“I remember, during one of my visits to Egypt, speaking to a bishop who dreamt of a church precisely in this spot. It was difficult to imagine then that such a dream could one day come true in this environment where there was nothing around but desert and a few fruit trees. Add to this all the administrative difficulties to obtain a building permit and all the obstacles to clear to build it once the building permit was obtained. I understand well how happy the Catholics must have been when this church was inaugurated.” – Marie-Claude Lalonde, National Director of Aid to the Church in Need Canada.
By Oliver Maksan, ACN International
Adapted by Amanda Bridget Griffin, ACN Canada
Up until the very last minute, work was still in progress on the interior decorations, the moulding was being fitted and the marble polished. However, by Sunday morning (February 15) it was finished: the first Catholic church in Sinai. “This is a great day of joy for Catholics in Egypt,” Coptic Catholic Bishop Makarios of Ismailia, to whose diocese Sharm El-Sheikh belongs, said at the consecration ceremony.
Hundreds of hotels line the coast of the famous tourist destination known for its spectacular coral reefs. “We have a number of places of worship in Sinai,” Bishop Makarios added, “but these are chapels or even just rooms in normal houses. The church of Our Lady of Peace is the first proper church building that was built for the sole purpose of worshiping God.”
Three Masses every Sunday
The building application for the church was submitted in 2003. The foundation stone was laid in 2005. After that, things only moved forward haltingly: in Egypt, the construction of a church is a political issue. There are always a large number of hurdles to overcome. “At one point, after everything had ground to a halt, we went to the wife of then President Mubarak. Susanne Mubarak went to school with nuns. She helped us. After that, there was nothing the governor could object to,” Bishop Makarios remembered. “Madame Mubarak also gave the church its name. We actually wanted a different one, Maria Stella Maris, Star of the Sea. But she suggested making ‘Our Lady of Peace’ its patron saint. We were happy to do so.”
Father Bolos Garas has been priest in Sharm since 2010. “When I came here, there was no church, only the foundations of a cellar. So we put up tarps and celebrated Mass. This is why it is so deeply moving to finally see the church completed, and not only for me. A member of our congregation, an elderly Italian, recently came up to me and said that he could now die in peace because he had heard the bells ring in the tower.” In the future, Father Bolos will celebrate three services in the church every Sunday. “I am a Coptic Catholic priest. However, there are only very few Coptic Catholics here, a handful of families. Most of our faithful are tourists or foreign workers. For this reason I not only celebrate Sunday Mass according to my rites, but also according to the Roman rites, in Italian and in English.”
A place with a real heart
The English-language service is attended by foreign workers from the Philippines who work in the hotels in Sharm. “The church is our home. Even though we are so far away from our native country, we immediately felt at home in the Catholic church. We are very happy that our beautiful church has now been finished,” Mary, a Filipina who works at a hotel, said. The Italian-language service, on the other hand, is primarily attended by Italian seniors who spend the winter in Sharm because of its mild climate. “We are so happy. Sharm has always been beautiful. But for us, this place has a real heart now,” Giovanni, a retiree from the northern Italian city of Veneto, said. Members of the Italian community of retirees have even formed a church choir. They also sang during the consecration ceremony on Sunday.
Patriarch Ibrahim I. Sidrak, the head of the around 200,000-member strong Egyptian Coptic Catholic Church, presided over the hours-long ceremony that was celebrated according to Coptic rites. The governor of the region also attended the consecration. In his welcoming address, he said how important it was that the Christians have a place of worship. “It is a place to offer prayers for peace,” he called out to the faithful.
The construction of the church was financially supported by the international Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN). Father Andrzej Halemba, in charge of Middle Eastern projects, explained why. “Up until now, many Catholics did not have a real place to go to in Sharm. This has now changed. And there is no better fitting name for this church than ‘Our Lady of Peace’. Egypt and the region need peace. The Coptic Orthodox bishop also emphasized this in his welcoming address.” Bishop Makarios added, “May God bless the benefactors of Aid to the Church in Need for their generosity. Catholics from all over the world supporting a church which in turn serves Catholics from all over the world proves that we are one in the Mystical Body of Christ.”