Evangelical leaders and thousands of Copts have honored the priest whose cave temple complex carved God’s glory into Egypt’s “garbage city”.
On October 11, 2023, the beloved priest Abouna (“Father”) Samaan died at the age of 81. Two days later, more than 40,000 people gathered in the famous cave complex of his monastery of St. Simon for what was probably the largest Christian burial ceremony in the history of the Coptic Orthodox Church.
However, his fame extended far beyond the borders of Egypt. He was recognized by many important personalities of the Western evangelical world. And over the course of Abouna Samaan’s life, their support helped popularize his stint in the “Trash City” to the point that Trip Advisor lists his carved biblical panoramas as one of Cairo’s top ten must-sees, alongside museums, mosques and the Nile.
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Christianity Today magazine reports that the black-robed and white-bearded priest was born in 1941 under the birth name Farahat Ibrahim. Otherwise, an ordinary Egyptian Christian worked as a typesetter in the printing press of the Coptic Cathedral of St. Mark. Over time, he came to know the Lord in a personal way through the “Society for the Salvation of Souls”, a Coptic revival group that decided to remain in the Orthodox Church while reaching non-believers with the Gospel.
Farahat became an ardent evangelist who urged individual conversion to Christ.
In 1972, a newly married planter led a friend and garbage man, Qidees, who lived next door, to Christ. The young couple lived in Shubra, a Coptic-majority neighborhood in Cairo, and Qidees hauled garbage from an area 13 kilometers (8 miles) east to a slum at the foot of Egypt’s Mokattam mountain range. Three years before, a community of very poor Christians had immigrated from Upper Egypt for a better life and made a living by recycling waste and feeding pigs with edible scraps.
Pigs are considered unclean by Muslims, so only nominal Coptic Christians made up the city of garbage. Most of these Christians had almost no knowledge of the Bible, and there was no church or pastoral care in their disease-infested slum. Many of them were alcoholics and drug addicts and sometimes very violent. However, after two years of discipleship, Qidees asked Farahat to visit his family and evangelize them.
His first reaction was vigorous resistance – but he went anyway.
At the time, there were 14,000 Copts living in the area, and after a few months, Qidees’ wife with seven children and many of their neighbors turned to the Lord. Their weekly gatherings soon outgrew a tin shack with a reed roof, and as the numbers grew, Farahat persuaded his wealthy friends from the Society for the Salvation of Souls to build them a small church.
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The people wanted him to be their priest. Farahat was reluctant and spent several nights praying in a small cave above a village full of garbage. During these prayers, a fragment of the Arabic Bible, taken from the 18th chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, flew past him. I am with you and no one will harm you, he read, because I have many people in this city. He saw it as God’s call to become their pastor.
The young priest, ordained in 1978, took the priestly name Samaan – “Šimon” in Czech – after a famous saint from Coptic legends who, as a simple tanner, performed a miracle in the same Mokattam mountain range. However, his early years were very difficult. He made his way through the overflowing piles of garbage with a pair of wellies and a flashlight, one would-be disciple attacked him with a knife, another hid from the priest in a barn. There were no social programs in the area – just a glimmer of the good news of Jesus.
But when hundreds of people came to know the Lord, they also realized their dignity as children of the Creator of the universe. Over time, the entire village changed. Although still smelly, dirty and infested with garbage, it became a unique island of Christian faith in Muslim-dominated Cairo. By the early 1990s it had grown to a population of 70,000 as Christians from other areas preferred a like-minded religious ethos to the hostility they felt from their Muslim neighbours.
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-red- Date: November 1, 2023 Photo: YouTube screenshot – Abuna Salmaan