Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Is Coptic Evangelism in Africa Really on the Rise?

Bishop Antonious Marcos, missionary bishop for Africa. Behind him is a picture of the Coptic saint know as St. Moses the black.
Bishop Antonious Marcos, missionary bishop for Africa. He served first in Kenya and now in South Africa. Behind him is a picture of the Coptic saint known as St. Moses the black.

From my latest article on Christianity Today, published March 28, 2013:

Many Egyptian Christians wear their faith on their sleeve—literally. The cross tattooed on the wrist of Coptic Orthodox believers is a public display which marks their identity for all to see.

Such a quiet witness usually avoids reproach. But recently in Libya, radical Muslim militias detained dozens of expatriate Christians in Benghazi. Amid allegations that captors seared off such tattoos with acid, one Christian died from medical complications during the ordeal, and a Libyan church was repeatedly attacked.

Accusations of evangelism have been at the heart of a series of recent incidents of violence—including the first Coptic martyrs of the modern era—against Copts in Libya, Sudan, and Egypt. Which raises the question: Are Copts starting to recover their missionary heritage?

This article was co-written with a colleague from Sudan, who mentioned the following incident:

Last December, two Coptic Orthodox priests were arrested after baptizing a female convert from Islam. Since the arrests, stories about arrests of Westerners and other Christians attempting to spread the faith circulated in media linked to the state security apparatus, although the accuracy of the reports is hard to ascertain.

Though some Sudanese Copts have enjoyed business success under the Islamist government of President Omar al-Bashir, other denominations have seen their churches destroyed either by mobs or by the state, which cites the breaching of planning laws. With the independence of South Sudan removing the great majority of the nation’s Christians, Bashir has promised a 100-percent Islamic constitution.

Tensions are high also in some Egyptian villages:

There are signs Muslims feel threatened in Egypt as well. Recently churches have been attacked in Beni Suef and Aswan over female converts to Christianity alleged to be hidden inside. Generally this is understood as a Muslim community effort to save face when a woman breaks community traditions or runs away with a lover. Others think true faith might have a role.

“It is an untold story that every now and then a Muslim can be convinced and convert to Christianity,” said Youssef Sidhom, editor-in-chief of the Coptic newspaper Watani. “It is always done secretly, but somehow here it became public. In Upper Egypt especially, this creates a social scandal regardless of the direction of the conversion.”

But far from politically and religiously sensitive conversions in Muslim lands, the Coptic Orthodox Church maintains missionary bishoprics in sub-Saharan Africa:

The reality is the Coptic Orthodox Church remains committed to planting churches—just not in the direction of Muslims. In the 1970s, Pope Shenouda consecrated the first of two bishops for service in sub-Saharan Africa. Today, 65 churches serve more than 400,000 Copts in Kenya, Zambia, Congo, and other nations.

“The early riches of the Orthodox tradition are spreading again in Africa,” said Antonious Marcos, appointed missionary bishop to Kenya in 1976 and now based in South Africa. “Our church is a missionary church, because it was started by a non-Egyptian: John Mark.”

This was a very interesting article to research and write, showing a side of Coptic Christians often not well known in the West. As for the question in the title, are they recovering their evangelistic impulse: Well, they are accused, it seems some are, and reality is just as murky as with Christians around the world.

Please click here to read the full article on Christianity Today.

Arab West Report Middle East Published Articles

Teaching Evangelism in Egypt

Evangelical Theological Seminary of Cairo

‘Should we sacrifice evangelism for coexistence, or coexistence for evangelism? This debate will concern us for the next several years.’

This quote from Rev. Andrea Zaki ended a presentation by the Evangelical Theological Seminary of Cairo. Founded in 1863 by American Presbyterian missionaries, preaching the Gospel has been a core component of the Coptic evangelical identity since its inception.

Perhaps this is not appreciated by the Western evangelical church. The common perception is that Muslim dominance over Egypt has prevented Christian witness. They see a church shrinking, not growing. On the contrary, the assumption is the church has abandoned evangelism in order to survive. The Western church is sympathetic, but wonders if in forsaking the Great Commission to preach the Gospel to all peoples, Egyptian Christianity is doomed to wither away.

In the choice above, many in the Western church see settling for coexistence is a death warrant for Christian vitality. Better the sacrifice of martyrdom than the slow and steady decline of accommodation. Most Western evangelicals do note the juxtaposition of this thought with the reality of their religious freedom.

Atef Gendy

Dr. Atef Gendy would protest the false choice of evangelism or coexistence. As president of the seminary, he oversees that both are taught. The Missions Department of ETSC has courses in dialogue and in evangelism.

‘We have adopted the holistic approach,’ says Gendy. ‘We encourage dialogue, we preach the Gospel through ethics, service, and ministry, but we also support direct evangelism.’

Yet he noted that dialogue was absolutely necessary, given the social reality in Egypt. A seminary professor polled both Muslims and Christians concerning values. The three worst sins in descending order ranked: 3) Killing someone, 2) Changing religion, 1) Committing adultery.

Such an order does not bode well for the convert, let alone the evangelist.

Therefore, Gendy takes pride in the good relations the seminary enjoys with Muslim leaders, especially the Azhar, the pinnacle of Islamic learning in the Sunni Muslim world. They not only frequently attend interreligious dialogue meetings, they also cooperate practically.

‘We try to develop the religious speech of both Christian and Muslim leaders. We emphasize a shift away from simple ritual and surface issues to focus on ethics and transformation.’

Gendy celebrates much which took place during the Egyptian revolution, but also is worried about increased restrictions on freedom in an Islamic context. Yet for this he emphasizes the strategic decision the seminary has taken in theological education.

‘We must recall our theology in incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection. This is to challenge our leaders to empower the church. Why should Christians emigrate? Maybe we will suffer – along with many Muslims – but this is only a precursor to our resurrection!’

Within any potential suffering, love must push Egyptian Christians to stand by their Muslim neighbors, but love in the evangelical understanding implies more than just solidarity.

‘We must testify, amidst all sensitivities. But we must also show our love through service.’

In Egypt, the future is unknown, but this is fitting with evangelism, whose outcome is also unknown. Gendy’s hope is in God in both cases. Whether or not the church is declining, he knows his duty as an evangelical Christian.

‘We do not have the responsibility to convert anyone, this is for God. We only must witness to our faith.’

Perhaps he, along with Egypt’s Christians might add, ‘and coexist at the same time’. Over the next several years this will be the vital challenge facing the church.

This article was originally published on August 3, 2012 in Idea Magazine.


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