Art After Terror: Meet The Egyptian Church That Welcomes Muslims
Two weeks after the Palm Sunday suicide bombing in Alexandria, security at St. Mark’s Anglican Pro-Cathedral was tight. A police cordon, metal detector, and bag checks greeted visitors. Even eyeglasses needed to be removed.
But inside, tucked away behind the expectant bustle, volunteer leaders circled with hands together and let out a shout.
“Believe me, the solution is love!” they cried, raising their hands toward heaven.
Ninety percent were Muslim.
A gathering of fervent youth in Alexandria would scarcely raise eyebrows normally. Widely known in Egypt as an Islamist stronghold, the city has for decades heard its youth proclaim the Muslim Brotherhood slogan: Islam is the solution.
Passionate Muslim youth are almost never found in a Christian church, however. Like other churches throughout Egypt, St. Mark’s (pictured above) is secured behind thick, high walls. Save for official visits on Christian holidays, few Muslims would need or wish to enter.
But in 2012, poet, songwriter, and multi-media business owner Nader Wanis, - who has been attending St. Mark's since 2008 - became convinced that Egypt needed such interfaith visits.
In cooperation with church leaders, Wanis founded the Corners for Creativity cultural center in the 150-year-old cathedral to invite Muslims neighbors behind the walls and into the church, seizing on an opening in the Arab Spring.
Despite the positive signs of youth engagement and interfaith cooperation during the Egyptian revolution, at the time there were also marks of tension. A year earlier in 2011, Salafis burned a church in Cairo believing a kidnapped Muslim woman was held inside. Before that, the Two Saints Church in Alexandria was bombed by unknown assailants on New Year’s Eve.
"The church has been misunderstood by the Egyptian street," said Wanis. "There are rumors we have weapons, fornication, and sorcery inside.
"As long as the church stays closed, Muslims can think whatever they want. But the cultural center is a means to let people in."
Since then the people have come in droves, and the community has welcomed it. Over one thousand each year have graduated from diverse training programs in singing, drawing, photography, acting, writing, fine arts, and graphic design. All programs are run by volunteer leaders.
On this occasion, dozens of artists gathered for the monthly art exhibition and handicraft market. Paintings and sculptures lined the walls of the church. Hijabed women offered their homemade crafts on foldaway tables in front of the church's massive door.
The volunteers’ pep talk took place behind a welcome ribbon about to be cut by two deans from Alexandria University and a local businessman. Afterward everyone gathered in the sanctuary to honor the participants, where Muslims and Christians sang together about religious harmony and community service. “Believe me, love is the solution,” was one of their most enthusiastic refrains.
But this month's event almost didn’t happen. The attack on the nearby church ensured it did.
On Palm Sunday, Nader was worshiping at St. Mark’s (Anglican church) when the walls shook from the explosion at St. Mark's Orthodox cathedral five minutes away and which killed 17. Earlier the center leaders had considered postponing the exhibition due to the university exam schedule. But after finishing communion, Wanis immediately called his team to determine a response to the violence.
The 40 volunteer leaders gathered daily in discussion and decided to hold the exhibition and announce it as Masr al-Samida, Egypt the Resistant. Difficult to translate into English, the phrase contains the suffix "-proof," as in "waterproof" or, fittingly, "bombproof."
“We insist on creating peace,” said Wanis. “As a church we will not be scared. We will not close in on ourselves again because of one or two incidents. We will not build more walls.
“Now, Muslims and Christians are together. If they explode us again, we will die together.”
Mohamed Moussa is one of the longest serving volunteers at the center. A fourth-year journalism student at Alexandria University, he is responsible for organizing the exhibition.
“The message is that we are one people, persevering,” he said. “Every time something happens it only brings us closer.”
Moussa knew nothing of the center four years ago, but stumbled into one of the center's media courses. Touched by the ethos, he stayed, and is now in charge of a medium far from his chosen education.
“When you are here you feel there is no difference between a Muslim and a Christian,” he said. “If anything, they treat us better than themselves.
“We are one family, and we are getting bigger.”
Part of the center's allure goes beyond interfaith unity. Volunteers are given additional training by Wanis and his associates in administration, marketing, and leadership.
That last word "leadership" is subversive. Volunteers are in fact called khadim, the traditional word in the church that means “servant.”
“We are in a church, so they use our language,” Wanis said. “We reject the common terminology and its logic, because we do not lead. We serve.”
And the contrast could not be clearer for the newest volunteer.
“There is no ‘I’ here. We are all together and work together,” said Bassant Fawzy, a 21-year-old art student at Alexandria University.
“People with knowledge and skills tend to keep them to themselves, but here we teach each other.”
Only one week into her term as a “servant,” she brought along her friend Ibrahim Mohamed, who was surprised and impressed to see Islamic-themed art in a church building. Without his knowing, Fawzy borrowed his traditional drum and decorated it with a phrase from the popular song The Nation’s Heart is Wounded: “It is not for us to be silent.”
“We need hope to overcome the crisis,” Mohamed said. “We want everyone to know we support our country in all it is going through. And with terrorism in the churches, we must say it here, in the heart of a church.”
When Wanis started Corners for Creativity he did not know how Muslims would respond. To avoid unnecessary friction, four topics were expressly forbidden: Religion, politics, sex, and soccer – topics that divide society. But still today nervousness abounds.
“Some Christians are afraid for me,” said Bassem Mounir, a fine arts student who has now been a servant for four months. “After the bombings they are worried about Muslims coming into a church.
“But this church opens its doors to everyone, as if we are all brothers.”
At the ceremony each participant received a certificate, honored by the university deans. On the screen above flashed a prayer: God, remember the terrorists who love you and will even give their lives for you, but who neither know you nor your love for all people.
“There is a virus spreading through society to divide it, working through religion,” said Mohamed Helal, dean of the faculty of fine arts. “Religion builds walls, but art transcends them – and this is what Nader is doing.”
The effect has been transformative for Christian and Muslim alike.
“It makes people in our church feel like they are part of the community,” said Bishop Samy Fawzy Shehata, head of the Anglican churches in Alexandria. “It is not healthy to have walls around you. It is a kind of sign that you are an exclusive group.”
Instead, he believes, the church must present an essential message, in light of extremism that pulls people apart.
“We’re trying to show the community that it is possible to live together in peace,” he said.
“It’s not that difficult. You just open the door.”