Religion Unplugged

The “Cave Church” a Sign of Hope in the Middle East

Senior Fellow, Center for Religious Freedom
Coptic cave church in Egypt. (Amy Nelson via Getty Images)
Coptic cave church in Egypt. (Amy Nelson via Getty Images)

Amid the pain and suffering in the Middle East, it is good to be reminded that beautiful things also happen there.

One such remembrance came on Oct. 11 with the funeral of Father Simaan Ibrahim in Muqattam, in southeast Cairo. It was a funeral, with much lament, but also a joyous occasion that drew 30,000 people to worship in the monastery of St. Simaan the Tanner church, which he had founded and led for 50 years.

These many tens of thousands were able to gather inside a myriad of caves at the base of the cliffs of Muqattam. In congregation, setting and architecture, it is one of the most remarkable churches in the world.

Down a narrow lane from the cave lies one of the poorest areas of Cairo. It is colloquially known as “Garbage City” and is the home of the zabaleen, the garbage collectors.

Most of the garbage collection in Cairo has been done privately, usually by Christians, Copts who make up the vast majority of the zabaleen. They pick the garbage up in trucks and carts, take it back to where they live and sort through it for anything possibly valuable — tires, plastic, cloth, cardboard — which they then try to sell for recycling. They live amid the garbage, much of which is deemed religiously unclean, and so those who collect it are also seen as unclean.

This Coptic community, numbering in the tens of thousands, used to live closer within the city. In the 1960s, city officials did not want such ugly, smelly areas in the city and forcibly removed them to what was then a remote eastern area. In what has been an ever-expanding Cairo, the area has now quickly been reabsorbed.

Beyond their rejection as “garbage people,” the zabaleen have suffered many further indignities. They have been attacked by terrorists, with a dozen people killed. And, in 2009, in what was first said to be a swine-flu precaution and later a general health measure, the Egyptian government announced a mass cull of pigs in the country. 

Since Islam holds pigs to be unclean, nearly all the pigs were owned by Copts, many in Garbage City, who had fed them the organic waste. Hundreds of Coptic pig farmers clashed with police as the latter took the animals for slaughter.

Many Christians, already quite literally dirt poor, lost what little livelihood they had. Egypt is the only country to have engaged in such a killing of pigs, since the World Health Organization had said that “swine flu” — the A(H1N1) flu strain — had nothing to do with pigs.

Another burden for the uprooted zabaleen, who now number perhaps 60,000, was that they had no church and no priest. The Egyptian government placed many barriers on the construction of a church — at that time it would need the permission of the country's president — and it was also an area that seemed unlikely to be attractive to a priest. But then, almost by accident, came Father Simaan.

Beginning in the 1970s, he started to hold worship services in the cave, and began mutual aid, support for the poorest and health services, eventually leading to the creation of a hospital. He managed to turn the area from a squalid neighborhood inhabited by an impoverished community into a thriving one that pioneered recycling efforts. He worked hand-in-hand with the other priests and with civil society organizations to achieve amazing change.

Muqattam is also important historically and spiritually to Egypt's Christians. Their tradition recounts that the FatimidCaliph Al-Muizz Li-Deenillah, referring to the Bible (Matthew 17: 20-21), told Christian leaders that their sacred word stated that if they had enough faith, then they could thereby move a mountain. He then said that if this was true, then they should by prayer move Muqattam mountain within three days or else they should confess that their word was false and that they should then as a consequence either convert to Islam, die or leave the country.

The community was in a panic, but they also asked Simon (Simaan), a poor but deeply pious leatherworker, about the matter. He asked whether the word of God did indeed say this about prayer. They said yes that it did, and so he responded that if this was true, then there was no problem. He led their prayers and the mountain moved. 

In commemoration of this miracle, the Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church observes three extra days of fasting before Advent, and the story is portrayed in many Coptic churches, including, of course, Muqattam itself. 

When I first visited the cave church decades ago, I had heard stories of its wonders but little that was precise. I first came across an exorcism. Then I met with Muslims who had, exhausting all other possibilities, sought there the possibility of physical healing. The church at Muqattam, resonant of Lourdes, contains hundreds of wheelchairs and crutches of those who had been healed and so left their health supports behind, Muslims included.

On subsequent visits,  there were also often Muslims, many of whom came as tourists to this amazing place.

We descended into the caves and came into an amphitheater deep in the mountain, with beautiful bas-relief intricately carved into the solid rock walls. There were a multitude of chairs arranged in hundreds of rows, and it would hold over 3,000 people. I responded this was the most amazing sanctuary I had ever encountered, but was told politely it was not the main sanctuary itself but instead a kind of side church hall, a sort of conference center.

We then went through tunnels through other gathering places in the mountain until we came to the main sanctuary. Here you must see the photographs and also witness the gatherings such as the response when Egypt descended into violent chaos in 2011.

The funeral by the priests of the Monastery of St. Simaan cited his service and praised that “the Lord blessed all the work of his hands; so that he was beloved by everyone, Christian and Muslim” and particularly Luke 1:23, “When the days of his service were completed, he departed to his home.”

Read in Religion Unplugged.