As the sun comes up, the men go out from Garbage City and into the streets of Cairo. Some walk alone, carrying empty plastic sacks over their shoulders. Some drive trucks whose bare beds will soon be piled high with waste. Others are already returning with the trash they collected overnight. They heap it in front of their homes, where the women will sort it amid the rats and flies.
These men and women are known as zabbaleen, literally, “garbage people.” The name evokes not only their work as the ragpickers of Cairo, but also their faith. Almost all of the fifty thousand residents of this neighborhood are Christian. More than the trash they collect, the God they kneel to makes them objects of contempt.
As if to compensate for the de facto prohibition of Christian images elsewhere in Cairo, every building in Garbage City seems to bear some proclamation of Christian faith. Walls are adorned with a verse of Scripture, or a pale Italianate Madonna dissolving into clouds, or a Christ drawing men toward his Sacred Heart. (Popular devotions, like so much of pop culture, seem to spread from west to east.) The overwhelming stench is occasionally interrupted by the smell of grilled pork.
The neighborhood’s seeming disorder serves a carefully organized economy. Azza Fekry, a grandmother who rises at 3:30 every morning to sort garbage in front of her home, tells me, “My son works overnight to gather the trash. They don’t have fights, because the garbage is not picked up randomly. There’s a sequence and a very well-established system.” The four-story tenement behind her is outfitted with air conditioners and satellite dishes, a testament to the zabbaleen’s ability to turn garbage into gold.
The route through Garbage City is the only way to St. Simon Monastery, a quiet preserve that sits high on Mokattam Mountain. As soon as one passes into the monastery grounds, the stench dissipates and the sound of cars is replaced by that of birds. Pilgrims come alone to pray, gathering in huge crowds at a “cave church” carved into the limestone and surrounded by a twenty-thousand-seat amphitheater. The site is at once ancient and up-to-date, a monastic megachurch.
Fr. Botros Roshdy, a priest who serves there, tucks an iPhone into his black cassock. He has a social media presence and is known across the country. He is more willing than most to discuss the persecution faced by the zabbaleen and Egypt’s other Christians. “Neither the church leaders you have met, nor those you are going to meet, are speaking freely,” he says after we sit down. “If they could speak freely, they would discuss the discriminatory laws, the infiltration of the judicial system by the Muslim Brotherhood.”
Roshdy notes that little has changed for the Copts over the last decade, despite the hollow promises of freedom that came with the Arab Spring and current president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s self-presentation as a defender of Christians. “We are still being used as a playing card in political games. When the government wants to win the support of Copts during the elections, they offer to let us build a church.” But these overtures have not changed the landscape. “Take the blasphemy law,” Roshdy says. “It has been applied only against Christians.”
Roshdy mentions some typical incidents of persecution. One involved an elderly Coptic woman in Minya who was attacked, stripped naked, and dragged through the streets. “Everyone knows who did this crime, but there has been no punishment.” A group of Coptic students in Bani Mazar filmed a video in which they mocked ISIS. “People in their town accused them of blasphemy for mocking Islam. So these young children were arrested and jailed. . . . They were finally freed and received asylum in Europe.”
Despite the persecution, Egypt’s Christians are winning converts. The number and names of converts must be carefully guarded, however, because conversion from Islam carries a high price. “Some of them are kicked out of their houses, some of them are fired, some of them have their kids taken away,” Roshdy says. “But they consider all of these troubles nothing for the sake of Christ. Their faith is so strong, they see him.” Cast out by their families, these men and women are adopted into the household of God.
General Sisi has made gestures of support for Egypt’s Christians—some of them very welcome—but daily reality has hardly changed. Egypt is a centrally controlled police state. It mercilessly suppresses dissent, but it has done little to punish those who attack Christians. Instead of enforcing the law in such cases, it has promoted so-called “reconciliation sessions,” in which the victim is often forced to apologize to the perpetrator. Sisi’s government is certainly better than the government of the Muslim Brotherhood, which preceded it, and probably better than any likely alternative. But it upholds neither justice nor decency.
Sisi’s greatest display of support for Egypt’s Christians has been the building of a shrine church in honor of the twenty-one martyrs who were beheaded by ISIS on the coast of Libya in 2015. Twenty of the martyrs were from a single region in Upper Egypt, the most rural and most Christian part of the country. The twenty-first was a Ghanaian man named Matthew who was almost certainly not a Copt. ISIS was prepared to spare him, but he insisted on dying alongside his Christian brothers.
Fr. Abi Fanus Unan, a priest at the shrine church, tells me, “After we saw the videos of the beheading, we expected that they had thrown the bodies in the water.” In fact, ISIS had tossed them in a ditch. When a team found the bodies after a long search, they discovered a horrifying scene. “They had separated the bodies from the heads. There were a lot of heads and a lot of bodies.” The remains of the twenty Copts were returned to Egypt, but the body of Matthew has remained unclaimed.
And so the Copts sought to bring him to Egypt. Thanks to persistent lobbying, the Libyan government has at last agreed. Matthew will once again take his place alongside his fellow martyrs. This act is particularly significant given the divides that split Egypt’s Christians. Makarios, the Orthodox bishop of the nearby city of Minya, has claimed that other churches—including the Coptic Catholic Church—do not administer a real baptism. But he cannot deny this baptism of blood.
Copts do not display the bones of their saints, but they have carefully laid out the rotting items found among the martyrs’ remains. Pilgrims now pray before a dirty arm cast, a soiled back brace, and the plastic zip-ties that once bound the martyrs’ hands. These signs of infirmity and bondage have been cast off for heavenly raiment. They may look like trash, but they are treasured as relics of sanctity.
When I ask Farag Ibrahim Sayid, the father of one of the martyrs, whether he regrets the loss of his son, he responds with the words of Scripture: “All things work together for good for those who love God” (Rom. 8:28). In that same passage, St. Paul promises that we shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into God’s glorious liberty. But Egypt’s Christians also hope for a more worldly form of freedom. Several of the martyrs’ mothers tell me that they hope their children can go to America. Some are engineers; some are laborers. All want freedom and prosperity.
President Trump has promised to help Christians in the Middle East, but the number of Christian refugees allowed into the United States declined by 36 percent in 2018. Given the religious persecution faced by Middle Eastern Christians, it is striking that American Christian leaders do not demand more. Even the magnificent shrine to the Coptic martyrs bears marks of persecution. It was built outside the village of al-Our, after a mob prevented the rebuilding of a more conveniently located church where several of the martyrs had been baptized and confirmed.
Outside the shrine, the streets are littered with trash. Wherever one goes in Egypt—from the tony developments west of Cairo, to the rural south—one sees refuse. “Waste is usually dumped in irrigation canals or in the streets, or burnt,” Atef Yakoub Haleem, a professor of agronomy, tells me. Government officials are anxious that the waste not be noticed. “We do some recycling, but we don’t have the facilities or the equipment needed. The ministry of agriculture does its best,” says Emad Abdelgelil, head of development in the village of Al Amoudein. “Maybe we have a problem, but we are working on it. Maybe next visit you won’t find it.”
Egypt’s trash seems less likely to disappear than its Christians do. More than a million Copts have emigrated from Egypt in recent decades. Coptic authorities say that fifteen to eighteen million remain, but the government claims that there are only five million. There is something foreboding about this low estimate. It seems to express a desire that the Copts will go away, just as Egypt’s ancient and storied Jewish community—for so long such an essential part of the country—has done.
Early one morning, I return to Garbage City. As the men go out on their rounds, the women walk up to the monastery, children in tow, dressed in their finest clothes. They are God’s own garbage people, despised but elect, valuing what the world rejects. They welcome the outcast, adopt the unwanted, and make relics of refuse. Seeing them, one feels the force of Psalmist’s prophecy. There is in Zion a tried stone, a precious stone, a sure foundation. For the stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.
Matthew Schmitz is senior editor of First Things. Support for this essay was provided by the Philos Project.