PARIS: Sister Emmanuelle, a nun who lived for years among scavengers in Cairo’s slums and who has been compared to Mother Teresa for her fight to defend the rights of the poor, died Monday at age 99.
A spokeswoman for her association, Sandrine de Carlo, said the Belgium-born nun died in her sleep at a retirement home in Callian, a town in southeastern France.
Sister Emmanuelle spent more than two decades working with Cairo’s zabaleen, or garbage collectors, who eke out a living through scavenging.
She helped create a network of clinics, schools and gardens to serve the children of the slums, and an association she founded now operates in eight countries, from Lebanon to Burkina Faso.
“She was a particularly significant personality of our time, said the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi. He compared her work with some of the most revered humanitarian workers of modern times, including Nobel laureate Mother Teresa.
He said Sister Emmanuelle’s character was “similar to that of Abbe Pierre and Mother Teresa, who had the ability to show how Christian charity can speak to all men.
Abbe Pierre, one of France’s most beloved priests, battled on behalf of the homeless, poor and disenfranchised for more than half a century. He died nine months ago at the age of 94.
Zeina Zarif, the Egyptian coordinator for Association Sister Emmanuelle, said her work there was crucial.
“When she arrived here the zabaleen were marginalized and no one wanted to look at them, they were people who had no rights, Zarif told The Associated Press in Cairo. “Her work marked this country.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, co-founder of humanitarian aid group Doctors Without Borders, said he would never forget Sister Emmanuelle’s “faith, which could move mountains.
“I will always remember the joy of working by her side, and will always keep that life-force which she infused in me, Kouchner said in a statement.
President Nicolas Sarkozy called her “a sister to us all.
“She was a woman of high convictions, but also one of action, Sarkozy said in a statement. “We miss her already.
Jewish and Muslim leaders in France also issued emotional statements about her passing.
Born Madeleine Cinquin in Brussels on Nov. 16, 1908, she spent her childhood between the Belgian capital, Paris and London, according to the association’s website. A member of the Notre Dame de Sion order, she lived many years in France.
She moved to Egypt in the early 1970s and founded the association in 1980, Zarif said.
Sister Emmanuelle initiated development efforts in the Moqattam, a peripheral Cairo slum, founding a primary school and providing scavengers with vehicles to haul garbage.
She eventually attracted broader attention to their plight, which led to new schools, health care projects and income-generating strategies for the slum dwellers.
“She was living right among them, the garbage collectors, the pigs, the whole mess. I had never seen anything like this in my life, said Dr Mounir
Neamatalla, a leading Egyptian expert in environmental science and poverty reduction who worked closely with her throughout the 1980s.
“You could see one of the worst qualities of life on the planet, but in this inferno was an enterprising population that worked like ants, he said.
Neamatalla worked with the nun on a composting plant to process the vast amounts of manure produced by the garbage collectors’ pigs, which was then processed and sold as fertilizer.
Upon her return to France in 1993, Sister Emmanuelle continued to speak out for the needy, regularly appearing on French television, her white hair swept up into a gray habit and her eyes sparkling behind large glasses.
Association spokeswoman de Carlo said the funeral would be a strictly private affair but a public Mass in her memory will be held in Paris next month. -Associated Press writers Katarina Kratovac and Paul Schemm in Cairo, and Ariel David in Rome, contributed to this report.