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Published April 27, 2017
On a scaffold several stories high beneath the dome of a Cairo church, Ayman William paints for the glory of God, unfazed by recent attacks against his fellow Coptic Christians in Egypt.
The church, deep within the dusty alleyways of one of the many "informal" neighborhoods that have sprung up to accommodate the capital's surging population, is building a new extension. And William, 41, who has painted murals in churches as far away as Kuwait and California, is happy to help.
"God gave me talent and I must make use of it to serve him," said William, who was mostly self-taught and says he has drawn inspiration from the Bible during his 15 years in the profession, which he began learning after discovering an affinity for painting icons and murals with childhood friends.
Dozens of characters leap out from the dome around him — Adam, Eve, Moses and Samson, as well as New Testament figures such as St. Mark, considered the founder of Egypt's Coptic Church. He's been working on it for nearly six months, and expects to finish in a few weeks.
William has an assistant hoist his paintbrush, tools and palette to the upper levels of the scaffolding before he climbs up on a giant ladder. For many of the images, he uses models dressed up in period clothing to help him depict biblical scenes.
"I have to make studies using the Bible in each drawing in order to get the specific description," he said. "Besides working for payment, I believe that what I am doing is a service to the church."
Pope Francis will visit Egypt this weekend on a trip aimed at lifting the spirits of Christians in the Middle East, whose numbers have rapidly dwindled in recent decades due to war, displacement and emigration.
Egypt's Copts, one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, marked a solemn Easter earlier this month, after suicide bombers attacked two churches in separate cities, killing dozens of worshippers on Palm Sunday. Last December a suicide bomber killed 30 people at Cairo's Coptic Cathedral.
An Islamic State affiliate claimed all three attacks, and militant attacks on Christians in the northern Sinai Peninsula earlier this year forced hundreds of people to flee to safer parts of the country.
Nevertheless, Coptic church attendance remains high in the wake of the attacks. Many, like William, are determined to go about their lives despite the violence.
"Terrorism exists everywhere," he said. "Not just in Egypt, but also in places like Iraq, Syria and even France. But the places I go to for work are good places, safe places."