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Algeria Returns a Historic Church, But Stops Christian Worship at 20 Others

Image: Zineb Tadj / EyeEm / Getty Images
Oran, Algeria

Algerian Christians finally have something to celebrate.

Amid a rash of church closures the past two years, the North African nation’s Council of State returned a historic worship site in Mostaganem, a port city on the Mediterranean coast, to the Algerian Protestant Church (EPA).

The EPA loaned the building, which dates to the French colonial era, to the Ministry of Health in 1976. But in 2012, when the site’s medical clinic changed locations, the local governor gave the facility to an Islamic charitable association.

The EPA sued, and the case was decided in its favor in 2019.

That year, however, marked an escalation against Protestant churches. Three of Algeria’s largest congregations were shut down, and the Mostaganem authorities failed to implement the court decision.

Now they have.

But with 20 other churches ordered to cease activities—and 13 sealed completely—Algerian Christians remain cautious.

“Just because we have the keys,” said Nourredine Benzid, general secretary of the EPA, “doesn’t mean the case is over.”

Benzid’s Source of Life Church in Makouda was among those closed in 2019. Located in the mountainous Tizi Ouzou district, the area is home to many of the nation’s estimated 100,000 Christians. By contrast, the Mostaganem church was…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today on June 10, 2021. Please click here to read the full text.

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Who Will Save Algeria’s Closed Churches: the UN, US, or Hirak?

Image: STR / picture alliance / Getty Images
People in Algiers wave a big Algerian flag during a protest held today to mark the second anniversary of the mass demonstrations, commonly known as the Hirak Movement, that pushed long-time ruler Abdelaziz Bouteflika out of office in April 2019.

Algeria’s Christians hope that a one-two punch may reopen their churches.

Last December, a letter from the United Nations asked the North African government to give account. And in recent days, popular protests resumed after crackdowns and a COVID-19 hiatus.

Two years ago, Protestants cheered when the Algerian Hirak [Arabic for movement] forced the resignation of then 82-year-old president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, following his announcement that he would run for a fifth term in office. Protests continued, however, as the ruling clique was slow to make changes.

Hirak supports human rights, and I have no doubt they will help the churches,” said Youssef Ourahmane, vice president of the Algerian Protestant Church (EPA).

“And the letter from the UN shows something else is wrong, and now they will have to deal with it.”

Its language reads like a teacher scolding a recalcitrant student.

“Please explain in detail the factual and legal basis that justified the closure of the 13 places of worship and churches,” stated the 7-page letter, written in French.

“Please provide information on the re-registration procedure of the [EPA], and explain the reason why this has not been finalized to date.”

Signed by three UN experts specializing in the freedom of religion and belief, peaceful assembly, and minorities, the now-open letter represents the latest chapter of international advocacy for the persecuted Protestants of Algeria.

The nation ranks No. 24 on the Open Doors World Watch List of the most difficult countries for Jesus followers. Only three years ago, it ranked No. 42.

“2020 was a very difficult year for us Protestants, who have been deprived of our places of worship,” said Salah Chalah, president of the EPA. “[But] we love our country and we regularly pray for its prosperity.”

Algerian Protestants number between 50,000 and 100,000 believers, with the great majority concentrated in the Atlas Mountains regions populated with Kabyle, a non-Arab indigenous ethnic group.

Besides the 13 churches forcibly shut down, the UN noted 40 other Protestant places of worship threatened with closure. It also rebuked the “physical force” used against church members, as well as discriminatory treatment against Christians in airports and other border crossings.

In 2018, the Algerian government denied Christians were persecuted, stating churches were closed for “nonconformity with the laws.”

But in October 2019, Chalah was one of several kicked and beaten with batons while protesting the closure of the Full Gospel Church of Tizi-Ouzou, 60 miles east of the capital Algiers. Understood to be Algeria’s largest church, 300 of the congregation’s 1,200 members gathered in solidarity as 20 police officers sealed its doors.

“May everyone know that we have been beaten and abused for one reason only—our Christian faith,” Chalah said at the time. “And because that’s the cause of our pain…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today on February 22, 2021. Please click here to read the full text.

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Arab Spring Again? Christians in Sudan and Algeria Cheer Regime Change

Bashir Bouteflika

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on April 18.

…early signs are promising. On April 10, one day before Bashir’s arrest, the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA) leading protests put out a call for Christian participation, acknowledging “you have suffered sectarian and psychological restrictions for years … [which have left you] without the right to worship freely.”

Shortly thereafter the SPA declared “Christ is the heart of the revolution,” and cited “blessed are the peacemakers.”

On April 14, Sudanese Christians responded.

Leaders from the Evangelical Presbyterian, Baptist, and Church of Christ denominations in Sudan appeared at a sit-in at military headquarters, offering hymns sung by both Christians and Muslims.

“This is a time to move away from the trenches of religious and ethnic discrimination and head towards an inclusive and unifying Sudanese national identity for all of us,” said Rafaat Masaad, head of the Evangelical Synods in Sudan.

“We must make a covenant that we will not withdraw or accept anything less than a new Sudan ruled by humanity and citizenship.”

Sudan, however, is not the only version of Arab Spring, Part Two. The military in Algeria removed their aged president on April 2 following widespread protests that began in February. The wheel-chair bound 82-year-old President Abdelaziz Bouteflika was attempting to secure his fifth term in office.

Unlike Bashir, Bouteflika was a beloved figure. A popular politician in his youth, he fell out of favor but returned in 1999 to put an end to the decade-long civil war that began when the military nixed an Islamist election victory that eventually killed up to 200,000 people.

A secularist of sorts, Bouteflika was an autocrat who allowed limited Islamist space of action. An Algerian Muslim Brotherhood figure was among the tentative opposition candidates against Bouteflika’s fifth-term ambitions. But al-Qaeda called from the outside for protests to impose an Islamic state, declaring Bouteflika was a friend of Christians and Jews.

The World Christian Database counts Christians as only 0.3 percent of the population, while Open Doors ranks Algeria No. 22 in its watch list, though one year earlier it ranked No. 42.

The Algerian Protestant Church, consisting mainly of former Muslims, and known by its French acronym EPA, was registered officially in 2011. But in practice it faces many restrictions, with houses of worship liable to be shut down.

“Since the beginning of the year, all the churches have begun to pray and fast for the elections,” said an unidentified Algerian Open Doors source, knowing the results are “unpredictable” but aiming for better legal standing.

“We hope that the Lord intervenes in our country.”

But on March 22, with the protests fully engaged, the EPA put out an official statement.

“We Algerian Christians, as equal Algerian citizens, fully share the aspirations and the legitimate demands of the Algerian people in their peaceful fight for a modern and democratic Republic,” it declared, “where the fundamental rights of the citizen will be respected and protected, no matter what their political and religious convictions may be.”

Will they receive their wish? Will Sudan? …

Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today, with links to the supporting publications.


Egypt: African Handball Champion

Egypt Handball

Congratulations to the Egyptian national handball team, for winning its sixth continental title on Saturday.

While the national soccer team has slipped in quality since the revolution, the handball team holds steady as one of Africa’s best, defeating Tunisia in a hard-fought 21-19 final on home soil.

Twelve nations took part in the competition, but only three have ever won the title. The sport is dominated by North Africa, with Tunisia and Algeria the other traditional powers.

But this year, Angola shocked defending champion Algeria to claim third place. It was Egypt’s first title since 2008, and now qualifies with Tunisia for the world championships in France.

Many Americans are not familiar with the sport of handball, but I highly recommend it for its fast-paced strategy and athleticism. So also with squash, another sport at which Egypt excels.

But while Egypt takes pride in its success in these sports, it is soccer that moves the national consciousness. A revival on the pitch could significantly contribute to lifting the country’s spirits.

But while waiting, celebrate with Egypt a considerable accomplishment.


Allahu Akbar, Algeria

Algeria celebrates its World Cup victory over Russia.
Algeria celebrates its World Cup victory over Russia.

It has been a rather subdued World Cup so far in Maadi, Cairo. The cafes are full but by no means crowded. This World Cup has been a gem of a tournament, with average goals scored hovering around three per game.

But it is not attracting local attention in our neighborhood. Most space is empty when the matches begin. Throughout shisha smoking and backgammon hold more interest. Only a few hard core supporters cry out for a goal.

The television announcers are animated, however. A few days ago as the Russia-Algeria match crept to a close, with a 1-1 draw securing advancement for the North Africans, the Arabic boomed with each crucial clearance:

Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar!

But the final whistle prompted nary a cheer from the audience. There was no visible support for Russia, but little excitement for Algeria, either. While BeIn Sports, recently re-branded away from similarity to the al-Jazeera chain of stations, urged on their Arab (Muslim?) brethren, Egyptians present chattered, smoked, threw dice, or otherwise walked away at the completion of the match, as they have done for all others I have watched so far.

Egypt is not exactly a bastion for Arab nationalism, and the two national teams have a history of dislike, filled with riots and bus stonings. Algeria booted Egypt from qualification in the 2010 World Cup.

But Egypt perhaps should be such a bastion, for Nasser was the revered leader of Arab nationalism, and current president Sisi has been cast in his image. But Sisi has also fostered an Egypt-centricity against the alleged global machinations of the Muslim Brotherhood and world community. Right now, Egyptians just hope the wars engulfing their neighbors do not cross over their borders. There is a general pox on the Arab Spring in general and what it has wrought.

Algeria bears no crime in this analysis, but local Maadi residents have lent them little love.

It is still interesting to watch the ex-Jazeera broadcast celebrate. Americans are used to a local broadcast openly rooting for the home team, but would see as improper for an American announcer to openly cheer on England, say, against an African squad.

BeIn Sports is a creation of the Qatar media conglomeration, which apparently does not share the same sense of neutrality, or political correctness, or whatever this should be called. They also stand accused of overt support for the Muslim Brotherhood, earning them the animosity of millions of Egyptians. The recent sentencing of al-Jazeera journalists has been widely condemned internationally, but in local perspective the channel actively fabricated events.

Local residents highlight this video from an area near the bloody dispersal of the Rabaa sit-in, in which Islamist youth activist Abdel Rahman Ezz describes airplanes shooting live ammunition on the protestors. It is shown on the Rassd network, accused of being a Muslim Brotherhood arm, but whether or not such videos are tied to Jazeera journalists in question is a matter of contention. Certainly the judge believed so, or made it out to be, amid the hours of other completely non-related footage in their possession.

Whether or not al-Jazeera distaste plays into local soccer sensibilities is questionable, but as they have the rights to the Arabic broadcast of the World Cup, there is little other choice. Besides Algeria there is no other Arab team, and fellow Muslim Iran is also seen as Brotherhood-sympathetic, Shia in faith, and a poor team regardless. If anything, neighborhood Egyptians have been rooting for the Africans. Ghana in particular has won their favor, perhaps in direct competition to the United States with whom they were grouped.

Earlier that evening they were disappointed, as Ghana bowed out humbly while America advanced. But the reaction was still the same. Shisha, backgammon, and nonchalant departure. Maybe in the later knockout rounds, when powerhouse teams are likely to meet, local excitement will increase.

Perhaps. But even then, no matter how much God’s power is invoked by BeIn announcers in favor of Algeria versus Germany in their Round of 16 match today, Egyptians appear happy just for the distraction. Life has been hard, grand hopes have been crushed or exposed, and all they have left is Egypt.

And Egypt is not in the World Cup. Allahu Akbar, anyway.


What Path will Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood Choose?

Three options are presented in an excellent and thorough analysis from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

I will excerpt the conclusions for each, but the whole article is worth reading. If you would like to skip over the quotations for my brief commentary, please scroll down to the end.

First, on the possibility of Inclusion and Integration:

Assuming there are prudent, democratic interlocutors who are truly interested in mediating a settlement with the regime, such as Beshr and Darrag, can they really command the organization’s support? The answer, most likely, is no, given that most of the key positions in the group’s decisionmaking bodies, including the Guidance Bureau, the Shura Council, and administrative units, are occupied by individuals completely loyal to the Brotherhood’s incumbent leadership and tied to it through a multilayered network of business, familial, occupational, personal, and ideological connections.

Furthermore, the Brotherhood’s leadership has masterfully employed existential fears of regime repression among the group’s members to deter any serious call for self-critique or internal revision. Brotherhood leaders have so far adamantly refused to admit their grave mistakes and betrayal of the causes of revolution and democratization. The best they can concede, based on the dovish Darrag’s statement to the media, is to support the viewpoint that the only mistake the Brotherhood made while in power was underestimating the power of the Egyptian “deep state” and its capacity to spoil the political process. Darrag believes that the Brotherhood should have adopted a “more revolutionary strategy” in order to cleanse the state. But he expresses no regrets about the authoritarian constitution, the exclusionary political process, or the divisive policies put in place by the Brotherhood while in power. Moreover, even if Brotherhood leaders admit to grave mistakes during their rule, as long as the regime continues its repressive policies against the organization, the time will not be right to critique these leaders or hold them accountable for their shortcomings and wrong deeds. Therefore, internal Brotherhood fragmentation and secession will remain highly unlikely.

Nevertheless, even if some interlocutors can hypothetically solicit a degree of support—and hence start creating a real moderate faction within the Brotherhood—this scenario presents an invitation for the breakdown of the Brotherhood’s organizational unity. As long as there are no comprehensive transformations of the group’s ideology and mission, the recalcitrant Brotherhood mass will not accept these moderates’ offers of settlement on the regime’s terms, which will be depicted as an unpalatable act of treachery. The Brotherhood might come to a historical end, and more radical groups might emerge to the right of the Brotherhood, attracting its disgruntled former supporters. So, the first scenario, which is the resolution preferred by the United States and the European Union, is highly problematic and unlikely, at least in the short run.

Second, the Violence Scenario:

Nevertheless, Islamist violence may have reached its logistical and social limitations. First of all, violence on a large scale requires a large number of people willing to execute it and a social base willing to support it. Small pockets of disaffected, radical Islamists are not enough. Furthermore, unlike in Algeria in the 1990s, topographical conditions favorable to armed insurgency do not exist in Egypt. The country also lacks a clearly proviolence social constituency large enough to provide shelter and support for fighters.

Increasing social hostility to Islamism in general and to Islamist-driven violence in particular can isolate the politics of violence and further erode public support. While radical Islamic groups in Egypt waged an armed confrontation with the state in the 1980s and 1990s, it is important to recall that during that period the public remained either sympathetic to the Islamists or opposed to them but not motivated enough to throw its weight behind the government. This time the violent Islamists will face opposition from both the state and society (or at least wide segments of society), as demonstrated by the continuous street battles between Islamists and the Egyptian public in residential areas, popular neighborhoods, public squares, and marketplaces across different cities and towns in the months since November 2012.

The Syrian scenario is also unlikely. It is hard to believe that the Egyptian army can split along sectarian, political, or ideological lines like its counterpart in Syria.

The violence scenario, if it materialized, could arguably involve more low-intensity violence, limited to specific activities and locales. It might take the form of street conflicts between Islamists and anti-Islamist individuals in different urban neighborhoods. Street violence between common people and politicized actors has been a recurrent pattern since the early days of the transitional period. Many residents consider any politicized marches through their neighborhoods to be a transgression into their territory. Friction and clashes have occurred as a result, increasing in recent weeks, and are now focused on Brotherhood marches. Yet such low-intensity violence would likely fall short of anything like the Algerian or Syrian cases.

So both the accommodation scenario and the violence scenario are improbable. This leaves only one other possible outcome—a continuation of the status quo.

Third, the Continued Protest Scenario of De-legitimization:

The Brotherhood’s odds under the continued protest scenario are not terrible. In fact, the group can already claim that it has made headway through the troubled waters of the last month. The organization is arguably (at least in the minds of some Brotherhood activists) in a much better tactical position than when protests against Morsi began or even than when he was ousted, when public sympathy for Morsi’s cause was at its lowest and the faith in the interim regime’s transitional road map was at its zenith. The biggest problem with this scenario is its extremely risky nature. The pursuit of this option would risk losing the political gains the Brotherhood has made since Mubarak’s fall: official recognition, political participation, and power sharing. Such gains could be partially sustained if the accommodation scenario were to be embraced.

The bet the Brotherhood would be making with the continued protest scenario is that it can achieve longer-term gains, such as exhausting the transitional regime until it surrenders to the Brotherhood’s conditions, if it accepts certain near-term tactical forfeits. However, a complete defeat on the part of the military and the state is likely impossible as well. Ironically, the continued protest scenario in the long run may morph into a modified version of the accommodation option as the maximum that the Brotherhood can gain given the current balance of power.

The author does not dare to predict which path the Brotherhood will take. The best, that of internal self-reform and reflection, he believes is institutionally unlikely as well as near impossible under current circumstances.

But the difficulty lies in the nature of the Brotherhood itself, which he describes even before presenting the three options:

The Brotherhood is not a “moderate” Islamist movement that can be further moderated and democratized via inclusion. Instead, it has shown itself to be an assertive, even reckless movement, invested in Islamist ideology and dominated by an entrenched leadership structure. It has demonstrated a tendency to maintain multiple public discourses in an attempt to reconcile irreconcilable sets of political vocabulary. The soft-spoken English-speaking Brotherhood cadres who communicate with Western diplomats and analysts and propagate lofty statements about the compatibility of Brotherhood objectives with liberal democracy are not exactly representative of the real Muslim Brotherhood.

To truly understand the Brotherhood, one should examine the movement at the grassroots level, in the small towns and rural areas across the Delta and Upper Egypt—the organization’s real power base and the constituency that its leaders represent. At this level, the Brotherhood does not support pro-democracy rhetoric. Instead, it is more aligned with Salafist religious interpretations and understandings of the organization’s mission and goals as expressed by Sayyid Qutb, the renowned Muslim Brotherhood intellectual of the 1950s and early 1960s. Qutb was instrumental in advancing the notion of “organization first,” which suggests that the Islamist cause is inherently connected with the creation and sustenance of the Muslim Brotherhood society as an exclusive representation of Islam.

Intellectually and culturally, the Brotherhood encompasses different schools of Islamic thought, some of which are more open-minded and reformist than others. But based on the Brotherhood’s doctrinal literature and actual behavior, it is clear that the core of the organization centers on an ideology of an “Islamist state,” “Islamic transnationalism,” or “Paxa Islamica” and on notions of a government based on God’s sovereignty instead of the people’s sovereignty.

I have only one small quibble. The constitution produced under Brotherhood leadership specifically stated ‘sovereignty belongs to the people’, over the objections of Salafi members.

Of course, the constitution included several clauses which elevated the role of sharia, and thus of God’s practical sovereignty. The author might argue the constitution was necessarily a compromise document and was certainly a step in an Islamist direction, consistent with Brotherhood pragmatism.

As far as my read on their options, the current period is characterized by choice number three – of continued street protests. The Brotherhood can maintain this for a while, but only up until a coming critical event.

Once the amended (or new) constitution is put to popular referendum, assuming its approval, the Brotherhood claim of legitimacy takes a thorough blow. The people will have democratically sanctified the mass rallies which led to the military deposing of President Morsi.

At this moment, protests will not be enough. The Brotherhood will have to choose between active campaigning for a no vote or a boycott, or else sabotage the process. They must not allow a popular vote to go against them.

How will they do this? At that moment these three choices will come to a head. They can bide their time now with protests, but in another month or so, the die will be cast.


Soccer, Twitter, and Electricity

With one day to go regarding the USA World Cup match tomorrow afternoon, I thought I would give a short summary of our experience with the last game, a last minute 1-0 triumph over Algeria.

I wish there was a lot to say. There could have been on two fronts.

On the first we are at fault. Having attended and reported on the England-Algeria match from a local coffee shop, I would have been curious to see who local Egyptians rooted for in the US-Algeria game. Would they finally find solidarity with their North African cousins, so that soccer animosity be overcome in antipathy against the United States?

I cannot say. A 5:00pm local start time suggested we end the day a little early at work, and my English colleague and I organized an office viewing at a local trendy restaurant, with few Egyptians present. It was a great place to watch the game – big screen TV and surround sound – but little cultural flavor.

On the second front the power grid is to blame. Our group from work, plus Julie and the girls and one other wife, numbered about ten, with seven Americans, but all pulling for the Yanks. For those who watched, you know the game was tense, and all were riveted to the screen.

(A drama reducing pause and clarification is needed, though. Shortly after intermission Julie and the girls went down to play on the playground, and were joined later by the other wife. So, not all were riveted. Even so, this was a good sign, for the US comeback against Slovenia commenced once my family similarly descended for the slides and swings.)

With about twenty minutes to play, the power went out. This is a frequent summer occurrence in Maadi. There is a disproportionately higher middle to upper class population, both foreigner and Egyptian, and the air conditioner use will overload the power grid, which will blackout a neighborhood or apartment building from anywhere to five minutes to an hour or longer.

This was not to be of the five minute variety.

Fortunately, Egypt is better equipped in another variety of technology. One colleague had a Blackberry and was able to pull in from the wide 3G network updates on his Twitter account. As the clock ticked, we stared at the black screen, waiting for resumption, but also getting 140 character status reports on the ever increasing missed American chances. Huddled mostly silent around a cell phone, we also lamented the loss of the air conditioning, trapped inside in 100 degree heat.

As all was lost, suddenly a colleague received a phone call from a friend informing of the winning goal. As we wondered in disbelief if it was a prank, seconds later Twitter confirmed the victory. Our cheer roared, informing the rest of the clientele about the result, and all went home happy, if bittersweet at missing the classic moment. Still, it is a story to be remembered forever.

Tomorrow I will bypass the restaurant in favor of a downtown café. With the US game not starting until 9:30pm local time, it will not be a family affair. Instead, I will join friends in the heart of Cairo, taking in my first game there, hoping also to find the pulse of the city for the World Cup in general. US-Ghana is not a powerhouse matchup, but will it take the imaginations of local Cairenes nonetheless? If there is a story to tell, be sure I will relate it. I just hope that the ending is happy.

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World Cup Role Reversal

Watching the World Cup matches in Egypt has been an experience. Games here are 2:30, 5:00, and 9:30pm, so while some fall during working hours, others have been able to be viewed. I have made less of it than I would have liked, but so has Egypt, for a reason to be explained.

One reason that Egyptians are having a hard time getting excited about the World Cup is that so few games are on television. Al-Jazeera (yes, the al-Jazeera many Americans complain about for supposed anti-US bias) has an extensive sports network, and they have bought the rights to Arabic language World Cup broadcasts. They have worked out a deal with network Egyptian television to grant access to some of the games, but they are not contractually obliged to say which ones. Egyptians without the resources to shell out the cash for the al-Jazeera package (most) can only hope their favorite nations will be televised that night.

For me, without a television at all let alone al-Jazeera, this mean going to the trendy restaurants or coffee shops populating Maadi which can afford an al-Jazeera subscription. For the cost of a plate of French fries or desert (I hate buying drinks – water is the best thing for you and provided free by God), I get to watch whenever I choose.

Julie, I, and the girls went this afternoon to a favorite trendy restaurant and watched the compelling US comeback against Slovenia. For the evening’s game – England vs. Algeria – given that I was getting a little tired of French fries, though, I set out on my own in hope of finding a traditional Egyptian coffee shop that perhaps was carrying al-Jazeera. Fortunately, find it I did.

At 9:30pm the crowd was a bit sparse, but within the first five minutes of the game the patio of the coffee shop had filled with patrons, all interested in watching the match, given the presence of the lone Arab squad to qualify for the tournament.

Here is the twist, however. Most Egyptian soccer fans hate Algeria’s national team. Egypt and Algeria finished tied in their World Cup qualifying group, and Algeria won the subsequent playoff match. The matches, though, were accompanied by nationalist fervor which spilled out of the stadium into the lives of normal people. The Algerian team bus was pelted with stones and their embassy in Cairo needed to be protected by riot police. Egyptians in Algeria, meanwhile, were being assaulted and a large Egyptian telecom company suddenly, mysteriously, was assessed millions of dollars in back taxes. Though Algeria edged Egypt for World Cup participation, Egypt returned the favor and walloped Algeria in the African Nations Cup on their way to their third consecutive title. Some of these reflections can be read here, here, and here.

Needless to say, with Egypt missing from the tournament local fervor has been muted. Egyptians are still soccer-crazy, and love watching their favorite stars no matter who they play for. So whereas one might have expected an outpouring of Arab brotherhood support for Algeria in their match against England, understood as an American lackey supporting neo-colonialist enterprises in Iraq and Afghanistan, there was nary a cheer when Algeria came close to goal. Every English touch, however, brought on cheers of expectation. As Algeria, surprisingly, carried the run of play, the atmosphere was rather tense and subdued.

Again, oddly, though the only foreigner in the crowd, and a Western Christian at that, I was also the only supporter of Arab Muslim Algeria. I like England, generally, and though I have nothing against Algeria, I was disappointed to see them put Egypt out of the Cup. An Algeria win or draw, however, would better the chances to see the United States advance to the knockout stages of the World Cup, predicated on a victory over Algeria six days from now. My support was silent, but real. The 0-0 draw at the conclusion was not an indicative byline for what had been an enjoyable and competitive match, but was among the best results possible for US rooting interests.

The telling tale will come in six days. The United States will play Algeria with both teams needing a win to advance to the round of sixteen. America does not draw the vitriol of the Arabs currently as it did during the Bush administration, but President Obama is not meeting the high expectations he set for a change in US policy when he spoke in Cairo early in his presidency. Overall, the US image in Egypt remains poor.

Will Sam’s Army receive the brunt of this geopolitical frustration? In the Arab world at large I would put their chances at 50-50. There is a good and legitimate chance that Arab solidarity backs the Algerians with just a little extra mustard. Still, since the US is not dominant in soccer the national team does not generally suffer from a backlash, and Arabs are generally quite astute at separating their opinion of government from their estimation of a person, or in this case, team.

In Egypt, however, hopefully, the coffee shop crowd may be composed entirely of Yankees. During the founding of the Egyptian Republic in the 1950s President Nasser mesmerized the masses with cries for Arab nationalism. The children of his revolution now only imbibe the fumes of his vision, dashed upon the realities of World Cup qualifying. Politics, it is said, makes for strange bedfellows. Sport, it seems, can do the same.


Coptic Conference, Egyptian Triumph

The two items in the title today bear no relation to one another except for the day. In the end, it was a true Egyptian experience.

This past weekend the class I am with at the Coptic Bible Institute – its actual name is the Institute for Orthodox Doctrine and Spiritual Guidance – had its winter retreat at a former monastery turned conference center in Beni Suef, the first major city to the south of Cairo, about a two hour drive away. Julie and the girls were able to come, as did the families of other students in the class, which made for a nice atmosphere for all. We were put together in a single room in a typical dorm style residence facility, and while I participated in the activities Julie was free to roam around the grounds with the kids, not quite a babysitter, but not exactly comfortable with the hands-off attitude which prevailed. The retreat lasted three days and two nights, and was a nice break from the routine of the city.

The program of the conference focused on communication skills, body language, and the five love languages, which may be known to some readers of this blog as a popular study in many churches. It surprised me somewhat to see it in an Egyptian Orthodox retreat program, but much of American Christianity has come to Egypt through its Protestant churches, and then works its way as well into the greater Orthodox majority. Each day had two lectures and a study group, which I was able to ‘feel’ as normal retreat procedure, but the rest of the activity reminded me I was among those of a different tradition.

We did not necessarily wake early, but the day started with prayer, which was not the common ‘everyone give a request and talk to God’ procedure during Protestant sessions. Instead, we worked through the Orthodox prayer book. Traditionally, and still present in monastic practice, Christians would pray seven times daily. These prayers are scripted, though there seemed to be some variety in the selections. I was more confused than would ordinarily be expected, for instead of breaking for prayer seven times, we combined two prayer sessions into one, ending the day with the single, seventh prayer, and according to a pattern everyone knew except me, intermingled the selections from the two readings.

Within each session there consisted the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostle’s Creed, a ‘Lord have mercy – Kyrie Elasion’ reading, a Psalm, a reading from a Gospel, and general other intercessions. It was all very scriptural, but it was very fast. In part this was because my Arabic reading is still slow, and I was trying to keep up with unfamiliar material, but it also seemed like readers rushed through the selection given them to read. Some seemed like they had memorized the portions, others were less confident, but some read in a sing-song that was very beautiful. We stood standing the whole time, about twenty to thirty minutes, and faced East. I would say that East is the direction of Jesus’ second coming, but that doesn’t sound exactly right, as early Christianity expanded in all directions around Jerusalem, and his return, though to be seen by the whole world, will be, according to his own word, on the Mount of Olives. Nevertheless, within the Orthodox liturgy is a directive to ‘Look to the East’; I will need to ask a bit more to find out why.

 The other activity was also unfamiliar; following the prayer we learned a Coptic hymn. Though most of Coptic Orthodox liturgy is now conducted in Arabic, and has been for centuries, there is a conscious effort on the part of Orthodox Christians to maintain the use of their original tongue. It is only a liturgical language, but its study is mandatory for all priests and monks, though no one speaks it at home and only the learned would be able to follow along except for the known and familiar passages. At the Orthodox church we attend they put the words of the liturgy on a screen; on one side is the Arabic text, on the other is the Coptic language, written in Arabic script.

This hymn was being taught in preparation for the coming Easter fasting session, for it is used only near the end of Lent, if I understood correctly. It contained also an interesting theological twist. The opening lines praise Jesus for his fast, which he undertook for us. I had not heard this notion before. The question of why Jesus chose to fast forty days is a question not really answered definitively in the Bible, but the general answer that I have heard was that it was in preparation for his public ministry, which began immediately after he emerged from the desert. For Protestants who rarely fast, this is seen as a commendable but exceptional event, but one that is designed to draw one especially close to God, and as such, it is understood that Jesus did this for himself.

I am not yet sure of all the formulations, but Orthodox do fast regularly, almost half the year in varying levels of severity, and it has an element of repentance from sin. I may be wrong in this, but if I am not, they do have Biblical warrant. Yet since Jesus had no sin of which to repent, nor need to draw closer to God, the Orthodox may be more pressed in this understanding to figure out why Jesus fasted in the first place. The answer I received, as the hymn celebrates, is that he fasted for us. He undertook his fast to teach us to fast, and in some way, to perfect and complete the fasting required of his followers. Christians are said in the Bible to be ‘in Christ’; as such their lives are mixed with his, and his deeds also become theirs. I was nervous that this made Jesus’ life somewhat of a theater, in which he was playing a role rather than living his life in a real way. The Orthodox believe, of course, that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine, and that during his fast he suffered greatly, as any human would. The motivation, however, seems peculiar. Again, I will have to ask more questions.

Less people were familiar with the hymn than with the prayers, and people seemed less eager to participate in the learning thereof. I thought it was fun in the beginning, but I tired of it as the retreat went on, realizing I was never going to memorize it, and even if I could, would I even recognize it during the few weeks it entered into the liturgy? Perhaps other people felt the same way.

As a note, I have by now memorized some of the more celebrated parts of the liturgy that are repeated every week. It is fun to be able to participate fully during these parts of the service, whereas so much else is still unfamiliar. I keep in the back of my mind, however, the traditional Protestant critique of liturgy. It may well be fine and Biblical, but does the eternal repetition lead to routine monotony? I would like to be inclined to believe it does not have to, but this is an answer I can only discover in time through experience. By the visible participation of many during the mass I can see they are engaged; by the visible participation of many others, there is little indication.

During the retreat, however, mass was the one thing we failed to participate in fully. Justifying ourselves that this was a retreat and thus a good time to catch up on some needed rest, we slept in, resisting the knock at our door which was given to all at around quarter to seven. We did arrive a good half an hour before it ended at 11:00, so who knows what type of credit we received if we were found in attendance following communion. I suppose for full disclosure we should also admit to not participating in the seventh late night prayer, performed at around 10:30pm. We may be striving for a sense of belonging, but we are not yet Egyptians, we need our sleep.

Following Sunday mass and a final group session we were due for lunch and then departure at 3:00pm. This is a key detail, for Sunday was also to be the final of the African Nations Cup. Egypt had defeated hated rival Algeria (see this post, from Julie, and this one, from Jayson) in the semifinal, 4-0, and the country was awash in excitement in advance of the final match against Ghana. In addition, having won the past two African Nation Cups, but missing out on qualification for the upcoming World Cup, this was a chance at national redemption. Our bus was scheduled to leave with plenty of time allotted to return to Cairo before the match began.

Of course, nothing in Egypt goes according to schedule. Lunch was prepared by a classmate’s family who lived in the area. Though delicious, it was an hour late. Then when we had finished, the bus to return had still not arrived. When it came, it was smaller than the one which brought us, causing extra delays in trying to fit everyone and their luggage (we did, somehow). Meanwhile, three of our group had gone into the city for some reason, and needed to be picked up along the way out, except that they were not where they were supposed to be, and we had to search for them. At long last we got on the road, and it was clear we would not make it home in time for the start of the match.

In vain we tried to find the match broadcast on the radio. The best we could do was find a station which gave updates every few minutes, but the frequency was not clear. Fortunately, we were in the first row, so we could hear the time pass with confirmation of the same result, no score. We had no indication of the time elapsed, however, but it seemed likely we could make it home before it ended, and certainly for the overtime which seemed likely.

Then, the bus had an accident. It was no real accident, but there was no reason for it, as best I could tell. We were so close to home and the driver pulled into what seemed like a strip mall. I think he was looking for a shortcut to get over to the main road to take us back to the church, realized he made a mistake, but then backed up into another car. Five or six of the men of our group got out with the driver to investigate, and another lengthy delay ensued. I let things be and stayed in my seat, otherwise I could fill in the details, but I have seen the confrontations that sometimes occur over fender benders, and thought the presence of a foreigner might not help things. In any case, about fifteen minutes later we were on our way again, as there seemed to be no complications from the accident.

During the final approach back to church we saw evidence of the result. People were slowly but increasingly swarming into the streets to celebrate. Those in cars began honking their horns incessantly, including what seemed to be a wedding party in convoy. Children were dancing while waving flags over their heads. Others were shooting off fireworks. Every club or café we passed was emptying. The nation was in euphoria.

We learned in the taxi ride on the way home that Egypt had scored in the final five minutes, and then held off the Ghanaian attack to win 1-0. The next several hours were filled with horn honking throughout the city. Egypt, seven times champion, three in a row. I am glad we attended the Coptic conference, wished we would have been able to watch the match, but at least witnessed the emergence of celebration. We witnessed true Egypt, from the first experience to the last.


Grace in Loss

If you are a soccer fan, you probably already know the result. If you are not, you probably don’t care that much about knowing or not knowing. In either case, we hope the following account is amusing, if a bit disturbing. The title is not meant to be about the Egyptian people, but to be about God, at least in one perspective.

As Julie wrote the other day, I was at a monastery the past three days, and missed the monumental, last minute victory by Egypt over Algeria, forcing a playoff in Sudan. I did not miss the news reports leading up to the match, however, in which Egyptian fans stoned the Algerian bus as it drove into Cairo, injuring two players and giving a concussion to a trainer. Football was far from the minds of the monks, however, and there was even posted a sign to visitors to keep news from the outside to a minimum. Still, Julie texted me excitedly as Egypt’s late tally meant a winner-take-all playoff.

Coming home I discovered the match was to be played on Wednesday, on which I have my evening class at the Orthodox Biblical Institute. I have missed a couple classes due to work, and excused myself from the Monday class due to my stay at the monastery. I was hoping they would not count that, at least, against me. Not wanting to miss again, however, I would nevertheless catch the conclusion as my class ended at 9pm, while the match would end at 9:30, barring extra time.

When I arrived at the Institute the priest was late which didn’t bother any of the few students who had bothered to show up. My class is about fifty people strong, and there were only about fifteen who came. The presiding professor named 7:30 as the time we would abandon the class, but the priest came with fifteen minutes to spare, and class began. Of course, no one was really upset, since they had all chosen God over soccer just in attending. Class took awkward pauses every couple minutes, though, as a roar went up outside every time something exciting happened. The church which hosts the Institute had set up a large screen in the courtyard, and there were perhaps one hundred people gathered below our window, three floors down.

The priest decided to have mercy and ended the class after only an hour, and as we exited we heard the groan. Algeria scored to go up 1-0 just before the half. I saw the goal, actually, on the cell phone of one of my classmates who had fancy internet connectivity. He had offered me before the class started to sit beside him and watch; I did not, but I don’t know if he had earlier been sneaking or not.

We all descended to watch the second half, during which Algeria defended their lead resolutely. Egypt mustered a few chances, but the game ended weakly and everyone left quietly and disappointedly. My friend with the magical cell phone motioned for us to leave, and we quickly boarded the near-empty metro car to go home.

Along the way my friend’s one comment was that this was probably for the best. In fact, it was an act of God’s mercy. In the days leading up to the game certain Algerians had retaliated against Egyptian workers in their country. My friend took consolation in the loss, for if Egypt had won the Algerians would have slaughtered the Christian Egyptians in their midst. It was their nature, he said, they are savage and barbaric. Egyptian Christians, some will claim, can have difficulty with their Muslim neighbors, but Algerians are altogether in a different class.

So Egypt missed out once again; it has been since 1990 that they participated in a World Cup, though they are regularly one of the top teams in Africa, and have won the continental tournament several times in this stretch. I would have much preferred a victory. It would have made this summer more interesting if Egypt was involved, besides the fun I would have had in celebrating out and about in the streets. Where God’s wisdom lies however, is beyond my ability to fathom, but in a religious society such as this, many do not hesitate to interpret.