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Priest Gives Life to Legend Surrounding Cairo Hill : Faith: The Rev. Samaan Ibrahim ministers to the poorest of the poor atop landmark that reputedly proved Christianity's validity to doubters. Thanks to him, the zabbaleen have hope.


CAIRO — Tucked away in Cairo's rich medieval lore is an obscure, 1,000-year-old Christian legend. It tells of a Muslim caliph, a Christian bishop and a barren hill.

The hill still looms over Muslim Cairo. What Christians find there today keeps the legend alive.

As the ancient story has it, the caliph demands that the bishop move a mountain as a test of faith. If he fails, he must convert to Islam or face exile or death. Terrified, the bishop prays and fasts for three days. Then he has a vision of a humble, one-eyed Christian carrying a jug of water.

He finds the man, a tanner. They pray at the foot of the hill. An earthquake rumbles and the hill moves three times "so that the sun would be seen from under it." His mission over, the tanner known as St. Samaan disappears, and the awe-struck caliph admits Christianity is a true faith.

Today, atop the barren expanse of the hill, known as Moqattam, stands one of the most unusual features of the modern city: a complex of amphitheaters, churches and offices built for Egypt's beleaguered Christians, who make up 10% of the country's 60 million people.

It's a five-minute walk up Moqattam from a wretched, gamy labyrinth of alleys, shanties and piles of trash meshed into the most miserable of Cairo's slums, the settlement of Manshiet Nasr. Its 20,000 Christian inhabitants, known as the zabbaleen, collect Cairo's garbage. They are Egypt's untouchables.

The church and the settlement are rare instances of hope in a city of smashed dreams where Cairo's centuries-old nickname, "Mother of the World," mocks the crushing poverty that makes everyday life here a Sisyphean struggle to survive.

Together, they revive the old legend--and tell the story of the Rev. Samaan Ibrahim.

The priest is a burly man with an unruly gray beard falling to his chest. Over 20 patient years he has brought water, literacy, a hospital and a school to the zabbaleen. He has attracted a following of thousands of Christians, poor from the area and rich from elsewhere. They come every Thursday to the vast amphitheater he built atop the hill.

The Coptic Orthodox Church, to which Ibrahim belongs, is often characterized as tradition-bound, slow to respond to modern needs. But even some critics praise the 53-year-old priest's maverick ways. He is known as a headstrong iconoclast who looks more Hell's Angel than Mother Teresa.

"That man, more than any other man, is the real dynamo behind anything and everything that has happened in the settlement," said Laila Kamel, a prominent social worker in Manshiet Nasr.

The Moqattam hill traditionally marked the barrier between the Nile's fertile valley and the desert. The zabbaleen arrived there 30 or so years ago, their donkey carts and pickup trucks bringing garbage from Cairo's wealthy. They sort out and sell the scrap paper, plastic, metal and glass for a few Egyptian pounds.

Outside their tin homes, trash piles up in doorways, at street corners and along the road. Pigs root among fetid banana peels and rotting vegetables. Barefoot children with matted hair play nearby.

Ibrahim arrived in 1974 with a social and religious mission--a calling almost unheard of among Egypt's conservative Coptic Orthodox priests, who consider their work solely spiritual.

"Father Samaan was able to bypass or overcome the Orthodox rituals and became more realistic," said Marlyn Tadros, a human rights activist who worked in Manshiet Nasr. "He crossed the line and started communicating with the people."

On a typical morning, the phone in his simple office rings every three minutes. He grabs a receiver in each hand, barking like a drill sergeant. "What?" he shouts into one. "Why?" he bellows into the other.

He meets a delegation from the Finnish Embassy, which financed a school for 500 children and a hospital that performs 270 operations a year. He scolds an employee for not buying cheese, eggs and bread for the church office. Every so often, a villager comes to ask advice.

"Everything has changed," said Ibrahim proudly.

"There wasn't water; now there is water. There wasn't electricity; now there is electricity. There wasn't education, and now there is education."

As for the garbage collectors, "God changed them," Ibrahim said. "When their heart changes, their lives change. If you change what's inside, you change what's outside."

Some social workers complain that Ibrahim's ministry is too hierarchical, that it refuses to put decisions in the hands of the zabbaleen. It treats them as a flock rather than as a community.

Others complain that not all the money that rich Christians donate to Ibrahim's church trickles down to the poorest.

But in the bleak alleys of Manshiet Nasr, where villagers believe in Ibrahim's power to heal or purge demons blamed for bad luck, adoration of the priest is nearly universal.

"Father Samaan is Manshiet Nasr," said Said Gundufli, a 26-year-old butcher.

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