‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it for me.’
Matt 25:40

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Father Anthony Fenech, s.j.


CatholicView is privileged to interview Father Anthony Fenech, s.j. who is currently serving in Upper (South) Egypt, in the City of El Minia.  His work is in Social Apostolate and Catechetics.  A Maltese Jesuit Priest, Father Fenech's Social Apostolate Ministry is primarily carried out at the Gad-el-Sid Social Center.   This is one of two satellite centers run by the "Jesuits' and Brothers" Association for Development in other parts of Minia City.


The Social Center lies in the area of Gad-el-Sid, in the southern part of the city of Minia (240 km. South of Cairo).   It is the property of the Jesuit Community and about a 20-minute walk from the Jesuits' Residence.   The Jesuit Community Residence itself lies to the south of the older, central portion of the City.

Started in the 1970’s, by Br.Selim Elias Chamaoun s.j., with the original purpose of providing catechism classes to local Christian children in the area, the Gad-el-Sid Social Center is active as well in charitable and social development work offered to all deserving cases irrespective of creed. 


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Street view of the Gad-el-Sid Center.  Old, small and outdated, the Center now lies about one meter below present street level and is badly in need of replacement.

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Social Office Workers.  Dedicated personnel do voluntary work in the service of the less fortunate in the area.  Home visits must be accompanied by tedious office work and of course by practical action.

It is the dream of Father Fenech to rebuild and redesign the Center with better faculties so the many needs of the people are met.   And it is even now being put into action.  The present Center’s premises are old, hastily and badly built, and rotting with high ground humidity, reaching a dangerously high level along the walls, especially as the floor of the premises now lies below street level.   And so there is a worry of safety.  Despite these problems, the Center under the care of Father Fenech at the helm along with volunteers and lay people remains an active force in the Egyptian community. 



CATHOLICVIEW:   Father Fenech, you are originally from Malta, in the heart of the Mediterranean.  How long have you served in Egypt and why did you choose Minia?

FATHER FENECH:  I came to Egypt in 1981, as soon as I finished my Theological studies, and after my Ordination.    I was introduced to Minia during my first two years, when I was studying Arabic.  I would travel to Minia on every holiday, to improve and practice the language.    After two years, Minia was my first assignment and I stayed for 3 years, mostly occupied with extra-scholarly activities with adolescents and youths.   After a brief stay of 2 years at our high school in Cairo (College de la Sainte Famille) I went as parish priest to Armant, a big village near the famous city of Luxor in Upper Egypt.  There I spent 8 years, getting very involved in, and gaining important experience in Social, besides Pastoral, work.  I had asked to go to Armant because I had sensed its “missionary” possibilities.

When the time came for a change, Minia, our traditional and only Upper Egypt Residence (before Armant), was the obvious choice.  There is a world of difference between Cairo and Minia.  And so Minia once again was my next assignment, where I was told to take charge of our Social Center in the slum area of Gad-el-Sid. I have now been there for the past 8 years.   With the precious aid of many lay co-workers we offer a wide variety of Social, educational, recreational, cultural and religious activities.

CATHOLICVIEW:   The Residence housing the Jesuit Community, from whom the Gad-el-Sid Social Center depends, is dedicated to St. Mark who brought Christianity to Egypt.  What are some of the changes that the country has undergone to maintain what St. Mark brought to it and how do you compare that time with the present day Egypt?

FATHER FENECH: It is somewhat idealistic to imagine that Egypt became totally Christian with St. Mark’s Evangelization.   Like other countries in the Roman Empire, Christianity gained control and spread through the land gradually.   However by the time of the arrival of Islam, it seems a considerable part of the country had been Christianized.   As in other countries in the region, Islam took root rapidly, but only gained majority control over the centuries. The Christians of Egypt, though now a minority at home, are nevertheless the largest Christian community in the Moslem nations of the Middle East.   The heaviest concentrations are in Middle Egypt, in the Provinces of Minia and Assiut.   The Copts (Coptos, from Aegyptos), the name by which Egyptian Christians are known, are very proud of their Apostolic origin, St. Mark, if not actually one of the 12 Apostles, being certainly one of the 4 Evangelists. You can still sense in the unfolding of the Coptic Rite some of the flavor of the early Christian liturgies.

CATHOLICVIEW:  Father, the original "go ahead" agreement to open the Center was based on the condition that any expansion of Jesuits' activities would be in favor of the poor.  Is this still your primary goal today?

FATHER FENECH:  Yes, that is so.  People keep suggesting that we open new premises; even if for our school for example, in more respectable areas.   Apart from the fact that we do not have such plans for the present, we are certainly still very much interested in promoting our social efforts among the poor.   This is in fact not just the present tendency in the Society of Jesus throughout the world, but actually the Church's own proposal, since Vatican II, and much more so even today.

CATHOLICVIEW:  Under the trying circumstances of overcrowded conditions and the poverty you encounter, how do you manage to feed the body, mind and soul of the people who come to you?

FATHER FENECH: We all know that it is difficult to feed the soul unless we also feed the body.    So we try to help the whole person: body, mind, soul, etc.    Our activities are varied, covering a wide range of the needs of the ordinary person, many of which very often are not catered to in our area.   It won’t come as a surprise that in fact many people in our area are on, or below, the poverty line and some are in actual misery. We cannot claim to adequately feed all those in need.   Our policy is to give priority to those who come of their own accord and avail themselves of the services at the Center.   I have absolutely no idea where our benefactors have sprang up from, but we have a certain number, and one can only say that God does not forget His own.  Some friends in Minia itself or in Cairo send us money, clothes (new & used) and even food and we distribute, starting with the most needy.   A number of volunteers give us their time and energy.   We necessarily also have salaried personnel, for whose salaries we have to solicit funds.

CATHOLICVIEW:  It has been said that Egypt has been the land of tolerance where all people can equally enjoy their country in peaceful co-existence regardless of race, color or religion.  Do you feel this is a true statement?

FATHER FENECH:  Yes, that statement is generally true.  The media is not always as objective as they claim; much depends on the choice of news items and the words used.   We must remember that ‘humans’ are not that different from one country to another and such questions as the treatment of minorities exist even in most ‘advanced’ countries, where they are often ignored for obvious reasons.  Also background, history and mentality affect peoples’ attitudes and behavior, and we must not commit the error that just because others react differently from us, they must be wrong.   If some negative aspects of life are spotlighted in the news, they are often counter-balanced by more positive benefits, but humans are like that, they decry injustice but they don’t often speak of the benefits.

All Eastern - Oriental - Rites, about seven of them if I am not mistaken, both Orthodox and Catholic, were formerly well represented in Egypt, even in the South.  Nowadays however, they have disappeared from the South and are mostly present in Cairo and Alexandria.  However, very few foreigners of these rites still come to Egypt and the members of these Churches are now mostly Egyptian.  In practice there is peaceful coexistence of the various denominations.

CATHOLICVIEW:  Statistics show that 85% of Minia’s population represents non-Christian beliefs.  What percentage of the remaining 15% represent Roman Catholicism?

FATHER FENECH:  Though statistics vary according to their origin, the Christians in Egypt represent anything from 5% to 10% depending on who publishes them.  It is true though, that in the two Upper Egypt Provinces of Minia and Assiut, this proportion increases to 15% and maybe more.  It is extremely low in the Delta, for example.  The Orthodox Copts are by far the large majority, and the Orthodox Coptic Church sets the ideal of Christianity in Egypt generally.  The Catholics represent about 150,000 officially, with the Protestants about the same or slightly more.  However, while there are staunch members for each denomination, many people do not strictly adhere to one or the other denomination.

CATHOLICVIEW: Father, your center is located in the heart of the city.  What programs and services are offered?

FATHER FENECH:  The Gad-el-Sid Social Center lies in a slum area in the north of Minia City and has been functioning for the past 35 years.  There are no other similar facilities in the area.  Its activities include:  After-school evening studies for 110 Primary and Preparatory public school students; Morning kindergarten (75 children): Summer clubs (150 children average regular attendance); Scouting (average 75 members, all 3 levels) and Youth groups (about 40 regulars); Mother and child program (40 participants); Lending and reading library (over 150 regular users); limited Computer facilities; Sewing classes; Catechism (over 150 regulars); wide range of social work including professional and material help (over 50 extremely poor families).  All activities are open to both Moslems and Christians (except for religious activities).  The premises are old, insalubrious and small so they have been demolished and are waiting to be rebuilt and enlarged as soon as possible.

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3rd Primary Catechism class at Gad-el-Sid:
Three classes in one 'big' room 
separated by curtain partitions


CATHOLICVIEW:  On your personal website you speak of the social, moral, and psychological problems low income persons in Gad-el- Sid face in trying to maintain a decent living for their families. Do you feel these families are more enlightened by the effort of your Center and its work?

FATHER FENECH:   In the congested area of Gad-el-Sid one finds all the usual physical and moral social problems typical of such "popular" areas, among others.  There are relatively big families, with an average of 4 or 5 children, in small, congested and insalubrious housing.  There is a lack of environmental and hygienic consciousness in general bad alimentary habits due to ignorance and often due to lack of financial means.  Mothers have increased responsibility in the care of their children, due to the fact that the father is either overworked, estranged from the family and/or remarried and living another life, imprisoned or simply dead.  And there is a high level of illiteracy among parents, mostly of rural origin, especially among mothers.  Incomes are low and insufficient in many households.  Low insufficient incomes plaque many families.  Poor attendance in school, desertion and early dropouts remain an ever present condition, and in certain cases the children must be able to work to help raise the family's income.  There is also a generally large percentage of illiteracy among those who leave school.  A chronic shortage of employment opportunities ranks high, and the unemployment rate among youth is severe even for those with college degrees.  And so, there is an accumulation of financial debt due to pressure to pay rent, electricity, water and other bills, usually because of the absence of a fixed and/or regular job.  Added to that is the fact that there are no local recreational or cultural facilities.  Our Center is just a humble effort trying to do its part.   

Our records contain over 800 file-entries of children who have at some time in the past five years attended some activity at our Center.  However we do try to encourage the very poor, as we get to know them, to avail themselves of our services.  We hope they have certainly left the Center much more ‘enlightened’ than what they would have been had they not come. The testimony of many former patrons who still drop in to say ‘hello’ attests to this.   Our recent and renewed efforts are also producing very tangible results.

Our mission is to try to offer programs for the integral development of the personality through a wide range of attractive and useful cultural, social and recreational activities.   Hopefully, the children who attend our Center will be better equipped than their parents to face their future.

Who are the key people involved in maintaining the Center?

FATHER FENECH:  Scouting and Catechism are run by volunteers (about 4 for each of the 3 levels for scouting and about 15 for catechism), and there are about 4 volunteers who help with evening studies, and in summer with the clubs.   Sewing and Computer classes are also offered by volunteers (1 or 2 in each).   We also have occasional voluntary help with the Social Work (about 3).   We have salaried personnel for all the rest, some on a part-time basis, because many people just can’t afford the luxury of doing voluntary work: they need to eat.   It must however be kept in mind that salaries here are small (we cannot differ from the average rate), and our personnel put in much more energy than the value of their salaries. (Salaried personnel:   Kindergarten: 7; Evening studies including lending library: 15  and about 10 in the Summer Clubs; Mother-&-Child: 3; Social workers: 2).   The bulk of the work effort at the Center is done by lay people, both previous patrons and ‘new’ arrivals, both volunteers and salaried persons.   Yes, the task is great, and we are just a drop in the ocean.   But those involved in the activities are mostly quite motivated and selfless in effort.  Our mission is to try to offer programs for the integral development of the personality through a wide range of attractive and useful cultural, social and recreational activities.   Hopefully, the children who attend our Center will be better equipped than their parents to face their future.

CATHOLICVIEW: How is the Center funded?

The “Jesuits’ & Brothers’ Association for Development” (registered with the Ministry of Social Affairs, no. 352, for 1966) solicits funding from various benefactors and Associations.  It is difficult to give exact numbers.

CATHOLICVIEW:  You have stated that at the Jesuit Community each priest has a number of responsibilities.   Besides the Gad-el-Center, you have at the "Residence" a School, a Youth House, the Association and the Church, in addition to the outpost ministries in the villages, all with various activites of their own.  Who handles the needs of the parish?

FATHER FENECH:  Our Mass at the parish is looked after by a diocesan priest, usually in the mornings.  They are part of our ministries with each one of us priests having his own schedule.   The Center is a joint effort with myself, lay people, and volunteers  all working together toward a common goal.

CATHOLICVIEW:   Since many of the children who attend your Center have no religious affiliations, what can you offer to the ones who are needful of religious education?

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Upper Egypt Jesuit Communities of Minia and Armant:Back (L to R ):  Mounir-Khouzam (Eg), Radi-Mounir (Eg), Ziad Hilal (Syr),Joe Mizzi (Mal), Magdi-Seif (Eg), Jean Faure (Fr).
Front (L to R):  Bimal Kerketta (Ind), Atef-Sobhi (Eg), Twanny Fenech (Mal).

FATHER FENECH:   Our ‘Spiritual/Religious’ service is offered both directly and indirectly.   In Scouting we have a time for prayer, and we try to instill important Christian values, and we have various Masses organized for youths and others at the Residence.  The children have no affiliations because they just don’t go anywhere, and often because they get bored during the traditional and rather long liturgical services.   They have absolutely no problem in participating in what we offer them, and in fact, as we try to reach their inner longings, they tend to respond very positively when we propose prayers and Mass for them, tailored to their needs.   We also have regular catechism, and while some come expressly for religious instruction, others are attracted by the games we have just before classes, and then of course they stay on and enjoy themselves, so they keep coming.                     

CATHOLICVIEW:  You speak of discreet and Christian values which you admirably give to those attending the Center.  How effective has this been and have you ever run into trouble doing so?

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End of the day group talent show: songs, 
plays, games, and many good laughs ... 

FATHER FENECH:  Sometimes Christians themselves need to be Christianized and to be trained in Christian values.   However we believe that Christian values are really human values.   When we show dedication and gratuity in service, care and love and appreciation of persons, conscientiousness and rectitude in work, attention to the needs of the poor and so on, people are very sensitive to it, irrespective of their religious affiliation.   A practical testimony to this is the number of times that people come to offer voluntary service ‘ because we received freely’.   Other testimonies can be found in the way older patrons are attached to the place, feel more free ‘to be themselves’ with us, and feel it is home for them, or when our youths speak and act with greater respect, using much less crude language than their peers.    Our people are not all saints, but mostly you can tell the difference.  

Are you ever fearful that the other religious affiliations will be unhappy with your presence involving their members?

FATHER FENECH:  This may happen sometimes, but ultimately, it’s the response that will tell us whether to continue or not, and the response is generally positive.   People are after all free to go where they like.   Moreover, our Center does not propose an alternative way of worship, which would be the case if we were a ‘church’.  

The Center is not a church, and the services and activities that we propose to everyone are non-religious.   In this environment there is absolutely no problem between Christians and Moslems.   Of course, the Moslems at the Center know quite well who I am, and they all actually call me ‘father’ and they are not embarrassed at all.   If I have to speak on Christian matters, then almost certainly it will be to a Christian audience.    As a policy, even in teaching Catholic Doctrine, I will still point out any differences that might exist between the churches, as a matter of respect and sincerity.   However you must not think that Christians in Egypt live in the Catacombs!    I have many times been surprised with the ease with which Christians can speak freely about Christian religious matters even in front of non-Christians.   Without trying to deny that there may be certain difficulties, yet in everyday life, the good Egyptian people are generally much more tolerant than what we may be led to believe.

CATHOLICVIEW:  Father, one has to be impressed with all you do in showing God's love without causing religious problems for other churches.  How do you manage such a miracle?

FATHER FENECH:  God does all the miracles.  Of course we try to be as respectful of others as possible.  The other denominations know very well who we are and what we say though officially they have to further their own cause.

CATHOLICVIEW:  Father Anthony Fenech, I know God is well pleased with the Christian attitude you have presented to the people of Egypt.  You have exhibited, by your actions, the face of Christ.   To be able to show God's love to people in all walks of life is an example all of us should emulate.  What you are offering at the Center constitutes a 24 hour day of showing the grace and love of God to people who would be bereft without the help and understanding you offer so freely.  Thank you very much for this special insight into your life as a Jesuit priest in Egypt.

FATHER FENECH:  Thank you.

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