Coptic Christians make up 11 to 15 per cent of Egypt's population and are the largest Christian community in the Middle East. The Zabbaleen, known in Arabic as 'the garbage collectors,' are one of the largest single concentrations of Coptics in the country.

For decades, the Zabbaleen have served as the city's unofficial trash collectors and are no strangers to hard living conditions.

Nearly eight generations of Zabbaleen have lived this way, harvesting garbage from Cairo's streets and businesses. Using donkey carts, and more recently pickup trucks, they transport mountains of refuse back to their communities in the hills to be sorted and eventually sold.

Father Samaan Ibrahim is head of the Samaan Church, which presides over the Zabbaleen's 'garbage city.' Built in the 1970s, the church has supported many of the social services  that are vital to the Zabbaleen people.

Like many in Egypt, Samaan is uneasy about the future. Sectarian attacks have increased over the past year and conditions in the community have not improved even after the fall of Hosni Mubarak's government.

"We are awaiting the new constitution that we might expect something good for us in it…. especially the article concerning building churches in Egypt," he says.

The newly elected Egyptian parliament will select a committee charged with writing a new constitution for the country. The questions remain as to whether Egypt's centuries old law limiting the construction of new churches and making repairs to existing ones will even be considered by the committee. 

"We're waiting to see what's going to happen," Samaan says.

Who are the Zabbaleen?

The Zabbaleen are a community of predominantly Coptic Christians estimated to number between 60,000 and 70,000 people, spread out across Egypt. Their largest settlement is located on the outskirts of Cairo in a kind of squatter town known as Moqattam Village, named after the rocky outcrop that forms the city's geographic high point.

Part of a wave of immigration following droughts that put an end to the Zabbaleen's subsistence farming lifestyle in the 1940s, the predominantly Christian community settled on the edge of Cairo for its low cost land and relative religious freedom.

The Church of Saint Simon the Tanner – the largest church in the country – was built in 1975, carved into the cliff face of Moqattam mountain during a period of loosened restrictions. Under Egyptian law dating back to the Ottoman Empire, the building or repair of churches is outlawed.