How Egypt’s Coptic Christians put down roots around the world, but remained grounded in their culture

Special How Egypt’s Coptic Christians put down roots around the world, but remained grounded in their culture
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Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi joins Coptic Pope Tawadros II during a Christmas Eve Mass at the Nativity of Christ Cathedral outside Cairo. (AFP)
Special How Egypt’s Coptic Christians put down roots around the world, but remained grounded in their culture
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Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi joins Coptic Pope Tawadros II during a Christmas Eve Mass at the Nativity of Christ Cathedral outside Cairo. (AFP)
Special How Egypt’s Coptic Christians put down roots around the world, but remained grounded in their culture
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Relatives pray and mourn over the remains of 20 Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Christian men who were beheaded by Daesh extremists in Libyan in 2015 and repatriated to Egypt in May 2015. (AFP file photo)
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Updated 02 June 2022

How Egypt’s Coptic Christians put down roots around the world, but remained grounded in their culture

How Egypt’s Coptic Christians put down roots around the world, but remained grounded in their culture
  • After decades of oppression and adversity, Copts — the ‘original Egyptians’ — are finding hope in Egypt’s ‘new republic’
  • Those raised overseas, like British-born Egyptian artist and iconographer Fadi Mikhail, have remained true to their roots

LONDON: Coptic Christians in Egypt and in scattered migrant communities across the world celebrated on Wednesday the "Entry of the Lord into Egypt,” an annual feast day. That celebration is followed by The Holy Feast of Ascension, commemorating the Christian belief in Christ’s bodily ascension into heaven.

In a sense, the two consecutive feast days bookend the Coptic experience. The one marks their deep-rooted pride in an Egyptian heritage that predates the arrival of Islam, while the other celebrates the spiritual value of self-sacrifice, which would come to define the experience of a church forged in martyrdom soon after Christ’s death on the cross.




Interior details of Saint George Church in Coptic Cairo, Egypt. (Shutterstock)

Back in April, Egypt’s Christians celebrated two other consecutive special days.

Orthodox Easter fell on April 24, a date set by the Julian calendar under which the Church of Alexandria operates, rather than the Gregorian calendar used by the rest of Christianity, with which the Copts parted ways over theological differences in the fifth century.

But the following day, together with Egyptians of all faiths, Copts celebrated the national holiday of Sham Ennessim. The origins of this festival of spring date back millennia to the days of the pharaohs and, like the Copts themselves, survived the Arabization of Egypt in the seventh century to become an integral part of Egyptian society.

Around the world are many Copts, some now second or even third generation, who were born on foreign soil after their parents emigrated in search of a better life, yet who also remain rooted in Egypt and its culture.

The life and work of Fadi Mikhail, a successful artist in the UK, symbolizes the generations who were born overseas to immigrant parents, but maintain strong ties to their Egyptian and Coptic heritage.

Mikhail’s parents, Hany and Salwa, emigrated from Egypt in the late 1970s, his father pursuing his career as a doctor in the UK. “The promise of higher pay and a better life called to him,” said Mikhail.




 British-born Coptic artist Fadi Mikhail trained in Los Angeles under the renowned Egyptian iconographer Isaac Fanous. (Supplied)

Born in Harlow, England, in 1984, Mikhail studied in Los Angeles under the renowned Egyptian iconographer Isaac Fanous before graduating from the Slade School of Fine Art in London.

Today, he produces icons for Coptic churches around the world, but his art is a visual bridge between East and West — he has a parallel career as a painter in the Western tradition, working in oils to produce landscapes, or drawing inspiration from books he enjoyed as a child.

His work is showcased by British galleries and has led to commissions for notable patrons, including the Prince of Wales.

Mikhail and his wife return to Egypt only for the occasional annual vacation. But, like most Copts scattered around the world, he says that “through the church I do still feel strongly connected to the Coptic faith and, by extension, Egypt.”

His interest in iconography “certainly began as a religious connection but has more recently become equally a part of my identity as an Egyptian.”




One of Fadi Mikhail’s oil paintings, ‘The Swallows Chasing the Amazons.’ (Supplied)

His parents’ generation, he said, “were particularly strong as a community, having banded together as recent immigrants, wanting to retain as much Egyptian culture as possible. Faith was an intrinsic part of this.”

He concedes that, “now in our second and third generation, the Coptic community in the UK is certainly experiencing some challenges of identity and the struggle to feel or appear as unwavering in our ‘Egyptianness’ as our parents.

“Practising one’s faith in a church in the West, where Western thought is certainly more liberal, while remaining in communion with the Eastern church, which is considerably more conservative, is difficult.

“However, I believe we have been very lucky with the wisdom of our leadership here in the UK, and to date I believe the waters have been wisely and deftly navigated.”




The Glaubenskirche in Berlin, Germany, a former Lutheran church, has been owned since 1998 by the Coptic Church, and it is being developed into a Coptic bishop's residence. (Shutterstock)

Wherever emigrating Copts have put down roots, their communities and their church have flourished. In addition to the estimated 15 million Copts in Egypt — some 10 percent of the population — there are now thought to be more than 2 million living abroad, chiefly in the US, Canada, Australia and Europe, where they make up mainly a wealthy and educated immigrant class of professionals, such as doctors or engineers.

The first Coptic parish in North America, St. Mark’s, was established in Toronto in 1964. It was followed shortly afterwards by the parish of St. Mark’s in New Jersey, which was founded in the late 1960s and saw the building of the first Coptic church in the West.

But one of the oldest Coptic communities abroad was founded in the 1950s in the UK, where the first Coptic liturgy in Europe was conducted in London on Aug. 10, 1954. The community was founded largely by Copts who studied medicine and moved to Britain to pursue their careers free of the glass ceilings that held them back in Egypt.




Queen Elizabeth II meets Pope Tawadros II and Bishop Angaelos of the Coptic Church during a private audience at Windsor Castle on May 9, 2017 in Windsor, UK. (Getty Images)

In 1978, the Coptic pope, Shenouda III, traveled from Egypt to the UK to consecrate St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Church in Kensington, London, the first Coptic Orthodox Church in Europe.

Since then, the church in the UK has gone from strength, with in excess of 20,000 faithful across 32 parishes. In 2002 Shenouda returned to lay the foundation stone for the Cathedral of St. George, which was inaugurated in the Hertfordshire town of Stevenage, England, in 2006.

The head of the church in the UK is Archbishop Anba Angaelos, whose personal story of migration in many ways echoes that of so many Copts.

Born in Cairo in 1967, as a child he emigrated with his family to Australia. There he obtained a degree in political science, philosophy and sociology and, after postgraduate studies in law, returned to Egypt in 1990, where he became a monk and joined the historic monastery of St. Bishoy in Wadi El-Natrun. 




A view of Egypt's historic monastery of Saint Bishoy in Wadi El-Natrun, Cairo. (Shutterstock)

In 1995, he was sent to the UK as a parish priest. Four years later, he was made a general bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church and on Nov. 18, 2017 was enthroned as the first Coptic Orthodox archbishop of London.

Icons in St. George Cathedral were painted by Fadi Mikhail in the modern Coptic style championed by his teacher Isaac Fanous.

The Copts who live abroad, said Angaelos, “don’t look at ourselves as a diaspora community, one that has faced persecution and has dispersed. We are a migrant community, people who have gone to find a better life for themselves and for their children and who still maintain links with Egypt.”




Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II (L) leads the Easter mass at St. Mark's Cathedral in Cairo, Egypt on April 11, 2015. (Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Egypt’s Coptic Christians can justifiably claim to be the original Egyptians, guardians of a language once spoken by the pharaohs and keepers of a faith forged in adversity.

“We are an indigenous people,” said Angaelos. “I can trace my heritage as a Christian back to St. Mark, who established Christianity in Egypt, and even further back to my ancient Egyptian roots.”

According to scripture, Mary and Joseph sought refuge in Egypt with the infant Jesus to escape the massacre of all male children aged 2 or under in Bethlehem ordered by King Herod.

A generation later, it was in the ancient Egyptian city of Alexandria that Mark the Evangelist founded the church that would become one of the five great episcopal sees of early Christendom, alongside Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem and Rome.




Coptic patriarch and priests celebrate mass on Orthodox Good Friday, in the Holy Sepulchre church of Jerusalem Old City, on April 30, 2021. (Shutterstock)

Copts have not always felt welcome in Egypt. Under Roman rule, Christians throughout the empire suffered persecution for centuries. St. Mark himself was murdered and martyred by a pagan mob in the streets of Alexandria in A.D. 68, and hundreds of Christians died in Egypt during the reign of the Emperor Diocletian.

Such was the impact of what became known as the Diocletianic persecution that the years of the liturgical calendar used by the Coptic Orthodox Church are counted from A.D. 284, the beginning of Diocletian’s reign. For the Copts, years are labelled not A.D. (Anno Domini, “the year of our Lord”), but A.M. — Anno Martyrum, “Year of the Martyrs.”

With the rise of Islam in the seventh century, the Copts faced new challenges to their faith and their ancient language, a direct linguistical descendant from the ancient Egyptian tongue. As many Copts converted to Islam, in part to avoid the increasingly onerous taxes imposed on non-Muslims, use of the language was steadily eroded and now survives only in the monasteries and liturgies of the Coptic Church.




Muslim cleric Sheikh Mohamed Goma (C-L) congratulates Pope Tawadros II during his enthronement ceremony as leader of Egypt's Coptic Christian church in Cairo on Nov. 18, 2012. Christians and Muslims lived side by side in harmony in Egypt through times of great unrest and periods. (AFP)

All these obstacles the Copts navigated stoically for many centuries, through times of great unrest and periods during which Christians and Muslims lived side by side in harmony in Egypt.

In the 20th century, however, a series of social, economic and political upheavals — aggravated by Britain’s divide-and-rule policies in Egypt and leading ultimately to the “Free Officers” coup of 1952 and President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s pan-Arab reforms — saw the start of a steady trickle of Copts emigrating in the hope of finding a better life in the West.

Even before the revolution, “Copts were being slowly pushed out of Egyptian politics,” said Michael Akladios, founder and director of Egypt Migrations, a Coptic cultural and archival project set up in Canada in 2016 to preserve the stories of Egypt’s migrants.

“Immediately following the revolution, graduate Copts began to emigrate, going to the UK, Canada and the US, because they were hitting ceilings within the schools and professions.”




A view of Saint Simon the Tanner Monastery, an old Coptic church in Cairo, Egypt. (Shutterstock)

Akladios said it was a mistake to characterize all Coptic emigration from Egypt as the product of fear or persecution. His own family emigrated to Canada when he was 8, joining his father’s siblings who had already settled in Toronto, and the move was “economically motivated.”

“Yes, persecution is an element,” he said. “But the Copts are more than their churches; they’re also human beings with needs and families, and they make decisions as pragmatic migrants just like anybody else.”

For Copts in Egypt today, said Archbishop Angaelos, “there are still challenges. But one of the most important things for Copts, in Egypt and abroad, is that over the past decade we have seen a much greater, harmonious existence between Christians and Muslims.”

One man is the flag-bearer for the new spirit of interfaith harmony abroad in Egypt – Gen. Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, who was elected president in 2014 and has been responsible for a series of gestures of inclusive non-sectarianism.




Daesh terrorists lead blindfolded Egyptian Coptic Christians, wearing orange jumpsuits, to be beheaded on a seashore in the Libyan capital of Tripoli in 2015. (AFP file photo)

When 20 migrant Coptic Egyptian workers and a Ghanaian colleague were beheaded on a beach in Libya by terrorists in February 2015, it was El-Sisi who sent the Egyptian Air Force to exact revenge on Daesh.

When a series of attacks against Copts and Coptic churches was unleashed in 2017, claiming dozens of lives, the wave of terror was crushed by an overwhelming response by the Egyptian army.

In 2018, El-Sisi’s government paved the way for the return of the Libyan martyrs’ bodies to Egypt. In the village of Al-Aour in Upper Egypt, where many of the men had lived, they were laid to rest in the newly built Church of the Martyrs of Faith and Homeland, the construction of which had been funded by the Egyptian government.

And Copts everywhere were delighted when El-Sisi joined Coptic Pope Tawadros for Christmas Mass in the Cathedral of the Nativity of Christ in Egypt’s New Administrative Capital on Jan. 6 this year. In a speech, El-Sisi spoke of a “new republic” in Egypt “that accommodates everyone without discrimination.”




Egypt's President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi (R) speaking alongside Pope Tawadros II of Alexandria during a Coptic Orthodox Christmas Eve mass at the Nativity of Christ Cathedral near Cairo on January 6, 2022. (AFP)

As if to underline the point, just over a month later the first Coptic Christian was appointed head of Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court, the highest judicial authority in the country.

For Michael Akladios, and for the Coptic community in Egypt and the wider world, the appointment of Judge Boulos Fahmy Eskandar on Feb. 9, 2022, was “a promising step on the road to greater Coptic inclusion and representation in Egypt’s public sphere.”

Although it was “still too early to judge what ramifications this appointment will have for Coptic communities in Egypt and across its diasporas,” it was nevertheless “symbolic of the state’s continued big gestures for cementing national unity as a prevailing feature of the character of the nation.”

 

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Erdogan signals no progress on Sweden’s NATO bid

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech during his party’s parliamentary group meeting in Ankara
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech during his party’s parliamentary group meeting in Ankara
Updated 26 June 2022

Erdogan signals no progress on Sweden’s NATO bid

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech during his party’s parliamentary group meeting in Ankara
  • Erdogan told Stoltenberg that ‘Sweden and Finland should take concrete and sincere steps’ against outlawed Kurdish militants

ISTANBUL; Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signaled on Saturday that no progress had been made in Sweden’s bid to join NATO, urging Stockholm to take “concrete actions” to meet Ankara’s concerns, his office said.
In a phone call with Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson, Erdogan reiterated that “Sweden should take steps regarding such fundamental matters as combating terrorism,” the Turkish presidency said in a statement.
Turkey “wanted to see binding commitments on these issues together with concrete and clear action,” he added.
Finland and Sweden discussed their stalled NATO bids with Turkey in Brussels on Monday, but Ankara dampened hopes that their dispute will be resolved before an alliance summit next week. Turkish officials said Ankara does not view the summit as a final deadline for resolving Ankara’s objections.
Ankara has accused Finland and in particular Sweden of providing a safe haven for outlawed Kurdish militants whose decades-long insurgency against the Turkish state has claimed tens of thousands of lives.
Erdogan told Andersson that Sweden “should make concrete changes in its attitude” toward the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party and its Syrian affiliates, the presidency said.
“In this regard no tangible action aimed at addressing Turkey’s concerns was seen to have been taken by Sweden,” it added.
The Turkish leader also voiced expectations that Sweden would lift an arms embargo against Turkey that Stockholm imposed in 2019 over Ankara’s military offensive in Syria.
He also said he hopes that restrictions on Turkey’s defense industry would be lifted, and that Sweden will extradite several people Ankara has accused of involvement in terrorism.
The phone call comes after Erdogan discussed the two countries’ bid with NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg.


Israel human rights group targets West Bank settlements expansion

Israeli security forces deploy as settlers try to take control of a water spring in the Palestinian village of Qaryut
Israeli security forces deploy as settlers try to take control of a water spring in the Palestinian village of Qaryut
Updated 26 June 2022

Israel human rights group targets West Bank settlements expansion

Israeli security forces deploy as settlers try to take control of a water spring in the Palestinian village of Qaryut
  • Peace Now movement: Building of new units has risen by 62% compared with Netanyahu leadership

RAMALLAH: Israeli settlement construction on Palestinian land in the West Bank has increased dramatically under the recently dissolved coalition government, a report by an Israeli human rights organization reveals.

In a survey published on June 25, the Israeli Peace Now movement said that since the current government took office in June 2021, the building of new settlement units in the West Bank, including Jerusalem, has risen by 62 percent compared with the previous Benjamin Netanyahu leadership.

Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid on June 20 announced a deal to dissolve the parliament, appointing Lapid as prime minister of an interim government, and triggering early elections.

The decision follows “exhausting attempts to stabilize the coalition,” a joint statement said.

FASTFACT

Settlement activity across the West Bank flourished during former US President Donald Trump’s time in power, even though it was considered illegal under international law.

The Peace Now report shows that despite its commitment to a status quo regarding the occupation, a year after the government took office, it not only continued the policies of previous governments, but also stepped up the settlement project and the oppression of Palestinians.

The report indicated a 26 percent increase in planning housing units in settlements — 7,292 compared with an annual average of 5,784 housing units under the Netanyahu government.

Six new outposts and a new settlement in Hebron, the first in 40 years, were among the government’s approvals.

The Bennett-Lapid government deepened the expulsion policy of Palestinians and their restriction to the constrained enclaves in Areas A and B.

As of June 6, the Israeli civil administration had demolished 639 Palestinian-owned structures in Area C, causing 604 people to lose their homes.

In East Jerusalem, 189 structures were demolished and 450 Palestinians left homeless.

According to the Peace Now report, only 10 building permits were granted for Palestinians, compared with 1,448 housing units whose construction began in the settlements in the second half of 2021 and 2,526 in the entire year.

Under the Bennett-Lapid government, 86 Palestinians were killed by Israeli security forces in the West Bank alone compared with 41 under the Netanyahu governments.

Khalil Al-Tafkaji, a Palestinian expert specializing in settlement affairs and director of the map department at the Arab Studies Association in Jerusalem, told Arab News: “The Israeli right is in agreement on two things: Settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and it was a fierce competition between the two governments as to who accelerates the increase in settlements.”

The Israeli settlements program in the Palestinian territories has been “green lighted” by all Israeli governments as they seek to raise the number of settlers to 1 million in the West Bank and East Jerusalem by 2025, Al-Tafkaji said.

“All Israeli parties, without exception, do not think of giving the Palestinians a state, but rather see them living in cantons surrounded by settlements and their streets on all sides,” he said.

“The settlers are now leading an intifada of physical attacks against the Palestinians and their property in the West Bank because of their high number and sense of absolute power.”

The Bennett-Lapid government declared 22,000 dunams of land as a nature reserve in the Nachal Og area, south of Jericho. It continued the trend of the Netanyahu government in changing the reality in the Temple Mount (the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound) and the erosion of the status quo.

The supporters of a two-state solution in the Israeli government have failed to stop these actions and left the policies regarding the occupation to those who support the settlement project.

Settlement activity across the West Bank flourished during former US President Donald Trump’s time in power, even though it was considered illegal under international law and threatened the two-state solution.

Palestinians see it as one of the main obstacles to establishing an independent Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders.

 


Jordanian university nursing student killed on campus laid to rest

Jordanian police stand guard in downtown Amman, Jordan. (REUTERS)
Jordanian police stand guard in downtown Amman, Jordan. (REUTERS)
Updated 26 June 2022

Jordanian university nursing student killed on campus laid to rest

Jordanian police stand guard in downtown Amman, Jordan. (REUTERS)
  • Social media users have launched hashtags demanding justice for Iman Ersheid and the harshest punishment for her killer

AMMAN: Jordanian university student Iman Ersheid, who was reportedly gunned down on campus, was laid to rest on Friday in the northern city of Irbid.

Ersheid, 18, was killed by an unidentified assailant on Thursday. Police said the suspect was wearing a cap.

She was a nursing student at the Applied Science University in Amman’s Shafa Badran neighborhood.

Police spokesperson Lt. Col. Amer Sartawi said criminal investigation personnel had identified the shooting suspect, who was still at large.

The police raided his house on Friday but he was not there. “But the search is underway for the suspect.”

Iman Ersheid

He said official statements would be issued, and he urged people to adhere to the gag order issued by the attorney general banning the publication of any news about the case.

Police said the victim was shot over five times by the suspect, who fled the scene after committing the crime.

An eyewitness, who is a colleague of Ersheid, spoke on condition of anonymity and said the assailant had entered the university from its main gate brandishing a weapon.

She told Arab News that Ersheid was shot right after she left the exam hall at around 10 a.m.

Asked how a man could enter the university with a gun, the eyewitness replied: “I don’t know because the norm is that only students can enter and are sometimes asked to show their student ID to security. The university is now investigating the issue.”

She said the suspect fled the campus firing shots into the air. “I didn’t see that but was told about it by those who were present at the crime scene.”

The victim’s father said his last contact with his daughter was on the phone at 10 a.m. on Thursday.

“My daughter told me that she finished her exam and I told her to wait at the university until her brother comes and picks her up. He was on the way with the car to her,” the father told journalists.

But, two hours later, the father said he received a call from the police saying his daughter was being treated at a hospital.

Social media users launched a hashtag demanding justice for Ersheid and the severest punishment for the killer. The hashtag - “capital punishment for Iman’s killer” - was trending on social media.

The university offered condolences to her family in a Facebook post.

Zakaria Mubasher, the university’s student affairs dean, said the suspected killer was not a university student.

Mubasher told the government-owned Al-Mamlaka TV: “The security personnel at the university first thought the gunshots were firecrackers, but later realized that a student was shot.”

He said there were 800 surveillance cameras installed in different places in the university and that cameras had captured images of the killer. “The footage is now in the hands of the police.”

Mubasher added that the university’s security personnel had attempted to stop the suspect, but “he fired several rounds in the air so that he could escape, which he did.”

Following the incident, a group of MPs from the National Guidance Committee said they would meet with the government to discuss arm possession laws in Jordan.

Sociologist Kamal Mirza said the shooting must only be examined from a “criminal perspective.”

“Campus shooting and shooting incidents, in general, have not reached the alarming phenomenon level. Taking into consideration the low level of such crimes in Jordan, sociology should still not be used as an analytical tool.”

Mirza told Arab News that from a “statistical point of view” murder as a crime in Jordan was not a social practice yet, but a behavior.

“Maybe psychology could be applied to analyzing this crime. It is possible that the killer suffers from behavioral disorders.”

According to the latest official statistics, the country's crime rate decreased by 5.39 percent in 2021.

The Public Security Directorate report said 20,991 crimes were committed in Jordan in 2021, 1,196 down from the 22,187 registered in 2020.

There were 5,237 murders recorded in 2021.


Rain douses Cyprus wildfire that burned thousands of acres

Rain douses Cyprus wildfire that burned thousands of acres
Updated 25 June 2022

Rain douses Cyprus wildfire that burned thousands of acres

Rain douses Cyprus wildfire that burned thousands of acres
  • Aircraft from both sides of Cyprus, as well as British military and Israeli personnel, had responded to calls for help to fight the fire
  • The fire has been extinguished to a large extent with the effect of the rain that fell last night

KANTARA, Cyprus: In the end, it was Mother Nature that extinguished a wildfire that scorched thousands of acres and forced the evacuation of villages in the north of divided Cyprus, officials said Saturday.
Aircraft from both sides of Cyprus, as well as British military and Israeli personnel, had responded to calls for help to fight the fire which began Tuesday in the Kantara area of the Kyrenia mountain range.
“The fire... has been extinguished to a large extent with the effect of the rain that fell last night,” said Unal Ustel, prime minister of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which is recognized only by Ankara.
“We have survived a great disaster.”
There have been no reports of casualties but Turkish Cypriot authorities said more than 6,500 acres (2,600 hectares) had been burned.
Helicopters were still dropping water onto the burning ridge lines on Friday, before intense rains fell overnight.
Forestry department head Cemil Karzaoglu said the fire was completely under control and mopping up operations were continuing where smoke was still visible.
Ustel expressed gratitude to “the British Base Areas, Israel and the Greek Cypriot administration for their support in extinguishing the fire from the air.”
The United Nations peacekeeping force said it coordinated the firefighting response.
According to Cypriot media reports earlier, at least four villages were evacuated.
Emergency services from Israel and Britain’s Sovereign Base Areas on the eastern Mediterranean island often help fight Cyprus’s frequent wildfires.
In July last year, blazes that broke out in the Larnaca and Limassol districts claimed the lives of four Egyptian farmworkers and destroyed more than 12,000 acres.
Cyprus has been divided since 1974 when Turkish forces occupied the northern part of the island in response to a military coup sponsored by the junta in power in Greece at the time.


UNRWA in ‘early warning mode’ after shortfall at pledging conference

UNRWA in ‘early warning mode’ after shortfall at pledging conference
Updated 25 June 2022

UNRWA in ‘early warning mode’ after shortfall at pledging conference

UNRWA in ‘early warning mode’ after shortfall at pledging conference
  • Agency subject to smear campaign that ignores pioneering achievements, its chief tells Arab News
  • UN Relief and Works Agency supports millions of Palestinian refugees in Middle East

UNITED NATIONS: The solution to the chronic underfunding of the UN agency helping Palestinian refugees lies in a “political will” that matches declarations of support for its work, the head of the UN Relief and Works Agency told Arab News.

Philippe Lazzarini’s comments came at a press briefing a day after a pledging conference that raised $160 million from international donors.

This leaves the agency short of $100 million needed to support education for more than half a million Palestinian children, health care services for over 2 million people, and cash assistance for the poorest among them.

The $100 million shortfall is about the same as UNRWA has faced every year for almost a decade.

This year, however, skyrocketing costs mean the agency will not be able to absorb the shortfall through austerity and cost-control measures as “there’s very little left to cut without cutting services,” Lazzarini said, adding that the money should tide UNRWA over until September, but things are up in the air after that.

“We’re in an early warning mode,” he said. “Right now, I’m drawing attention that we’re in a danger zone and we have to avoid a situation where UNRWA is pushed to cross the tipping point, because if we cross the tipping point that means 28,000 teachers, health workers, nurses, doctors, engineers can’t be paid.”

He added that UNRWA has a very strong donor base in Europe, and last year the Biden administration restored funding, reversing former US President Donald Trump’s aid freeze.

But Lazzarini said the overall contribution from the Arab world has dropped to less than 3 percent of the agency’s income.

“What’s also true is that the Arab world and the Gulf countries have always shown great solidarity with Palestinian refugees, and have always been involved in financing the construction of schools and clinics, and whenever there was a humanitarian emergency, to contribute to the humanitarian response,” he added. “This is very important to keep.”

He said the Arab League has been discussing for two years that its contribution to UNRWA should at least amount to 7-8 percent of the agency’s core budget.

“There’s room for increased solidarity, and having the region committed means a lot to the Palestinians,” he added.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine cast a shadow over the donor conference, where some admitted to financial difficulties and donor fatigue.

“Funding the agency’s services has been put at risk today because of de-prioritization, or maybe increased indifference, or because of domestic politics,” Lazzarini said. “We’ll know better at the end of the year how much it will impact the agency.”

Some donors have already warned UNRWA “that we might not have the traditional top-up at the end of the year, which would be dramatic” for the agency, he added.

UNRWA was established in 1949 following a resolution by the UN General Assembly to carry out relief efforts for the 750,000 Palestinians who were forced from their homes when Israel was established in 1948.

There are now about 6 million Palestinian refugees living in camps in the occupied West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza, as well as in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

“Today, we have some classrooms with up to 50 kids,” Lazzarini said. “We have a double shift in our schools. We have doctors who can’t spend more than three minutes in medical consultation. So if we go beyond that, it will force the agency to cut services.”

UNRWA’s problem is that “we’re expected to provide government-like services to one of the most destitute communities in the region, but we’re funded like an NGO because we depend completely on voluntary contributions,” he added.

Ahead of Thursday’s donor conference, Gilad Erdan, Israel’s permanent UN representative, had urged countries to stop contributions until UNRWA fires teachers that his country claims support terrorism and killing Jews.

Lazzarini said UNRWA received a letter from Israel’s UN Mission on Friday that he had not read, but all allegations will be investigated and if there is a breach of UN values and misconduct, “we’ll take measures in line with UN policies.”

He added that UNRWA’s detractors are usually civil society organizations that “seek to undermine the agency, usually target lawmakers, and talk about (UNRWA’s) textbooks and education in schools without acknowledging the extraordinary efforts exerted by the agency to ensure quality education in line with UNESCO standards.

“I keep reminding we’re the only ones having reached gender equality, having a proper human rights curriculum in the region, that we’re regularly assessed by third parties.

“The World Bank assessed that we’re high value for money when it comes to education. Children are one year ahead compared to public education in the region.

“We have extraordinary human success stories of kids who have gone to our schools and succeeded at international level.”

He said UNRWA’s operations are among the most heavily scrutinized but “despite that, there’s smear campaign on issues — which sometimes need indeed to be addressed — but which never acknowledge the efforts being put by the agency.”