A study in contrasts

Archdeacon Paul Feheley, Principal Secretary to the Primate, is accompanying Archbishop Fred Hiltz to the Primates’ Meeting in Alexandria, Egypt and is filing occasional reports.

ALEXANDRIA, EGYPT—Contrast is defined as “the act of distinguishing by comparing differences” and my time in Egypt this week has certainly been one of comparing many differences.

Yesterday afternoon the Primates and those attending the meeting went to visit the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, a major library and cultural center that dates back to the third century BC. The original library was destroyed around the fourth century but it was recreated in 2002, thanks to dedicated university professors from Alexandria and wide international support.

There is quite a contrast in looking at ancient scrolls in one room and the state-of-the-art computers in the next. The library has an incredible modern design and vast resources.

Another contrast is at the hotel we’re staying at: when you walk into a certain area of the hotel (it is something of a gated community) there are many young people. I was surprised—although I probably shouldn’t have been—to see some of the young ladies walking around in the traditional burqa (including a face veil) while also wearing Adidas running shoes.

I haven’t seen the abject poverty that I experienced in other parts of Africa. I have only been able to observe the city from buses so have not experienced the true needs that may exist.

The hotel also stands in the shadow of the great palace of Farouk, the penultimate king of Egypt. The palace is spread over a huge sprawling property near the Mediterranean seashore. The architecture is opulent and decadent but also mesmerizing and intriguing. Alexandria, like many cities, suffered plentifully during World War II. Criticism was leveled at Farouk for his lavish lifestyle and his decision to keep all the lights burning at this palace during a time when the city was blacked out because of German and Italian bombing.

Contrast all of this with yesterday’s press conference, where we had three bishops as guests. Bishop David Moulton of New Zealand had talked to the Primates about global warming the previous evening. He encouraged lifestyle changes, reducing travel, and promoting eco-friendly congregations as ways to address climate change. He summarized his presentation with these words: “The church has biblical, practical, and moral obligation to cut down carbon emissions.” (A pdf of his presentation is available.)

Bishop Paul Sishir Sarkar of Bangladesh talked about the suffering of his people because of arsenic in the drinking water—a natural phenomenon in several parts of the world, but particularly severe in South Asia. Arsenic contamination is prevalent in the poorer sections of his country where most of the Christians, who are in a substantial minority, live. The arsenic is causing many health problems including diabetes, high blood pressure, reproductive disorders, and cancers of the skin, bladder, kidney, and lung.

Most of the press conference’s focus was centered on Archbishop Daniel Deng Bul, the Primate of Sudan, who shared a document given to the Primates about the situation in Sudan. As I mentioned in yesterday’s reflection, the contrast between being here in the comfort and ease of a hotel and realizing that Sudan is Egypt’s neighbour leaves you feeling very hollow. Even Archbishop Daniel’s presentation was full of contrasts. In the document describing terrible atrocities, the word “hope” appears many times. The town of Abyei was destroyed by bombing, reoccupied, and then the people were displaced again. During all of this, the Church in that place confirmed 150 people. Contrast that with many of our own parishes and dioceses in Canada where even getting a handful of people to be confirmed is a challenge.

Almost all of Archbishop Daniel’s presentation was difficult to listen to but for me the worst section was about the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), which has committed numerous atrocities, namely the abduction, rape, maiming, and killing of civilians, including children. The government of Southern Sudan tried to negotiate a peace between this group and the government of Uganda. When those talks failed the LRA attacked in Southern Sudan and the Congo. Their violence included burning individuals in churches.

When I asked Archbishop Daniel about how the person in the pew could do something, he paused and first pointed to prayer and then challenged all of us to visit the Sudan: “Come and see, and then you will understand,” he said. The Sudanese appeal for relief, rehabilitation and resettlement, but the bishop indicated that everything they did can only be “through emulating the work of Christ.”

I want to end this report with the words of Archbishop Daniel. In speaking to the Anglican Communion, he is speaking to all of us in Canadian Anglican communities. We share with him in this Communion.

“I strongly ask the Anglican Communion not to abandon the people of Sudan in this time of danger and uncertainty. I ask you to rejoice with us in hope, to continue alongside us in tribulation, and to be constant in prayer so that God may come to our rescue.”

Amen and Amen.

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