The Center for Oriental Studies in Cairo, where dialogue is life.

Giacomo Pizzi9 July 2019

The sun beats down strong on these hot summer days. Moisture sticks to the skin, and the smog that one breathes in the streets of the poor neighborhood of Muski covers with its veil an overpopulated and chaotic city. It is precisely here that we meet fra Vincenzo Mistrih, director of the Franciscan Center for Oriental Studies, a point of reference and a great help for the whole neighborhood, one of the most populous and poorest in Cairo. It was its second director, Father Gabriele Giamberardini, who directed the Musky Center towards its current and primary vocation: the deepening of Eastern Christianity.

The “Franciscan Center for Christian Oriental Studies” was born – appropriately – in Cairo at the behest of the Custody of the Holy Land in 1954. Today it is directed by fra Vincenzo Mistrih. “The Musky Library”, he says, “is now a privileged meeting point between Latin and Orthodox Christianity. Among the Copts, it is above all lay people who visit the center in search of information, documents and sources in the first Christian library in Cairo.” Over time a second path of encounter with the Islamic world has also opened. “The educated Muslim class has begun to come here to do research in the Christian field as well. The students at Al-Azhar University are very interested in the encounter between Islam and Christianity, for example in the Crusades: they want to now why the popes supported the Crusades, why the Crusaders came, and what they did.”

And it is a good thing, he adds, because “it is by studying the sources that the reality can be established objectively and not only from one side”. Among the requests of those – from Islam – who come to the library are in particular papal bulls, and also the lives of saints and the history of Christian Europe. The center thus has a great responsibility in terms of the promotion of knowledge and encounter. There are no lack of worries for the future, however: “Our principal difficulty now is the lack of personnel. The current staff can assure the continuation of the center for a few years, but looking to the future there are serious questions”.

This is why ATS pro Terra Sancta has for years been supporting this important reality for the entire city, through the regular provision of resources. So that this activity – that is fundamental for continuing the commitment to dialogue, the way to peace and coexistence – will not cease. Although reduced in numbers, the parish survives in Musky, dealing primarily with providing support and assistance to the many families living in poverty. Here too, the revolution brought about by St. Francis who 800 years ago met the nephew of Saladin makes headway: “We are helping very many”, concludes fra Vincenzo, “above all the Muslims who are in the majority, to live with dignity. And we never tire of meeting anyone who is in need. This is our vocation as Franciscans, it is the teaching that St. Francis has given us”