Up Close and Personal: An Order of Nuns Sees Middle East Persecution First-Hand
More than 150 years ago, an order of nuns began to spread the Word of God in Egypt. Now, despite being targeted by the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013, and facing persecution elsewhere, The Franciscan Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary are continuing their mission.
“Our charism,” says Sister Dorothy Aloisio, is “to live the Gospel of Jesus Christ, our Crucified Spouse, naked and abandoned on the cross, in Him to be sent for the conversion of people beyond the seas.”
“It was on September 14, 1859, feast of the Triumph of the Cross, that the first female Italian missionaries landed in the land of Pharaoh,” Sister Dorothy told The Stream. “Cairo was the field of Mother Catherine’s apostolate and the radiant center of her zeal. Very quickly, many other Egyptian villages experienced the good effects of the ‘White Mother,’ as she was called.”
“In this way, the first female Italian Missionary Congregation in Egypt was born. Soon it spread to other countries and continents,” she explained.
The order was formally founded in 1868*, when it received the approval of the Holy See. Mother Catherine died 19 years later, in 1887, and was beatified by Saint Pope John Paul II 98 years after her death.
While only six sisters left Italy, the order now has approximately 500 nuns worldwide, often surrounded by poverty, persecution and corruption. Despite their focus on helping the poor, the sisters were targeted as part of a string of attacks against Christians by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in 2013. Their school was burned down — this video appears to show that attack — though the sisters survived.
“The difficulties that Arab nations face,” said Sister Dorothy, “not including Egypt, which is a Republic, are that they are not accustomed to democracy because they have never had it. Many rulers are considered to be dictators. That is all they know.”
“In Syria, people are leaving in droves because they don’t feel safe, and young people are leaving because they see no future,” she explained. “Our cook in Damascus — a bomb fell on her house killing her and leaving her young children orphaned. Innocent people have to pay the ultimate price for the wars. The politicians only think of themselves and not the everyday citizen.”
“Egypt, which is a Republic, is considered the ‘Cultural Mother of the Arab World,'” said Sister Dorothy. “It is an educated population, so it did not accept the dictator, which is why the Egyptians demonstrated to overthrow Mohamed Morsi when he became president. He was already taking steps to become a dictator.”
“It was the Muslim Brotherhood who burnt our school in Beni Suef, [though] the majority of Muslims and Christians live together without great problems and peacefully.”
“In Syria, the Christians are being persecuted because they are Christians. So many of them are fleeing in any way they can. They are saying, ‘I have a 20% chance of living if I leave by boat, but if I stay I have a 100% chance of dying.'”
“To stay alive, Christians need to pay a tax so they will be ‘protected,’ or they need to convert to Islam.”
Sister Dorothy is one of just six sisters in the U.S. However, the order is thriving in other nations, despite the anti-Christian persecution. “Vocations are decreasing where God is not as present in society and in the lives of the people,” she explained. “We are listening to many other ‘voices’ than to listen to the voice of God calling many young people to the priesthood and religious life. With less material things and distractions, it is easier to hear God’s calling and to respond with the gift of self.”
Asked how her order is able to maintain its faith and vigor in the face of enormous challenges, Sister Dorothy says simply: “The three most effective ways are: prayer, strong community life, and faithfulness to our charism.”
Sister Dorothy says her sisters “in the mission lands” say that conversions happen when the nuns “continue to give material assistance while at the same time trying to educate them in spiritual assistance. … [E]specially in very poor areas. … The Sisters rejoice when a baptism takes place, and later on the person perhaps becomes a catechist or a helper in the mission territory.”
Despite the persecution of the sisters and many other Christians, there is also hope — and not just after death. This May 2014 blog post at Copts United reports that the Egyptian military has rebuilt the gutted school.
“The process of restoration and rehabilitation of the school is almost done, after It was completely demolished by fire as supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood terrorist group prevented fire trucks from quenching the fire,” says the post, which puts the cost of rebuilding at 16 million Egyptian pounds, or more than two million U.S. dollars.
[* Corrects a typo that incorrectly presented the year the order was founded as 1968 rather than 1868.]