Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Calvin of Arabia: Protestant Theology Translated into Arabic

John Calvin Arabic
Translation: Foundations of the Christian Religion, vol. 1, John Calvin. (via LSESD)

This article first appeared in the December edition of Christianity Today.

Most of the theological writings that shaped Western society over the last 500 years cannot be found on Middle Eastern bookshelves. Few Arabs have ever read anything from John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, or Karl Barth.

The reason is simple: Almost none of the Protestant canon has been translated into Arabic.

The dearth of Christian religious texts in the world’s fourth-largest language is especially pronounced within Protestantism, which developed in European languages such as Latin, French, German, and English. The Reformation has barely broken into the Arabic-speaking world, dominated by Islam and where most local Christians—whose numbers are dwindling fast—are inheritors of Orthodox or Catholic theologies.

Nearly a decade ago, George Sabra, president of the Near East School of Theology (NEST) in Beirut, had the notion to translate perhaps the most influential writing of the Reformation, John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, into Arabic for the first time.

Written by my colleague Griffin Paul Jackson, I contributed a section on Catholic efforts:

After years of checking thousands of footnotes, Sabra—who settled on a Baptist publisher based in Egypt for his 1,500-page tome—has realized the weight of clear, quality translation. But he’s not the only one counting the cost.

For Middle East Catholics, less than one percent of key texts are available in Arabic, said John Khalil, a priest who works at the Dominican Institute for Oriental Studies in Cairo. “Our bishops can access works in Italian or French,” he said. “But having nothing in Arabic results in fewer theologians. It is a problem.”

Khalil recently secured permission to publish translated and original Christian works, naming his imprint after Aquinas. He has begun revision of the Summa Theologica, translating volume two and hoping to complete the rest in the near future.

But the problem is not just with the classics. Few modern theological works have been translated into Arabic either. Only one book is available from the leading theologians behind the Second Vatican Council.

Khalil’s primary interest is social justice, and in May he published the first Arabic translation of Gustavo Gutiérrez’s benchmark A Theology of Liberation. A handful of books about liberation theology exist in Arabic, but until now, no original texts.

But even these pushed Christians toward participation in Tahrir Square demonstrations that led to the overthrow of Egypt’s government in 2011. One celebrated martyr of the revolution, Mina Daniel, was a leader in Khalil’s study group.

Since then, however, many Christians have soured on such theology. Khalil hopes translation can make a difference.

“I don’t imagine we will become like Latin America,” he said, “but I hope we will at least stop blaming our young people who are struggling for justice. Religion should criticize every political system, and the church must have a prophetic voice.”

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Lapido Media Middle East Published Articles

The Egyptian Street is Still Alive…

Nahda Group
Credit: Kyrellos Atef

Thousands are in jail for breaking the protest law. Revolutionary hope takes a backseat to stability and security.

Yet, despite the crackdown on opposition politics, an unlikely source of protest is taking back the streets.

‘Even now, I am calling for the revolution to continue and the rejection of dictatorial paths,’ Fr William Sidhom told Lapido. ‘But I have no weapons except my words.’

The motivation is liberation theology. The medium is street theatre.

The 68-year-old Jesuit is one of the few Egyptian Christians influenced by the Latin American movement. He has written fourteen books, five on the subject.

In the 1960s and 1970s, activist Catholics pushed the church not just to care for the poor, but to liberate them from political and economic structures that held them in place.

Pope Francis has warmed to this heritage, designating the murdered Salvadorian bishop Oscar Romero a saint. But in Egypt, Sidhom said, the church is afraid.

Fr. William Sidhom
Fr. William Sidhom

‘There is no faith without justice,’ he said, ‘but the understanding in the Arab world is to stay far away from politics or you will go to prison.’

So instead, Sidhom, the self-proclaimed Christian Marxist, has surrounded himself with Muslim activists.

From 2011 onward they were at the forefront of the Egyptian revolution. Youssef Ramez, the youthful Coptic general-coordinator of Sidhom’s Nahda Association, said the NGO was a centre for much of the early artistic graffiti in and around Tahrir.

Nahda is located in the working-class neighborhood of Faggala, only a thirty-minute walk from the iconic square. For the past fourteen years Sidhom has sponsored acting, painting, music and literacy for residents and artisans alike.

In 2005 he partnered with Mostafa Wafi’s ‘Popular Imagination’ street theatre troupe, placing the Muslim leftist and human rights activist in charge of art and cultural activity.

In 2012 they created the Nahda Art School, whose acronym deliberately forms the Arabic word for ‘people’.

Saturday before sunset prayers, the people hit the street.

‘What are their demands?’ asked an intrigued resident playfully as the group of twenty moved from the centre to an open sidewalk in front of the local chemist.

With five Sudanese refugees at the head of the procession, the students chanted an African tune before launching into a fifteen-minute sketch.

Then they marched back to the centre, again in song. Several peered from their balconies. Traffic along the narrow side street came to a halt.

‘This is new,’ laughed a driver as his four-year-old daughter gaped from the passenger seat on her mother’s lap. ‘We haven’t seen this in Egypt before, but it is good.’

Nahda DriverThe Nahda effort to share culture with local residents is rare but not quite unique. ‘Our Street Cinema’, funded partially by the British Council, shows current and vintage films in the streets of Salam district in Cairo.

‘Mahatat for Contemporary Art’ stages opera presentations in residential balconies in the Delta cities of Port Said, Damietta and Mansoura.

But ‘Art is a Square’ grew too popular—and perhaps too provocative—for its own good. Despite receiving on-and-off funding from the Ministry of Culture, security forces shut down its monthly offerings of art and music.

The Nahda sketch had an ‘indirect’ political message, said Italian-trained acting coach Hamdy el-Tounsy.

His students designed content under his supervision, consisting of several short scenes from everyday life. Issues included racism, sexual harassment and drug use. But nestled in was also a reference to an opposition newspaper, doubling as a pun about absent human dignity.

‘There are many messages that can be received,’ said Tounsy, ‘but it is up to each person what impacts him.’

Wafi’s ‘Popular Imagination’ troupe has produced street theatre performances about public space, freedom for women, and emigration. But it was The Colours’ Revolution that carried a direct political message.

‘Dictatorship destroys diversity,’ he told Lapido. But Wafi’s greater concern is ‘daily politics’, the kind that organizes neighborhoods and clears garbage from the streets.

Last year, as Islamist protests were squashed under President Sisi, Colours was performed over 150 times throughout Egypt.

Each performance is cleared first with local neighborhood leaders—café and chemist owners in the most recent example. Should the police show concern they assure all is OK.

Even so, Wafi considered and then declined a revision of Colours. ‘The atmosphere is not right,’ he said. Currently in production is a play about water pollution.

Wafi considers himself a non-practicing Muslim, but is positive about Sidhom’s liberation theology. Copts’ strong attachment to the church, he believes, hurts the concept of citizenship. But Christians in Sidhom’s circles are driven to help the poor and marginalized.

The sponsorship of the church also gives cover to Nahda’s work, he said. Independent activists have much less space to operate.

Catholic Church spokesman Fr. Rafic Greiche said that Egyptian church hierarchy distances itself from liberation theology because of Latin American associations with communism and violence.

Ramez said that apart from Christian activists, almost no Copts have even heard of it.

But for Sidhom, the believer must ‘defend justice, build society, and secure the interests of the poor’. There are many methods, some revolutionary.

His path is development through the sharing of culture.

‘Revolution is not to change ten officers with ten others, but to change society,’ he said. ‘This requires great patience.

‘So rather than people going to the theatre, we take the theatre to the people.’

Nahda Audience

This article was originally published at Lapido Media.


Crucifixion and Liberation in Cairo

Hisham Rizk
Hisham Rizk

Last summer the body of Hisham Rizk turned up in a Cairo morgue. The 19 year old graffiti activist had been missing for a week, and the official autopsy labeled him as having drowned in the Nile River.

No further information was given on the English language Ahram Online. But withholding comment only fuels speculation – rampant among many revolutionary activists – that the security apparatus is coming after them. Orchestrated to begin on Police Day, the January 25 revolution humiliated them but now is the time for payback. So goes the theory.

Rizk was a member of the Mohamed Mahmoud Street Graffiti Union, whose images are among the few to remain prominently displayed in Cairo. They are at the site of terrible clashes in November 2011, between protestors and police on a side-street off Tahrir. They contributed also to the rift between revolutionaries and the Muslim Brotherhood, who did not participate in defense of the square.

The Brotherhood has since suffered its own terrible losses at the hand of police. Though these groups share a common enemy, there is little sympathy offered. During their year in power the Brotherhood marred revolutionary icons and dismissed the ongoing struggle with the military and security apparatus, with whom these activists say they readily accommodated.

News of Rizk’s death reminded me of my last visit to Mohamed Mahmoud Street, several weeks earlier. President Sisi was not yet elected, though his victory seemed inevitable. An interview subject postponed our meeting two hours, so I had lunch in McDonalds facing the ubiquitous graffiti.

To pass the time I alternated between reflecting on the images and reading ‘A Theology of Liberation,’ tucked away in by bag to read on the metro. It was written by Gustavo Gutiérrez, the Latin American priest who demanded that Christianity pursue justice for the poor, as reflected in the character of God. For Gutiérrez, the cross of Christ represented the total involvement of God in the suffering of mankind. As such, Jesus identified with all victims, and his resurrection presages their own, toward which his followers must strive.

Consider then the following picture, as seen behind the bars of McDonalds, while eating French fries and a cheeseburger from the Egyptian equivalent of the dollar menu:

Here is the image in question:

McDonalds GraffitiThe three crucified pairs of legs are covered by a belt bearing the name ‘Central Security,’ the revolutionary activists’ archenemy. What is not clear to me is what the symbolism means. Are these the victims of police, mocked and tagged with state insignia? Or have the police themselves been stripped, hung, and crucified? Does the image commemorate, or anticipate?

If the former, it is a remarkable statement of the power of Christian imagery within a revolutionary struggle of Muslim majority. Islam rejects the cross of Christ, believing instead God saved Jesus from the humiliation of crucifixion at the hands of his enemies. But the clashes and aftermath of Mohamed Mahmoud represent a losing moment for these activists. To depict their suffering they drew a cross.

To my knowledge there is no revolutionary graffiti of an empty tomb. They can hardly be blamed; they have had no victory. Initially pleased with the military removal of the Muslim Brotherhood, many now see in President Sisi the restoration of the security state. But some Christian revolutionaries have spoken of how they comforted their Muslim colleagues with tales of Jesus. Struggle involves suffering, they said, and perhaps even death. But victory comes as God resurrects.

This is how most non-revolutionary Egyptian Christians view the emergence of President Sisi. They, with millions of Muslims beside, project upon him the image of savior. He is the answer to their prayers, the remover of the Muslim Brotherhood.

And now it is the Brotherhood which is now being crucified, though this particular image is not found on Mohamed Mahmoud Street. Their opponents might cite a different Biblical parallel in the story of Esther. Following the failure of his plot to exterminate the Jews, Haman was hanged on the gallows he prepared for Mordecai.

Crucifixion GraffitiInstead, the graffiti interpretation is possible that it is security which receives its comeuppance. A triumphant revolutionary movement finally secures the reins of power and holds the police accountable for its crimes. Their execution is in order. Perhaps the picture draws on Islamic imagery: Crucifixion is among the punishments commanded for those who sow discord in the land.

Liberation theology anticipates such a grand reversal. Salvation is not simply from personal sin, but from the corruption of society which binds the poor in their place. Certain strands of this theology call for participation in the necessarily violent struggle to overthrow the powers-that-be.

Certainly those who fear God should be involved in the pursuit of justice. The question is how best to interpret justice, and where on the spectrum of participation a red line should be drawn.

But the alternate interpretations of the graffiti – whether identifying the Brotherhood or the security on the cross – should not be tolerated. Neither is consistent with the Jesus who cried out, ‘Father forgive them,’ according to the Biblical account. Jesus intended his crucifiers also to be beneficiaries of the liberation he offered.

For according to Christian theology, his crucifixion was the wisdom of God to put right the universe. This is not the case for Hisham Rizk, even if he drowned a martyr. It is not the case for any of the revolutionaries who have died for their cause. They represent a tragedy, a reminder of a world not yet put right. Whether one fights nobly, foolishly, or not at all, death is still the reality for everyone amid extensive injustice.

But to put it right, God expects his followers to work for justice in the face of death, unafraid. Such is the glory of a martyr, who will receive God’s compensation in reward of uncompromising faith. Many revolutionaries have been motivated by this promise.

The hope of liberation theology is that the promise is greater still. It is that through crucifixion resurrection comes. This is certainly true of personal Christian theology. It is only through death to self and identification with Christ on the cross that God’s life can inhabit an individual, in this world and the next. But is it true for society as well?

Here, liberation theology appears to be of two minds. For one, the answer is yes: We struggle on behalf of the poor and oppressed and whether or not we die, we await God who will put right all things through our sacrifices.

For another, the answer is no: It is obvious our idealistic struggles fail, so we must in a sense crucify the other and wrest power from him. Then we can put right all things in view of what God has commanded.

The first is of faith, perhaps naïve. The second is of pragmatism, perhaps ungodly. Where in this analysis is Egypt?

Perhaps Sisi has put all things right. Perhaps he is struggling to do so. Perhaps he only pretends, putting all things wrong.

Let each Egyptian judge, mindful of the following: Faith must be lived in the world, but the ways of the world must not sideline the convictions of faith. Countenance no manipulation, and avoid no crucifixion.

Securing the first assures God’s blessing; enduring the second enables God’s liberation. Such is the hope of faith.

Even as I type I am filled with dread should such hope prove empty. If Hisham Rizk died an inopportune death, where is the liberation to follow? Is it found in his enduring images on Mohamed Mahmoud Street? Is there some collective cosmic tally to which he contributes?

Perhaps. Paul wrote that his sufferings filled up what was lacking in the suffering of Christ. Jesus said his followers would do even greater works than himself. An earlier prophet summed up all requirements: Do justly, love mercy, walk humbly.

The world will not be put right until God puts it right. But God desires us to put it right in the meanwhile, flawed and incomplete our efforts will inevitably be.

Wherever Egypt is along the path of progress, she has not yet arrived. Blessings to all Egyptians who seek to move her forward.