Whether you travel the chaotic streets of Cairo, or cruise down the ambling waters of the Nile, it is clear that Egypt — ancient, rich in culture, sounds, architecture and ruins — is in the middle of political and social revolution.
One can still feel the revolutionary spirit in Tahrir Square, the downtown public plaza in Cairo that became both the place and the symbol of the revolution that toppled President Mubarak’s 30 year reign. During a recent visit, I yearned for an index of names and definitions to keep parties, policies, histories and leaders straight.
What is clear is that while the Arab Spring, as it became known, was a long time coming, it will be a long time before its impact is fully realized.
The first of three phases of the election —Egypt’s first free election in decades that brought out 52 per cent of voters — is now complete, with the next two locations having their vote this month. To move from a military dictatorship to some form of democracy is always a bumpy road. It took centuries to develop the idea and make sense of this form of government in other countries. There is no reason to believe it will happen easily or quickly here.
It is certain that Islam will continue to dominate Egypt. What is critical is if the victorious Muslim Brotherhood party allows Islamic fundamentalism a stronghold in the government. Will the Salafi al-Nour party—who in the first electoral results of Cairo won an unexpected 26% of the votes—be able to pressure the ruling party to enforce sharai laws which, in part, force women to be veiled, apply brutal punishment for crime and seek to limit the practice of Christian faith. To their political “left” are Christians and Muslims who want to separate politics from Islam, and make the Egyptian government more secular, much like Turkey. Meanwhile, in this country’s 121,000 mosques, imams wield incredible influence to incite hatred or to promote peace.
Christians comprise 10 per cent of the population, led by the Coptic Church, the oldest, continuing Church in the world, with deep and profound influence, making up 90 per cent of Christians in Egypt. Evangelicals, a word here synonymous with “Protestant,” make up 10 per cent of Christians or one per cent of the population. But these numbers can mislead. The influence of Christians is disproportionate to their numbers. In commerce and wealth, for example, the latest estimate of listed companies shows that 32 per cent are owned by Christians. As I met and conversed with ministry leaders in Egypt, I was astounded by the size and influence of some ministries. They are strategic and forceful, led by dynamic, deeply spiritual, creative and entrepreneurial people. A guest of the Evangelical Fellowship in Egypt, Lily and I were introduced to a number of these ministries. I’ll note just four.
The Bible Society of Egypt is at the forefront of evangelism in Egypt. It is large, creatively financed, and highly productive in new forms of literature. They are strategic in their plans in building a solid base for long term and increased witness. The vision and dreams of the Society would amaze North Americans.
The Coptic Evangelical Organization for Social Service (CEOSS) — in Egypt “Coptic Evangelical” means Presbyterian — is run from a large, impressive center with over 500 staff and 5,000 volunteers. Their range of ministry is amazing. Working with a US$10 million annual budget, their capacity to serve the poor is remarkable. We visited one of their projects in the slums of Cairo, and met with leaders of an organization called The Islamic Vision. The CEO described how CEOSS had convinced a number of imams that female sexual mutilation (FSM), and marrying children and marrying within the family were unhealthy practices. I turned to an imam sitting to my left and asked him if he would tell me his story.
He told me about meeting Christians who helped him understand how important it was for their society to treat women properly and to protect them from abuse. His gratitude to Christians was evident in the warm hug and kiss he gave me as we left. In this world where Evangelicals number only one per cent, here I was, listening to an imam tell me how Evangelicals had changed his views. Now he was preaching this new message of treating women properly in his Friday services at the mosque.
Sat-7 is a television service throughout the Middle East and North Africa that produces and sends Christian programming via satellite to millions of Muslim homes. What struck me was not just its size and capacity, but their missional vision and strategy. Carefully avoiding direct clashes with Islam, they provide programs that give an understanding of God’s love. It is brilliant evangelism.
Here in Egypt, Habitat for Humanity builds on the highly integrated structures of local community groups. Habitat has grown from building and refinishing 20 to 30 homes per year a decade ago, to almost 3000 in just this past year. Their vision is that of 20 million living in severe poverty, in 25 years they will lift 400,000 families—or two million people—into a healthy and functioning home: a small organization, in a society as a minority, where the dominant religion presses in on your freedom and rights. Instead of moping about how unfair it all is, they take on the majority with a love that says: “We will work to make your life a better life; your home a better home; your family a better family” – all in witness to the risen One.
The Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo, formed in the 1840s is one of the oldest colleges in Egypt. After surviving a near-collapse in the 90s, it is strong today with outstanding faculty, some 300 students and will soon launch a Middle East study program of Christianity. Since the gospel started in this region, there is good reason for this initiative. With qualified faculty and imaginative leadership, this bodes well for the building of congregational and mission agency leaders in coming days.
Finally, there is Garbage City. Garbage in Cairo is collected and brought to this area just outside the city, along side lime stone quarries, an area believed to be where material was cut for building the pyramids. It was here a Christian business-man was convicted of the need to help the people who live here, caught in the most despised of vocations — collecting, sorting and selling garbage — and living in the most deplorable of conditions. Father Simon as he is now called got to work. Under his loving leadership, ministries like schools, a medical clinic and a church sprang up. One day they discovered they were working on top of an enormous cave and over time excavated and built a 20,000 seat church in a cave. This led to other churches carved out. On November 11, 2011, concerned about their country and its future, it is estimated some 70,000 gathered in the cave churches for a 12 hour prayer vigil and praise service, just before the elections and while protests were going on in Tahrir Square.
This ministry to the most despised in an Islamic world is a first-century miracle in twenty-first century garb. If you want to visit one place in the world where the dynamic of caring for the poor, preaching grace, the laying on of hands are all nestled in a spectacular and artistic facility, choose Garbage City, Cairo. You will be changed.
Who says being marginalized means we are forced to live at the margins?
In Egypt the Holy Spirit is building — often in surprising ways — a Church that by His grace will not only stand strong but help shape Egypt, a nation that is at the very middle of the Middle East. What happens in Egypt does not stay in Egypt. It winds its way throughout the Arabic-speaking countries, cultures and people.
May the Arab Spring not lapse into a Christian winter, but become an Autumn-time of harvest.