We get a lot of news from Cairo each day — but I’ve never seen this awesome story in the drive-by media:
Father Sama’an has possibly the most unusual parish in the world. It is located on Muqattam Mountain, home to 30,000 garbage collectors — or zabbaleen — in Cairo. But this extraordinary man has brought a wonderful beauty to the ashes of this area teeming of narrow dirt lanes — a parish church that is a modern marvel not just for the garbage collectors, but for all who visit it.
His incredible “Cave Cathedral” is the largest church in the Middle East. It seats 20,000 and would do justice to the Hollywood Bowl with its modern sound system, and closed-circuit television. It is spectacular, as a huge overhanging rock covers most of the amphitheater. The church is affiliated with the Coptic Orthodox church that has about 6 million adherents in Egypt, or 13.5 percent of the total population.
As word has spread through the Middle East about the Muqattam “Cave Cathedral,” it has drawn together evangelicals, Orthodox, and Catholics. Its pulpit has attracted not only the Coptic Orthodox pope, but also western evangelicals.
Clad in Orthodox garb and sporting a beard, this humble cleric — who preaches like Billy Graham and also prays for the sick — met with me and a few friends recently before the regular Thursday services, which was attended by thousands of believers from Cairo. They left the village’s pungent odors and crowded into the cavern for a night of vibrant singing with the help of a praise choir….
Many in the congregation had spent the day collecting and sorting through a mountain of garbage. Cairo’s 14 million people daily produce an estimated 7,000 tons of garbage, but municipal and private trucks collect less than 50 percent of the city’s refuse. During the past 35 years, thousands of Christians, fleeing poverty in rural Upper Egypt, have congregated into villages within Cairo’s garbage dumps, collecting trash and recycling metal, plastic, paper, and bones. Although the villages are disease-prone and poverty-stricken, the Christian community has emerged, as believers have developed schools, health clinics and churches.
Through an interpreter, the priest explained that his ministry began. “It started because of one Egyptian garbage collector,” he said. “Through him, I became a changed man and eventually a worker for the Lord.
“I was living in Cairo, and was a counselor in one of the big companies. I had lost one of my precious watches. It was very expensive and I was very sad. One day, I received a knock at my door. A man in a long dirty dress, carrying a bag, asked me if I had lost something. I asked him how he knew that I lost something. I was afraid of him. The garbage man told me he had asked at all of the apartments in the building and everyone had denied that they lost something and when I took the garbage from here and while separating the garbage at home, I found something. ‘So, sir, please tell me what you lost.’ I told him I lost a watch.
“He took it out and said, ‘Is this the one you lost?’ I was shocked. I told him to please come in and asked him his name and where he lived. I also asked him, ‘Why did didn’t you take the watch for yourself?’ He replied, ‘My Christ told me to be honest until death.’ ‘You are a Christian?’ I asked him and he said he was. I didn’t know Christ at the time, but I told him that I saw Christ in him. This watch was very expensive, it cost about $11,000.
“I told the garbage collector, ‘Because of what you have done and your great example, ‘I will worship the Christ you are worshipping.'”
So began the Christian life of one Farahat, who eventually became an Orthodox priest and took the name Father Sama’an, after an 11th-century saint. He began visiting the Muqattam area and was confronted with a terrible state of affairs there, with drunkenness, sickness and violence. So he began to emphasize the need for repentance. “Only if our spiritual life with God is improved, God will provide for our well-being,” he told Kees Hulsman for an article that appeared in Christianity Today. Egyptian physicians began providing free medical assistance, and Sama’an continued to preach a message of repentance. “People have to give their lives to Christ,” he asserts.
The priest said that when he first arrived in the area, “all they knew was to drink, gamble, and live in sin. This saddened my heart. How come they are in Cairo and do not know Jesus Christ? I started to have a burden on my heart for this place.”
Father Sama’an said the first thing he asked God for was “His plan for this place and towards these people.” He went on, “On Sunday, at 6:00 in the morning, I came here to the top of the mountain to a cave to pray. I started to pray for three weeks. After the third week, on March 15, 1974, in the middle of the day, I asked the Lord, ‘Why am I here, what is your plan for these people? The people here are very hard and difficult. They live being drunk all of the time. Just lead me Lord.’ While praying that, there was a big storm of wind, the papers from the garbage were flying all over, millions of papers, and one paper fell right in front of me, and I was bowing, praying and I picked it up. It was a page from the Holy Bible. It was very strange. Of millions of pieces of paper, why this one? It was from Acts 18:9, ‘Don’t be afraid, because I am with you, speak and never stop because there are many who’ll listen.”
He said, “At that point I started to work here for four years in homes and on the streets, in open areas here in this area, then meetings in homes, and then in bigger churches, then in this church. And four years after, the Lord chose me to be a priest. As the work started to increase, in 1978, and step by step, now is what you see from the work of the Holy Spirit.
“It’s not our work, or by our strength, but by His power says the Lord our host. And all this work is the work of the Lord. The secret is the Holy Spirit. There are hundreds of workers with me.”
He explained that beside the “big” meetings, they have other meetings at the cave church, like the Monday morning meeting in the smaller chapels also carved out of stone with huge stone carvings depicting stories from the life of Christ on its walls. “This is attended by 700 women,” he said. “There are prayer meetings, young men’s meetings, and family meetings.”
What is so extraordinary about the church is that you will see a Mercedes winding its way through the garbage area and up into the cave church at the top of the mountain. “People from all backgrounds come to our services,” he explained. “God’s aim for me is to help all of the people here in this city.
Although some wealthy people do come to the services, most of the work is among the garbage collectors. The priest said that he believes very much in the supernatural aspects of ministry, especially among the poor. “The Lord is doing miracles and wonders here,” he said….
“In 1974, a 6-year-old boy who somehow got behind a big truck bringing water had his head crushed under a wheel. His head was completely flat and he was dying. His family took him to the hospital. That day we held a meeting at night and we had no singing, no speaking. We just prayed only for the boy. We prayed, ‘Give the boy a new head. Amen.’ The next day a doctor at the hospital said that unless there was a miracle, he’s completely dead. The boy was lying in bed, his nose and ears gushing blue blood, tiny breaths, and his mother beside him crying. We kept praying, ‘Lord, give Adam a new head. We believe.’
“Nine days later, we went to see Adam, they said he had been sent home. We went to his house to see him. He was not sleeping or lying in bed, he was playing with the other kids. His new head was now bigger than his old one. And today, he’s a great worker for the Lord, he’s married and has two children, boy and girl, and his head is still a witness. This is our God. We did not heal him with science or brains, but by faith. God will do the impossible by faith.”
This article was written in 1999 — but the Cave Cathedral is still there, bigger than ever, and Fr. Samaan and his co-workers are still doing their magnificent ministries. Upheaval and uncertainty may be reigning in the city all around them, but thousands of Christian believers continue to gather in the great cave in Muqattam Mountain, where “the peace that passes all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:7)
Find out more about the Cave Church at http://www.cavechurch.com/home/index.asp