Cairo, Egypt UN Photo/B Wolff
"If ever I’ve had a role to play, it’s right now," said the Rev. Paul-Gordon Chandler, an Episcopal Church mission partner living in Egypt, after a week of anti-government demonstrations and violence have been the cause of more than 100 deaths.
Chandler was speaking with ENS on Jan. 31 from his home in Maadi, a suburban district of Cairo where he has served since 2003 as rector of an international Episcopal church.
"Although the mood here is very tense, it is calmer than it has been over the last few days, but there is some feeling that it may be the quiet before the storm," said Chandler, noting that a major protest is expected to draw millions of people on Feb. 1.
As Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak appears intent to cling onto power, political leaders around the world are urging him to respond calmly to the protests calling for him to step down.
Chandler says he has a critical role to play, serving as a contact point for a number of people who are staying in Cairo who are related to the parish. "I’ve just been going through the church directory and calling people I’ve not heard from and finding if they’re still here," he told ENS, noting that he is hoping to resume worship services this weekend as long as a daily government-imposed curfew is lifted.
The Rev. David Copley, mission personnel officer for the Episcopal Church, said that Chandler "is providing a vital pastoral role to his church community at this time; his continuing presence is a powerful witness of support to the people and the church in Cairo during these difficult times."
About 80 percent of Chandler’s parishioners — who are mostly international diplomats, members of non-governmental organizations, academics and business professionals — have already opted to leave, he said.
Before the crisis some 90,000 Americans were living in Egypt. The U.S. Embassy is urging Americans to evacuate the country and the government began Jan. 31 to provide specially chartered flights for American citizens who wish to leave, according to news reports.
While Chandler reported hearing sporadic gunfire throughout the day and night, he said he feels there is no real danger to Westerners from the Egyptian people. "The only danger is from the looters or getting caught up in the violence," he said, adding that his apartment block had been targeted by mobs but that they’d been deterred by the owners who’d fired warning shots to protect their family and property.
The looters have robbed and set fire to several stores and some hotels have been completely ransacked, he said.
The larger concern, he added, "is not having a system of law in place right now" and the news that several thousand prisoners have escaped from prison.
Asked how he feels to see the country in such turmoil, Chandler said, "My deepest sadness is for the Egyptian people here who are having to live with this. Very soon it is going to come to the point where no one is working, so it may become more and more of a crisis."
He also expressed his concern for his colleagues in the Diocese of Egypt, which has had to close down its outreach and operations, and for an Arab priest and friend whose house was burned down.
Chandler urged people of faith to pray for the Diocese of Egypt and for the nation "that somehow things will be resolved peacefully and provide a foundation on which to build for a good future. And we appreciate prayers for our church here as we at least try to fill this gap at the moment. It’s an honor and privilege for us to minister in this place at this time."
— Matthew Davies is editor and international correspondent of the Episcopal News Service.