FRANCISCANS IN EGYPT
The history of the Franciscans in Egypt goes back to 1219 when Saint Francis met Sultan al-Malik al- Kamil (1218-1238) near the city of Damietta. Francis had gone to Damietta with the Crusaders, but with the aim of spreading the message of peace proclaimed by Jesus Christ. For a few years, he had been thinking of a Franciscan presence in the Muslim world, which he conceived as peaceful coexistence with the native population. Franciscans’ life of ardent prayer, of brotherly love, of poverty and meekness, would be a testimony to the Gospel. In that same year, Saint Francis inaugurated the Order Province of the Orient to encompass Cyprus, Syria, Palestine, and Egypt, later to become the Custody of the Holy Land.
Not much is known about the first four hundred years of Franciscan presence in Egypt. Certainly, it was not a continuous one. Around 1630 two groups of Franciscans started their life and activity in the land of the Nile and established a presence that has not since been interrupted. Even now, there are two distinct groups: one formed by the friars of the Custody of the Holy Land, and the other sent directly by the Congregation de Propaganda Fide and at present forming the Vice-province of the Holy Family.
When in 1926 the apostolic vicariate of Suez (later called vicariate of Port Said) was established, the friars living there came under the jurisdiction of the Province of Saint Bernardine in France, but since 1957 they have become again part of the Custody of the Holy Land.
As already stated, Francis founded a friary at Damietta in 1219, but the brothers had to leave two years later. They came back in 1249-1250, and in 1283, some friars suffered martyrdom in that city. In 1307 their presence was attested in Cairo, where, in 1345, Livinus obtained the crown of martyrdom. In 1320 a group of friars lived in Alexandria at the funduq (hotel) of the merchants of Marseilles. The Franciscans returned again and again to Egypt. Their activity consisted in providing spiritual care to Catholic foreigners in Egypt and assistance to pilgrims on their way to and from the Holy Land, and establishing contacts with Europeans who for one reason or another ended up in local prisons.
Around 1600, several friars lived in Egypt and set up their private chapels. About thirty baptisms were administered in Cairo between 1611 and 1630, as appears from an index of the baptismal files at the Franciscan Center for Christian Oriental Studies at Muski, Cairo. During the same time eight marriages were registered.
In 1630, Friar Paolo da Lodi was nominated as the first prefectus missionis Aegypti. He arrived, via Jerusalem, in Cairo with a letter from Pope Urbanus VIII to the Coptic patriarch John XV (1619- 1634), but the latter had died before the letter was handed over. Friar Paolo took up residence in the Venetian embassy and succeeded in setting up residence for the friars in a house just outside the diplomatic compound. Father Paolo was appointed custos of the Holy Land on 22 August 1631. In the same year, friaries were founded in Alexandria and Rosetta, both of which still exist. The friary of Cairo became the seat of the perfect, and at the end of the century, an institute for the study of Oriental languages was opened there.
In 1632 the Congregation de Propaganda Fide established a Franciscan prefecture in Ethiopia, which was entrusted to Friar Antonio da Virguletta. Upon their arrival in Egypt, they approached the Coptic patriarchate and visited the monasteries of Saint Antony (DAYR ANBA ANTUNIYUS) and of Saint Macarius (DAYR ANBA MAQAR) to perfect their knowledge of Arabic while waiting for the caravan from Jirja to Suakin, organized by the pasha of Suakin. Between 1633 and 1669 the friars made three expeditions to Ethiopia, each lasting a few years, during which most of the friars died through martyrdom or illness. They did not fully succeed in establishing themselves in Ethiopia.
In 1671 the prefecture of Egypt was united with that of Ethiopia, and at the end of 1680 the custos of the Holy Land obtained the title of prefect of Egypt. He exercised his duties through a vice-prefect residing in Cairo.
In 1697 the prefecture was divided into two parts: the prefecture of Egypt, which remained under the custos and combined Lower Egypt, and the New Prefecture of Akhmim-Fungi-Ethiopia, entirely independent of the custos. In 1716 the jurisdiction of the New Prefecture was limited to Upper Egypt, where the friars already had houses at Jirja and Akhmim. Many documents regarding the period 1633-1703 kept in the archives of the Congregation de Propaganda Fide were published in the two volumes of Etiopia francescana (Somigli and Montano, 1928-1948). Notwithstanding its title, this publication gives much information about the Franciscans in Egypt.
As the attempts to establish a mission in Ethiopia failed, the friars of the New Prefecture concentrated their individual approach among the Copts of Upper Egypt. The first adult convert to the Catholic faith was a certain Sahyun Walid, at Akhmim in 1715. The first two Copts ordained as Catholic priests were Rufa’il al-Tukhi and Yustus Maraghi, who were sent to Rome by the Franciscans for studies and were ordained there in 1735. The former later returned to Rome, where he worked on an edition of the Coptic liturgical books based on the manuscripts kept at the Vatican. Both priests were later consecrated bishops.
In 1746 the Copts who were united with Rome had their first ecclesiastical superior. The Franciscan New Prefecture was designated in auxilium coptorum (in aid of the Copts) and the jurisdiction of the prefect was confined to his own friars and non- Coptic Catholics, except for three short periods in which he resumed the authority of the Coptic Catholic Church. The Franciscan superior resided at Cairo in the small convent next to the greater friary of the Holy Land, but the Holy Land friars’ activity was carried out mainly in the regions from Jirja to Akhmim. They set up houses in Old Cairo, the Fayyum, Fidimin, Alexandria, and Rosetta.
Among the numerous foreigners who were encouraged by Muhammad ‘Ali to come to Egypt were many Catholics, for whose spiritual care the Franciscans opened chapels and churches in many towns of Lower Egypt.
With the establishment of the apostolic vicariate of Alexandria for the Latins in 1839, the prefecture of the custos of the Holy Land over Lower Egypt came to an end. But the vicar apostolic has always been a Franciscan, and, four times, a former custos.
When the construction of the Suez Canal started, the Franciscans established themselves in that region as early as 1862.
The Franciscans of Upper Egypt continued their cooperation with the Copts in Bani Suef, Asyut, Qina, and Luxor; the friary of the Fayyum was taken over from the Holy Land friars in exchange for the hospice of Suez. They rebuilt Saint Catherine’s Church in Alexandria and that of Our Lady’s Assumption in the Muski district of Cairo.
In 1893 seven of their twelve churches and residences were ceded to the Coptic Catholic church. The prefecture, on that occasion, was given the name of the Franciscan Mission of Upper Egypt.
The first half of the twentieth century saw continued growth of the Franciscan presence in Egypt. When, in 1921, the responsibility for the Franciscan Mission was entrusted to the Order Province of Toscana, the friars of Upper Egypt had nine churches and soon added a tenth. From these centers they deployed their activity in surrounding villages. In the 1930s the first Coptic Franciscans were formally established, and at that time a major Franciscan seminary was opened at GIZA.
In 1909 the Church of Saint Joseph was inaugurated in Cairo, but the presence of the Holy Land fathers there goes back to 1880. After World War I the same fathers built new churches: two in Alexandria and one in Bulaq (Cairo), Suez, Isma‘iliyyah, Abu Qir, and Damietta. That these large constructions were necessary can be deduced from the baptismal files of Our Lady’s Assumption parish, where in 1909 no less than 503 infant baptisms were registered.
With World War II and the proclamation of the Egyptian Republic, many developments took place. The foreign communities rapidly decreased in number, and in a short time, the majority of the parishioners had left the country. Continuing their spiritual care for the remaining faithful, the Holy Land friars directed their activities after the war toward the apostolate of the Copts and established the Franciscan Center for Christian Oriental Studies. On 16 September 1954, President Muhammad Naguib inaugurated the center. The aim of this institute is the promotion of knowledge of the various Christian communities of the Near East. It publishes a yearbook and the monograph series Studia Orientalia Christiana Collectanea and Studia Orientalia Monographs. In Kafr al-Dawwar and in the suburbs of Alexandria the Holy Land friars started schools and dispensaries and organized regular visits to the Coptic families that came in great numbers from the south to the developing industrial and urban regions in the Delta.
Immediately after the war, some churches were built, as in Ma‘adi, a southern suburb of Cairo where a constantly changing group of foreigners lived. In Kafr al-Dawwar a church was erected for the Coptic Catholic community in the 1960s and was enlarged in the 1980s. But the friars retired from Mansurah, Damietta, and some other minor towns. The vicar apostolic of Alexandria ceded the cathedral of Port Said to the Coptic Orthodox community, and the Franciscans ceded their church in Isma‘iliyyah to the Coptic Catholic church.
On the other hand, the Franciscan Mission of Upper Egypt increased its activities. Within the framework of the legislation for the order, it successively became a commissariate, a custody, a vicariate, and, in 1987, a vice-province, or self-governing part of the Franciscan Order. Two of its members became bishops, one of Asyut, the other of Suhaj. In order to promote community life, they then ceded several churches to the Coptic clergy.
- Gulobovich, G. Serie cronologica dei reverendissimi superiori di Terra Santa (1219-1898)—with two appendices of documents and unedited Arabic decrees. Jerusalem, 1898.
- . ed. Biblioteca Bio-Bibliografica della Terra Santa e dell’Oriente Francescano. In this series 5 volumes were edited between 1906 and 1927 in Quarracchi, Italy, covering the period from 1215-1400. Under different titles several other volumes were added through 1967.
LADISLAUS VAN ZEELST, O. F. M