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A Protestant on Peacemaking

A little while ago I had an opportunity to dialogue with Rev. Safwat al-Bayyadi, who is the President of the Protestant Churches of Egypt. My summary of this conversation has been published on Arab West Reports, which you can access by clicking here.

As I remarked once before, it is a great benefit of my work that I get to meet such influential people. Rev. al-Bayyadi was able to provide me with a bird’s-eye perspective on Christianity in Egypt, encompassing all but especially from a Protestant perspective. While the title for the reverend is correct – President of the Protestant Churches of Egypt – it is interesting to note that generally speaking the Protestant churches here all go by the name of ‘Evangelical’. I haven’t yet asked enough questions to know why, but it may be that within Egypt ‘Protestant’ could seem like a foreign entity, brought from the West, and therefore suspect, while ‘Evangelical’ is more of Biblical terminology. Though this decision was made long ago, in recent years the ‘Evangelical’ title may result in negative association with the Bush administration and the general support the American Evangelical Christian community gives to foreign policy in Iraq and Israel.

If only from a small outsider’s perspective, I would note that in calling their denomination ‘Evangelical’, Egyptian Protestants may have done themselves a disservice. While the motivation I have briefly come in contact with is laudable, it may have unfortunate consequences. In America, ‘Evangelical’ is an adjective, describing a certain understanding of Christianity. While my rendering here is off-the-cuff, it generally refers to an understanding that is centered on the Bible above tradition, focused on a personal expression of faith, and accepts the necessity of communication of the Gospel message. Thus in America while ‘Evangelical’ is generally understood to be Protestant but not mainline, and has also acquired conservative political associations, in terms of the definition given it is not unusual to find evangelical Catholics, Orthodox, or otherwise. I wonder if in naming themselves ‘Evangelical’ Egyptian Protestants may unwittingly limit the description of the definition from being applied also to the larger Orthodox community. Like I said, I haven’t explored this much yet, but I wonder.

In any case, though Protestant and Orthodox relations here seem mainly positive, there have been recent examples of accusations thrown cross-denominationally. Specifically, at times Orthodox leadership sees Protestants as ‘sheep stealers’, conducting organized efforts to ‘turn Egypt Protestant’ by winning over the youth. You can read a press review on this topic by clicking here.

On the other hand, in my personal interactions with individual Orthodox Egyptians, almost everyone has expressed appreciation for the Protestant Church here. While they hold to their distinctive doctrines, they commend the Protestants for their skills in Bible memorization, vibrant sermons, praise music, and youth ministry. They emphasize that there is only one faith, shared by all denominations, though particular understandings of faith differ, and may reflect the truth closer or farther from correct Biblical understanding. Many families have members in each denomination, and many others worship in both churches. Julie has also found that Emma is not unique in attending the Sunday School sessions of both the local Protestant and Orthodox Church. 

In any case, I am making comments that could be better developed into another post later. For now, please accept my encouragement to read what Rev. al-Bayyadi has to say about the vital task of peacemaking in Egypt. His perspective is both noteworthy and gained from personal experience. If you didn’t do so earlier, you can click here for the text.

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The Value of Monasticism

At Wednesday noontime I traveled to Shubra, Cairo to meet Fr. Basilius in the offices of the St. Mark’s Bookstore. While our meeting was ostensibly to discuss the arrangements for my stay in the Makarius Monastery, we discussed extensively the role of monasticism in the church, with an eye toward the issues of the Abu Fana Monastery, which has fallen into sectarian conflict. The following is a summary of our conversation.

Before our meeting I had written a long list of questions for Fr. Basilius concerning the details of my stay in his monastery. How long should I stay? What should I bring? Where would I sleep? What should I wear? What time are prayers? These and many other concerns filled my practical head, but I had a few other questions as well about the monastery and things I had heard about it. Nevertheless, our conversation turned instead to introductions, which led quickly into substantial discussions about monasticism and its role in society and the church.

I briefly described my role in the Center for Arab West Understanding as a continuation of the work done by Cornelis Hulsman in unearthing the real, often non-religious origins of sectarian conflict, but seeking in our new project to move beyond reporting into proactive contributions to the reconciliation effort, in areas, for example, such as Abu Fana. Fr. Basilius spoke warmly of Mr. Hulsman and mentioned instances of their prior cooperation. He then asked me what I thought of the Abu Fana situation. I replied that I was new to this country and preferred to hear from him what he thought, but that I was able to state the findings of Mr. Hulsman, of which he was aware. Fr. Basilius was reluctant to say much, but the nature of our conversation signaled an implicit understanding that the role of the monks in Abu Fana was negative.

“Has anyone tried to communicate with them about their position?” I asked. Fr. Basilius was unaware of any efforts, but stated that he doubted anyone was able. The monks are entrenched in their position and in general were supported by their leadership. What benefit could be gained from words by an outsider? The situation was beyond redemption in any case, for the surrounding population, including government officials, had developed a hatred for the monks in their intransigent attitudes. “But if a message was to be delivered, what would it be?”

Fr. Basilius paused for what seemed a long time, and I was not sure he was going to answer. I had asked variations on the two questions above a few times already, revealing perhaps a strange urgency. He had been engaging, kind, but perhaps not inappropriately vague. When he did answer, it was in recollection of a story, “We have dealt with a similar issue ourselves.”

President Anwar Sadat decided in the late 1970s to grant Makarius Monastery over one thousand acres of land. He had noticed the commendable job the monks had done in reclaiming desert land for agriculture, and, as the country was experiencing phenomenal population growth the government realized such projects were extremely necessary, so he tripled their workload. The abbot at the time, Fr. Matta al-Miskeen (Matthew the Poor) was honored at the gift but wondered, we can barely keep up with our three hundred acres, what can we do with so much? There was much internal debate and reluctance to receive this gift, but in the end, they accepted their charge, and began working the land.

The process of registration of the land in the name of the monastery, however, did not go smoothly, despite even a later presidential rebuke of his ministers. They faced endless delays in getting the proper paperwork, but pressed on anyway with their cultivation. During their efforts to navigate Egyptian bureaucracy, President Sadat was assassinated. In the next meeting with government officials Fr. Matta was told that the monks had no claim to the land, as the promise from President Sadat was only oral, and not in writing. Discouraged but accepting, Fr. Matta returned to the monastery, and informed his fellow monks of the decision.

As time passed the monks returned to their own fields, but a little later there came word of a general presidential initiative. This one was meant to encourage all university graduates to find land in reward for their studies, as many were entering a work force devoid of substantial openings. As the monastery was populated by dozens of monks with university degrees, each one applied for the position, and not long thereafter the monastery had recovered, now officially, all the land originally promised. These lands were in the names of the monks, not the church, but that mattered little since the monks had forsworn all worldly possessions. The monks had been promised wealth, but showed no excitement; they had been ill-treated, but put up no protest. Finally, after accepting patiently the will of God, God had restored to them their previous honor.

Fr. Basilius gave no direct answer to my question about Abu Fana, but said succinctly, “Perhaps the monks at Abu Fana have not been able to have a teacher as wise as Fr. Matta al-Miskeen.”

I shifted course after this story with a personal inquiry. I communicated that I was a Christian, raised in a Protestant tradition, and surely he was aware of our critique of monasticism. “Yes,” he replied quickly, “you think we are lazy and do nothing but pray all day.” He smiled as he said this.

I countered, however. While some may think so, this was not the impression I had growing up. Monks were imagined to be among those who love God most fervently, and are dedicated in their prayers, and, in places, in their work. Their fault, it is claimed, is that perhaps they love God too much. They can be seen as selfish in their spirituality, for they are so enraptured in his love that they neglect relationships with the rest of the world. They hole themselves away with others of like mind, and experience neither the hardships of communion with ordinary people nor the necessity of service to those around them. They live only to God, and therefore in a sense, only to themselves.

I assured Fr. Basilius that this was a perspective I have inherited, but it was absent of the attitude which often accompanies it. I have a healthy respect for Orthodoxy in general, and am confident that they have an answer for such accusations. Having never heard the reply, however, I asked him to respond. I told him it was my purpose to better understand and appreciate monasticism in general, but with an eye toward Abu Fana in particular. The monks there are bent on the acquisition of land surrounding the recently rediscovered ancient monastery. Though there have been regrettable actions on both sides, the monks have shown little regard for their neighbors. Yet if the nature of monasticism is internal in focus, walled around a community closed to the outside, how can these monks receive a message of reconciliation with their neighbors?

Fr. Basilis began by commenting on Protestantism, stating, “Your living of the Gospel is based entirely on preaching.” I interrupted, stung by his choice of pronoun, for this is a critique I share of our denomination. “Not entirely,” I offered, and perhaps he recognized the legitimacy of my qualification. It should be mentioned that as he continued he gave no indication of ill will. If he was offended by the repetition of Protestant critique, he did not show it. Instead, his manner was warm and friendly, yet intent on edification.

Protestants will criticize us, he explained, because we isolate ourselves and do not preach. Meanwhile, they express their service to God in their positions in business, education, and a host of other occupations, but in reality, neither do they preach. Even in the Protestant services one can see the emphasis on preaching – there is a lengthy sermon, a few hymns, and a couple prayers. We in the Orthodox Church have a different understanding of Gospel responsibilities. We do preach, but the sermon is only a smaller part of our mass. Most of our time spent in worship is dedicated to prayer.

As monks, this is our dedicated heritage. We do not occupy positions in society which take time away from prayer. We have forsaken family, wealth, fame, and reputation to dedicate ourselves to the kingdom of God. Our prayers support the work of the church in all other areas, including preaching. Furthermore, since we have no children to support we can offer all the proceeds from this monastery as gifts to the poor. We have a calling, as others in the church have a calling. Ours, however, is for prayer, both to God in praise, and for others, in supplication.

I thanked Fr. Basilius for these words, and acknowledged their Biblical nature. I assured him I would be pleased to convey such thoughts to my fellow Protestants. Yet what of Abu Fana, how can this message be communicated to its monks? “This is difficult,” he replied. “They will not receive this message from you,” he smiled, “a Protestant. And we in this monastery are not accepted by many in the church.” “But what of those among you who are called to preach? Who could deliver such a vision? The messenger is not as important as the message. Besides, it is the work of God to change hearts, not of man. It is men, though, that must communicate the message. But what should the message be? ”

Fr. Basilius gave pause again. This time he answered. Though brief, it encompassed all. “The first priority of Christianity, and the second, and the third, is love. Perhaps the monks of Abu Fana have neglected this.”

Time was escaping us. Though I could have spent the rest of the afternoon with him, he had details to attend to for which he had come to Cairo, neglecting his monastery. The exigencies of my upcoming stay required a bit of mundane conversation, after which we departed. The value of the encounter, however, will last, and is the best place at which to end this account. May God grant peace to the people and area of Abu Fana; may his love be communicated to all.

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Finding Church (part two)

Within the Arab World, no nation contains as many Christians as Egypt. As a nation there are approximately 80 million Egyptians, and it is commonly constituted that 10% of these are Christian. Yet while some Copts (the name of local Christians, and the word from with ‘Egypt’ is derived) occasionally claim that there are even up to 10 or 12 million Christian Egyptians, the true figure may be as low as 6%. The percentage of Christians has steadily declined in the last several decades, due to various factors. Muslims maintain a higher birthrate than Christians, Christians emigrate abroad in greater number than Muslims, and due to complicated social factors, deserving its own blog sometime in the future, it is not uncommon for Copts to convert to Islam for domestic reasons, be it marriage, divorce, or an oppressive family setting. Add these factors together, and similar to Christianity in much of the Middle East, the church is contracting.

                Yet in Egypt at least, unlike in Palestine for example, there is no crisis, if only because any percentage of 80 million people is sizeable. To break down the numbers further, of the Christian population, perhaps 90-95% is Orthodox. Catholics and Protestants have an influence greater than their percentage would suggest, for they can often find support from their international denominations, both in terms of money and theological education, and as such their leaders are accorded national prominence greater than their numerical due.

                 Behind these logistics is the local setting in Maadi, Cairo, where we reside. Maadi is one of the popular areas for internationals to live, and as such, there are a plethora of worship choices. Among the most popular is Maadi Community Church – http://www.maadichurch.com/. As a Protestant non-denominational church, it attracts over 1000 worshipers during three Friday afternoon services, including one especially tailored for African internationals, both professional and refugee. There is another English language service held at St. John’s Anglican Episcopal, which also operates as an interdenominational fellowship, though high church in tradition. They are smaller in size, meet Friday mornings for traditional service and Thursday evenings for contemplative communion, and have a Rector who has written an interesting book on Muslims and Christians, which you can find through the who’s who link at their webpage – http://www.maadichurch.org/. The local Coptic Church, St. Mark’s – http://www.stmarkmaadi.com/ (Arabic site, but interesting pictures if you dare to experiment; place your cursor on the first rollover link on the column to the right, then click on the third option given. Finally, let us know if you succeed so we can applaud you) even has an English mass once a month on Saturday morning. Of course, we have already written about our general attitude toward belonging to the international community, which you can review in our first post.

                 Similar to our situation in Jordan, discussed last post, we have a local evangelical church only five minutes walking distance away from our home. Unfortunately, the only meeting time begins at 7pm on Sunday evening. With care given to Egyptian timekeeping, it often does not really begin until later, and then does not end until 9pm or so. Since church is more than just a service, but rather a web of relationships in a community of people, in order to get to know anyone we would need to stay even later to have any fellowship. In general we put Emma and Hannah to bed at 8pm. We wrote in our first post that we will try to become like them as much as possible, though we know we will never succeed, and it would be foolish to imagine we could. The issue of children’s bedtime exposes us in terms of the latter half of that sentence. It seems to us that Egyptian children have little bedtime expectations. Since the vast majority grow up to be responsible adults anyway, we see just how difficult it is to jettison our own cultural superiority. We should mention that the church does have a good Sunday School program, meeting at 12:30pm on Fridays, which Emma has been enjoying, and even memorized her first verse in Arabic last week, Exodus 15:26.

                 There is also a somewhat famous evangelical church in downtown Cairo, which we could get to by about a 20-30 minute metro ride. They have several services throughout the weekend, some of which have 1000 people at one time. You can check this church out at http://www.kdec.net/, but it is only an Arabic site, it seems. We would prefer a neighborhood church, and one that would be a bit smaller, but still, it is an option.

                 This leaves one last option, which would involve a resurrection of the quest to discover Christian diversity. St. Mark’s Orthodox Church is located about a twenty minute walk away from our home, and has Friday morning services which include a Sunday School time following a children’s mass. Unfortunately, there is much that would need to be written to introduce this option, so we ask your patience in awaiting part three of this theme…

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Finding Church

The Christian who believes he belongs to God, and who wishes to belong to a particular people, must also believe he belongs to its church.

                 Here in Egypt, however, that is a bit of a complicated matter.

                 The church in general is multifaceted, diverse in styles, practices, doctrines, and denominations. While this has been rife with and deserving of criticism for its putting the lie to the claim of the universal unity of the church – “My prayer is that they may be one, as we are one” – it can also, with not too much difficulty, be interpreted as a strength. The Bible is a flexible document open to various interpretations, most especially in the area of church structure and practice. While the arguments for and against the claims of competing ecclesiology are valid and useful, in general each and every one can be both supported and exposed Biblically. This gives the church worldwide, as well as the local Christian, the freedom and ability to shape and to choose a community of worship as is fitting both with culture and with personality, if bound primarily in principle to the guidance of Scripture.

                 Belonging to a church, however, is at least somewhat an expression of exclusivity. While one may be open to the ideal of Christian unity, in practice, one must belong to a particular local extension of the universal church. It is there that Christian principles are lived and experienced in community, as a place both to serve and to be served, to gain and to give spiritual nourishment. In the messy realities of life together our ideals are put to the test, and while we are often found wanting, we also spiritually develop. This process is impossible apart from organic membership in a flawed, deficient, yet strangely God-inhabited body of believers.

                 It was in Jordan that we first experienced church in an Arabic context. Right down the street from where we lived, after a walk of only five minutes, was a vibrant congregation of Arab believers, in an Evangelical Free denomination that was largely modeled on Brethren polity and, at least for the weekly Sunday evening service of Breaking Bread, practice. I qualify about their practice because the main service on Thursday evening was patterned almost exactly on the typical order of worship in many evangelical churches in America. It was composed of popular worship songs, brief prayer, a sermon, and announcements. Except for the language, it was as if we were back home. Before going to Jordan we were excited to see how Christianity might be expressed in a different culture, but as the similarities were comforting, especially in helping us overcome the language difficulties, we quickly abandoned the quest for discovering Christian diversity.

                 That is not exactly true, though. On one hand, it could be said we never really adopted the quest. We attended once or twice the historic Catholic or Orthodox churches of Jordan, but found them, with apologies to our respected Catholic or Orthodox readers and friends, very dry and boring. Of course, language difficulties made the appreciation of them near impossible. But on the other hand, we did fully delve into the Brethren aspects of the church’s worship, and experienced therein a warm fellowship and weekly experience of Communion for which we have been grateful, and by which we have been affected. We thank God for our time of belonging to that body.

                 Here in Egypt we face again a similar situation. There are international churches in which the language of worship is English. There are evangelical churches which are fully Arab. There are Catholic and Brethren churches which have a long history. Yet it is clear that the dominant expression of Christianity in Egypt is Coptic Orthodoxy. Hopefully in our next post we can continue the story, not yet completed, of where we can find a church in which to belong…