes on my lap, but otherwise I had to speak for 10 minutes at a time, introducing myself, on a variety of topics.
At the conference I spoke about the verse which had been selected as the theme, “Go and bear fruit”. I reflected on the character and quality of our lives as Christians which would allow us to be used of God and bear fruit. This was well received, and providentially fitted exactly into the approach that Father Daoud had adopted, which was to consider the Fruits of the Spirit and the missionary service.
My other talk was on the different methods we are using and have used in the UK to reach British people and establish small communities. This was also useful it seemed to the audience. I spoke in English and most who were there could understand. On a third occasion Father Daoud chaired a session where I was asked questions both by him and others.
The participants at the conference were of a high spiritual quality, and very committed to this ministry. Father Daoud led reflections on the various Fruits of the Spirits and invited responses which the audience seemed very ready to offer. The conference closed on the evening of the 3rd January and I returned to Cairo and the Hotel Beirut. That evening I was taken out to a restaurant by some of the people I had met in Venice.
On the 4th and 5th I was scheduled to be recording with CTV, another Coptic television channel. I didn’t see Father Daoud over these days. I was collected and taken to the professional TV studios of CTV, they provide a 24 hour output and are producing new programmes as well as news broadcasts etc. I sat in the office of the CTV Director. He spoke as much English as I did Arabic, and no one else there seemed competent in English. I was happy to sit quietly while we waited for the presenter of the programmes I would be producing to arrive. He was late. He had been up all night doing a News programme for another channel.
He turned out to speak fluent English. He was great company over the next two days. There was a topic for each 30 minute programme, and he opened it up with a series of leading questions and contrary criticism of what I had said. I could use no notes, so I just had to trust God and speak! It was tiring. I was more or less speaking for about 4 hours straight on one day and 3 and a half on the second.
After the recording I was taken on both days to have a little food with the Director. I had not eaten until then, although they brought tea and drinks when I asked. On the first evening of recording, the 4th January, I was collected from the hotel by a lovely young couple. They asked if I wanted to visit a church, and they took me to St Mary at Zeitoun and I prayed in the little church, as well as being invited to look around the new cathedral. I found the old Church very prayerful. It was not very busy but it had a good atmosphere.
After the second day of recording I was collected again. We drove to a large new shopping centre where I was able to purchase some small gifts for my family, then we were met by a few people I knew and some others who wanted to say hello. We had a meal together and plenty of conversation.
On my final full day I was collected by one of the older mission workers, Dr Inas. She has been working with Father Daoud as long as anyone else. We went to one of the smaller churches in the St Mark’s complex where a team from Aghapy TV were setting up cameras. Dr Inas and I discussed what we would do, arranged various topics in order and waited to be filmed. After a little while the crew were prepared. We sat facing each other before the iconostasis and essentially had a lengthy conversation about spiritual and theological topics which was recorded in 20 minute segments. This was the easiest of the recordings. The topics were ones which I could easily and fluently speak about.
When we had finished I was taken to Father Daoud’s office. I sat and talked with some of those who I had come to know quite well, about our mission in the UK. Then Father Daoud came in and we talked further. He expressed very positive views towards the British Orthodox Church. We spoke about the Medical Conference to be held in the UK at the end of February. He kindly provided me with a set of many of his English language books.
I left St Mark’s and was taken by one of the most active of the missionaries in the Asia area. He took me into Heliopolis to have a pizza and then drove me to the new monastery of St Paul in New Cairo. This is a church complex built as a modern apartment block. There were floors with rooms for congregational use, a large church built out of a couple of floors, and then monastic and guest accommodation. I was taken to a clean and well-furnished room, and rested for an hour. Then I was taken to the church, where I was to participate in the Nativity Liturgy.
I greeted Father Sawiris, one of the two monks, and a Patriarchal candidate. The service was in Coptic and Arabic. I could follow the Coptic and could see where we were in the Liturgy once it properly began. The brother of the presenter I had met at CTV introduced himself to me, he is in fact a Film Director of some note. After the Liturgy I was taken upstairs to the private quarters. Some of Father Sawiris’ family were present. We watched the continuing Liturgy at the Cathedral, then I was invited to sit at the head of the dining table and bless the food. It was more or less all meat. I had a plate filled with it and had to refuse more. Then there were chocolates and cakes before I slipped off to bed.
The next day I was collected very early, about 7 am, and driven to the airport. I said my goodbyes and headed into the terminal. Standing at the passport control a couple of American Copts introduced themselves, and one of them knew me already from the internet. I was pleased to meet them, and we went and had a coffee and talked about Orthodoxy and culture. Then I realised time was passing and headed to the Gate. There was more security there than in the terminal and I was properly scanned. I had chosen the same row of seats we had when we flew to Egypt last time, so I was able to recline my seat. And I did not have to prepare any materials so I relaxed for the first time in a week!
We were an hour delayed in leaving Cairo. Landing at Heathrow after 5 hours I took the tube back to Victoria and then the train to Maidstone, walking into my house almost exactly 12 hours after I had left the monastery. This was an extremely useful and fruitful visit to Egypt, my third. It was a blessing to be able to participate in a second Coptic Orthodox Missionary Conference and discover such a widespread interest in our British Orthodox mission in the UK.
Father Peter Farrington