Middle East Presbyterians Today Published Articles

New Hope in Turbulent Times

A condensed version of this article was printed in the December 2014 edition of Presbyterians Today. Please click the link below to open it in pdf, and here to view the magazine’s feature articles.

New Hope in Turbulent Times (pdf)

WDP Women at Prayer

God’s planning is perfect. In 2008, long before the Arab Spring fixed world attention on the Middle East, the women of the World Day of Prayer International Committee designated Egypt to write the program for their 2014 event, held on March 7. In retrospect, God arranged for the more than 170 member nations to focus on Egypt during this critical time.

“All around the world people are praying for us today, and this should fill us with serenity and thanks,” announced Rev. Emil Nabil to the 300 mostly middle aged women at the main gathering in Cairo, one of over twenty locations hosting a WDP event. But off the podium the assistant pastor of the Heliopolis Evangelical Church, affiliated with the Presbyterian Synod of the Nile, had a somewhat different take.

“This event is not very well known here, even among Christians,” he said. “It has a following among women, but needs better communication.” Meanwhile at the English language service across town, Rev. Chris Chorlton announced tongue-in-cheek, “I asked ten Egyptian friends about the World Day of Prayer, and no one knew anything about it.”

The first World Day of Prayer was held in 1928, and even at that early date Egypt was among the participants. The local Presbyterian church led the efforts, with other denominations joining thereafter. By 1970 the WDP committee of Egypt drew from all national churches, but outside of individual participation the majority Orthodox – 90 percent of Egyptian Christians – remained largely aloof.

“Not many people are ecumenical, especially in the past,” stated Dalia Hanna, one of the younger Presbyterian WDP organizers. “It is getting better now, but there is some fanaticism in all denominations.”

Hannah was raised Orthodox but had a born-again conversion experience in her church sponsored Bible study group. But as her priests bickered over the legitimacy of their small fellowship, she decided to worship near her work at the American University in Cairo, at the famed Kasr el-Dobara, the largest Protestant Church in the Middle East. “The more I got involved the more the Lord led me back to build bridges with other denominations,” she said.

In the process Hanna was challenged with her own inner fanaticism. She traveled with the Egypt delegation to the June 2012 WDP quadrennial meeting in New York City, engaging with women from around the world about the Samaritan woman, the devotional prepared by her team. Hanna was shocked to find that not everyone present considered the object of Jesus’ attention to be a sinner. Similar debate about the nature of Islam confounded her.

“We had cultural differences that could lead to conflict,” she said, “but when you are exposed to such an environment you have to learn to be tolerant of others, even though your first reaction is to say, ‘You are wrong.’”

Similar, if easier transformations were witnessed back in Egypt as the working committees planned the program and the order of service. Mervet Akhnoukh, chairperson of the board of the Coptic Evangelical Organization for Social Service, cherished how Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox women found common purpose.

“We prayed that our work would be of God, and we became friends,” she said. “The committee was a great ecumenical example, we became like one in the process of working together.”

Her committee included many Orthodox women, but the key toward wider knowledge of the World Day of Prayer rests with the clergy. In preparation for the yearly WDP, organizers hold monthly meetings to plan and pray, rotating through the different denominations. Orthodox priests welcome the group into their halls, but look to the pope for official sanction to be a part of a non-Orthodox service.

Hanna commended the recently deceased Pope Shenouda as a man of God, but described how doctrinal issues sometimes made Orthodox church leadership wary of the other denominations. But the new pope has brought a spirit of openness, she said, and this year it paid dividends.

The WDP committee presented their program to Pope Tawadros at the one year anniversary celebration of the Egypt Council of Churches (ECC), a landmark achievement he inaugurated with the other denominations. The pope gave his blessing, communicated publicly on the ECC Facebook page. And for the first time in many years, an Orthodox priest attended the main gathering, bringing along thirty women from his church, most of them from the younger generation.

Fr. Bishouy of the Orthodox Church, Rev. Makram Naguib of the Heliopolis Evangelical Church (host), and Fr. Rafik Greish of the Catholic Church
Fr. Bishouy of the Orthodox Church, Rev. Makram Naguib of the Heliopolis Evangelical Church (host), and Fr. Rafik Greish of the Catholic Church

“There is more cooperation and more unity among the churches, there is a new spirit to share with one another,” said Fr. Bishouy Helmy, general secretary of the ECC. “If the invitation was received earlier we could have done more, and hopefully next year we can host it in an Orthodox church.”

If Orthodox participation is poised to increase, this will go a long way in fulfilling the longstanding goals of these dedicated prayer activists.

“We want every woman to know she is a member of the body of Jesus and should serve him as much as she can, fully integrated in her family, her church, and her society,” said Nadia Menis, who personally won the papal endorsement and has been involved with the World Day of Prayer since 1967. “We want to uplift women concerning her health, her creation in the image of God, and her equality with men – creating awareness throughout the world.”

The World Day of Prayer is dedicated to such awareness, but this year as a byproduct helped make the world more aware of Egypt. Cinda, a PCUSA staff member working with the Evangelical Theological Seminary of Cairo, joined a WDP event in Canfield, Ohio by Skype video, and related her personal experiences in Egypt. She noted the official program told only of the revolution of 2011, and wanted the church in America to be up-to-date. She focused on the Christian example given after churches were burned throughout the country this past summer.

“These brave Egyptian Christians,” Cinda told them, “it was as if the biggest, meanest bully on the playground smacked that wiry kid with the glasses in the face and the playground monitor looked the other way. The victim just stood up with his bloody nose and his broken glasses and stared back at the bully. No raised fists. No running away.” She related how Pope Tawadros declared the buildings could be considered a burnt offering, if it was necessary for Egyptian freedom.

The troubled national situation dominated the prayers of Egyptian WDP participants. Egyptian Christians have joined the government in condemning the popularly deposed president’s Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, and deplore Western opinion that calls his removal a coup d’etat. They ask God now for a good president in the upcoming elections, for stability, and for improved economic conditions. They pray for the educational system, and against fanaticism and corruption. They pray for regional peace, the return of tourism, and for all Egyptians to know God’s love. And as appropriate for an ecumenical gathering, they pray for unity and the favor of God.

“Give us wisdom to know how to go through this difficult period,” prayed Fr. Bishouy to close the service. “Fulfill your promise: ‘Blessed be Egypt, my people’, where Jesus drank from our River Nile.”

Three of the organizers led a presentation honoring Egyptian women throughout the ages
Three of the organizers led a presentation honoring Egyptian women through the ages

Statement of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Leaders of the Evangelical Church in Egypt

At head of table: Rev. Bayadi (L) and Dr. Badie (R)

This text is transcribed from documents received from the Coptic Evangelical Organization for Social Services, headed by Dr. Andrea Zaki, a chief participant in this meeting.

The text reads:

Based on a welcoming letter from Dr. Rev. Safwat al-Bayadi, President of the Protestant Community of Egypt and Dr. Rev. Andrea Zaki, Vice-President, sent to the General Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, which addressed some public opinion issues at this critical stage in Egyptian history after the January 25th Revolution and gained the attention of the Guidance Office of the Muslim Brotherhood, and based on the two parties’ communication, the General Guide called for a meeting to gather the leaders of the evangelical church and the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood. The meeting took place on February 28, 2012, at the headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood. The General Guide has agreed to visit the headquarters of the evangelical church upon invitation.

The participants consented on the importance of the current historical moment Egypt is going through after the revolution, which requires everyone to take social and historical responsibility to advance the country. The participants emphasized that Egypt’s future depends on community cohesion and unity, and stressed on the basic values of the Egyptian society that represent its social and cultural identity and brings its citizens together.

The participants agreed on the following:

  • The sons of the country are all partners in one destiny and one future.
  • The joint struggle of all Egyptians of all segments of society, that was manifest in the January Revolution, represents the cornerstone of societal unity; the struggle reflects that full citizenship, based on equality, is the foundation of this society.
  • All sons of the country have the same rights and responsibilities as the constitution states. Equality among all citizens constructs societal unity; efficiency is the only criterion to hold a public position; and equality of economic opportunities is the basis of justice.
  • The Egyptian society is based on solidarity, interdependence and compassion among all people, which represents the bond that includes all citizens without discrimination. Therefore, education should promote the values of tolerance, solidarity and pluralism.
  • Respect for beliefs and sanctities is obligatory. Prevention of any contempt of others’ beliefs and the incitement of hatred is a compulsory social responsibility of loyal citizens.
  • Freedom of belief and religious practices as well as freedom to build or renovate religious houses – in light of the law and the right for citizens to resort to their own religious laws concerning their personal affairs along with other rights mentioned in the Islamic Sharia’ – are all considered part of the values of the Egyptian society and a base for its cultural authenticity.
  • The participation of all citizens in defending the country is the responsibility of all, and it is the crucible where all segments of society are melted and form national unity. This national unity is crucial to fighting all internal and external enemies of Egypt who want to drive a wedge between its societal segments.
  • The religious values are the motives of the renaissance. Therefore, everyone must mobilize these values to achieve a better future for Egypt.
  • Societal responsibility obliges all leaders, institutions and religious movements to fight against all types of strife, intolerance and discrimination, and consolidate the unity of society.
  • The Egyptian society’s identity represents the frame for all its people. All people have made contributions to this identity and deserve its legacy. Protection of societal values is considered the basis of cultural uniqueness and the responsibility of all citizens who contributed to building Egypt’s civilization together over time.

All participants of this meeting made emphasis on the importance of communication between the two parties to promote joint activities, especially among the youth, such as encouraging active participation, advocating for values and religious morals, and carrying the social responsibility of fighting the illness that affected the Egyptian society under the previous regime. This will guarantee everyone the right to participate in building a new Egypt that achieves the demands and dreams of the revolution.

Attendees from the Muslim Brotherhood:

  • Dr. Mohamed Badie (General Guide, Head of the Executive Office)
  • Mr. Mohamed Mahdy Akef (former General Guide)
  • Dr. Rashad Mohamed Bayoumy (Vice-General Guide)
  • Dr. Hosam Abo Bakr al-Seddik (Member of the Guidance Office)
  • Mr. Walid Shalaby (Media Counselor to the General Guide)

Attendees from The Evangelical Church in Egypt:

  • Dr. Rev. Safwat al-Bayadi (President of the Protestant Churches in Egypt)
  • Dr. Rev. Andrea Zaki (Vice-President of the Protestant Churches in Egypt)
  • Rev. George Shaker (Secretariat of the Protestant Churches in Egypt)
  • Rev. Soliman Sadek (Pastor of the Evangelical Church in Fagala)
  • Dr. Rev. Makram Naguib (Pastor of the Evangelical Church in Heliopolis)
  • Dr. Rev. Atef Mehanny (President of the Evangelical Seminary)
  • Dr. Helmy Samuel (Member of the Parliament)
  • Dr. Rafik Habib (Coptic Evangelical Organization for Social Services)
  • Rev. Refaat Fathy (Secretariat of the Evangelical Synod)
  • Dr. Rev. Sarwat Kades (Chairman of the Board of Dialogue of the Evangelical Synod)
  • Dr. Emad Ramzy (Secretariat of the Board of Directors of CEOSS)
  • Rev. Daoud Ebrahim (Member of the Council of the Presbyterian Church in Egypt)
  • Rev. Eid Salah (Member of the Council of the Presbyterian Church in Egypt)
  • Mr. Farouk al-Zabet (Head of the Congregation of the Evangelical Brethren Church)
  • Dr. Fready al-Bayadi (Member of the Council of the Presbyterian Church in Egypt)
  • Rev. Nady Labib (Head of Cairo Presbyterian Council)
  • Rev. Refaat Fekry (Pastor of the Evangelical Church in Ard Sherif)

Please click here to access the agreement in Arabic

Arab West Report Middle East Published Articles

On Religious Tension in Egypt, from Leading Thinkers

Note: Sorry for a lack of new news and stories. There a number of good ideas floating around in my head, three texts in production, but nothing finalized yet. Instead, here is an interesting review I wrote for Arab West Report from a few months ago. It depicts the nature of discourse on the religious question in Egypt, as described by some of its leading thinkers. I hope you enjoy.

There is no religious strife (fitna) in Egypt, but there is religious tension; there is no Christian persecution in Egypt, but there is Christian discrimination. This, in summary, was the message presented in a seminar organized by the Coptic Evangelical Organization for Social Services (CEOSS), hosted by the Evangelical Church of Heliopolis, on February 17, 2010. The session was moderated by Dr. Nabil Abadir, secretary general of CEOSS, and included three prominent members of Egyptian society. Dr. Mustafa al-Fikki is the president of the committee for foreign relations in parliament, and was described as a leader in promoting national unity, being a member of the National Council for Human Rights. Dr. Abd al-Muti al-Bayoumi is professor of philosophy and Islamic law at al-Azhar University, and is greatly concerned with the renewal of Islamic thought in the modern age. Dr. Makram Naguib is pastor of the Heliopolis Evangelical Church, and maintains friendly relations with both of these figures. Each of these distinguished guests participated in the seminar under the title, “Social and Sectarian Tensions: Towards Societal Peace”.

Dr. Abadir opened the seminar by stating that Egyptian society is changing. Whether these changes come from inside or outside the country is open for debate and is often a point of contention; what is clear, however, is that these changes have religious implications. The tension which is gripping Egypt in many sectors is social tension. Though it cannot be tied directly to the religious differences which exist between Muslims and Christians, it takes residence within them, presenting the tension as a religious issue. The important question is how to resist these negative changes while keeping respect to society, culture, human rights, and civil society? How can national peace be preserved?

Dr. Fikki supported the words of Dr. Abadir that sectarian troubles are a part of social troubles in general, adding that these stem from a lack of political transparency and social stagnation. The government, he declared, bears responsibility over the long run for its failures to purify the educational curriculum and political discourse from sectarian spirit. Education and military service are the two primary means of instilling national unity into the population, as it provides a place of contact and cooperation between members of the two religions. Instead, the government has allowed the language of absolutes—religion, to mix with the language of relativism—politics. The government is not the primary perpetrator, but it has stood by while this societal transformation has taken place. Citizens, meanwhile, remain largely ignorant of one another and of the other’s religious beliefs. Such knowledge, however, are the building blocks of good relationships. Dr. Fikki ended his presentation with a renewal of the call for the government to pass a unified law for building houses of worship. This could be done within twenty-four hours if the will was found, and is a crucial step in signaling to the nation the equality of all citizens. Political changes can lead the way for subsequent social advancement.

Dr. Bayoumi opened his address by confirming that there is no religious strife in Egypt, but that tension certainly exists. He believed this was due to the national project being lost among many in society, having been replaced by certain elements[i] with a religious project for the nation. Islam, however, does not support this change. Religion, as Dr. Fikki mentioned, is the realm of absolutes, and Islam defines God and religion in these terms. At the same time, the religion demands interaction with the world, and as such there are elements of Islamic practice which are relative to ages, countries, and cultures. Dr. Bayoumi esteemed common origin of all Abrahamic religions, stating that God in Islam exhorted Christians and Jews to follow the teachings of their books. Muslims have erred in calling these groups ‘unbelievers’ and their books ‘corrupted’. They have erred further in seeking political rule over them in particular and over society in general. Prophetic government was a civilian rule; Islamic government is found in the application of its principles. As Muhammad Abdu has stated, Islamic government is often found among non-Muslims (Editor: Dr. Bayoumi wrote his PhD about Muhammad Abdu, an Islamic reformer of the first part of the 20th century). Dr. Bayoumi closed his remarks with a call for renewing the educational system, which currently focuses on rote memorization. Though this is necessary for all of society it is also imperative for Islamic scholars, that they may be freed from the tyranny of the text in order to share in a necessary cultural revolution, which allows religion to change with the times and ceases to divide its particular adherents.

Dr. Naguib confirmed the importance of Dr. Bayoumi’s religious remarks by asserting that the pattern of co-existence is the norm for human relations, from the first chapters of Genesis, but that it is so easily disturbed, as seen in the story of the Tower of Babel. The problem in Egypt is similar, as Muslims and Christians speak the same language but cannot understand each other. This is due to the fact that society has become increasingly religious, a process aided by government procrastination in taking real measures consistent with its positive rhetoric. The slowness in creating democracy and civil society is causing many to lose faith, and these take refuge in their religion, both Islam and Christianity. It is not that Egypt has made no effort in this direction; on the contrary it has a long history of liberal values. The problem is that Egypt is like Sisyphus; once it has nearly rolled the rock of a civil state to the summit it crashes back down. From here, the agenda of the civil state starts again, but unfortunately it begins at ground zero, with nothing gained from previous attempts. Dr. Naguib expressed his fear that the crisis of co-existence will only become more dangerous in the days to come, and urged the government to decisively reform the educational curriculum. All ideas of religious absolutism and particularism—for any religion—must be removed in favor of engendering the multiplicity of thought, which will lead to a culture which embraces all.

Following the presentations there was an extended time of audience participation, asking questions and presenting their comments. Though it seemed that Christians represented a majority of the audience as seen through the questions posed, the general theme of response was supported also by Muslim inquiries. These included criticism of the media, print and television, for failing to support national unity and educate about Christian belief. There was also a general questioning of the effort to insist on unity between the religions. Rather than seeking for commonality, would it not be better to simply admit differences but accept each other anyway? Egypt in general, it was said, lacked a culture of accepting differences. Finally, there were proposed various criticisms of the government, and wonderings about who would implement the fine words of this seminar.

This final point was my lasting impression of the time spent. Though I was pleased to hear the dialogue both from the presenters and from the audience, I wondered about the point of the meeting. What good would any of this do? My impression, given the location in upper class Heliopolis and furthermore in a church, was that it was a service for airing grievances among those discouraged but distant from the tensions in society, especially the Christians among them. The seminar provided an opportunity for prominent members in government linked agencies like the Azhar and the National Council for Human Rights to express their opposition to societal trends. Such a word could provide comfort for troubled hearts, as well as evidence that within government voices exist for co-existence, national unity, and social development. This is necessary and useful civil society behavior.

Yet what good will it do? I suppose that the voices which spoke today have been speaking for some time, and will continue to speak. Yet my focus is not on actualizing change in the government but in society. Specifically, how will the value of these words reach those who are engaged in sectarian tensions—the grassroots people who give worry to the denizens of Heliopolis? Proposed solutions offered included the reform of the education system, the passing of a unified law for building houses of worship, and changing the culture of traditional Islamic education. While each solution is good and will have an effect over time, who is preaching the message of co-existence to the masses? Government and civil society organizations bear much responsibility for the long term trends and the institutional constructs. Who, however, is touching human hearts? Seminars such as these renew the political discourse, but who is renewing social integration and cooperation? Furthermore, where are the plans to do so?

Certainly each sphere has its due, and is deserving of encouragement. Yet I am eager to meet those implementing such ideals on the ground. I was glad to have been in attendance, for I met some of the major spokesman of these ideals. It is the macro picture wherein power and influence lie. Perhaps becoming familiar with this world will assist in understanding how it works, and provide introductions to those who labor in the grassroots. It is in the micro that change and redemption take place. Though by the end I was weary of words, words play an important role in motivating deeds. May these words find connection with living hands and feet.

[i] It was not clear to the author, perhaps for language reasons, if he defined what these ‘certain elements’ were or who was behind them.