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.
“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.”
Pope Tawadros II noted the word patriarch has three meanings; the first is fatherhood, as the patriarch is a father who carries the feelings of fatherhood which stem from the work of the Holy Spirit towards each one, adding humans need this feeling of fatherhood every day.
“The second meaning is love, which is the main need of humans,” Pope Tawadros II continued. He acknowledged the world is currently hungry for the true love God planted in their lives to present to everyone.
The third meaning, Pope Tawadros II remarked, is service, adding the priority for the patriarch is to be a servant but that service means humans should serve everyone.
The Coptic patriarch added that washing the feet is one of the traditions established in the monasteries to express humility. He said their service comes from a heart of love and fatherhood to meet the needs of everyone, including marginalized people, tired people, the old and young. Service, he stressed, is the work of the patriarch.
These are good words. The new Coptic Catholic Pope is named Ibrahim Isaac. He replaces Antonious Naguib, who retired for health reasons, but is currently in the Vatican enclave due to his status as a cardinal.
The article is not clear about all that took place during the ceremony, but Pope Tawadros’ words could have been even more powerful if accompanied by the symbol he mentioned.
Imagine if he had stooped to wash the feet of the new Coptic Catholic Pope.
The Coptic Orthodox Church represents the overwhelming majority of Egyptian Christians. Interdenominational relations have ebbed and flowed over the years with Catholic and Protestants, but Pope Tawadros appears intent on fostering unity. As mentioned previously, he has helped facilitate the Egyptian Council of Churches. Each denomination will have equal weight and rotational leadership. It is a humble concession on the part of the Orthodox.
Pope Ibrahim Isaac also spoke of the connection between leadership and service, according to MCN:
During his speech at the inauguration, Pope Isaac remarked that the Holy Bible teaches us authority is there to serve, taking after Christ and his teachings.
It is a common practice in the Coptic Orthodox Church for the leadership to wash the feet of the people, in a special ceremony once (perhaps more?) a year. Perhaps the Coptic Catholics do similarly, I don’t know.
But on this occasion, if only Pope Tawadros had washed the feet of his counterpart – equal in ecclesiastic authority but so much less influential in Egypt. This is no criticism, only imagination. But to demonstrate this teaching on such an occasion would have been noteworthy. In Christianity, the greater serves the less.
Even just in writing that sentence the protest issues: Shouldn’t Christianity make all people equal?
Yes, and it does. But the world does not. Therefore, those who are invested with authority and privilege of position must do all they can to demonstrate their humility. They must overturn the way of the world, however rife with hypocrisy the statement may be, if they are not careful. Washing the feet can easily become the new pride. It is proved otherwise away from the cameras, in demonstrated service away from the eyes of the world.
If only to continue imagining, might also the Grand Sheikh of the Azhar wash the feet of Pope Tawadros? Here, we are crossing religions which maintain their own traditions. It is not a proper comparison.
But the Sheikh of the Azhar has consented to a similar humble concession. He has helped facilitate the Family House, in which he and the heads of all Christian denominations meet regularly to maintain good relations and solve sectarian conflicts.
Muslims represent the overwhelming majority of Egyptians, yet the Grand Sheikh is outnumbered.
In the world, everyone knows where power lies. This reality will not change because of humble participation in councils, nor in symbolic gestures like foot washing. People in power also have it in their interest to appear humble, which actually increases their effectiveness.
But to lift up the lesser, to honor, and to give more power even at your own expense – this is of God. “He must become greater, I must become less,” said John the Baptist of Jesus. Jesus, meanwhile, said of those who follow him, “They will do greater works than these.”
Egypt’s spiritual leadership, Muslim and Orthodox, appear to heed this pattern. God only knows, but may he similarly equip Pope Ibrahim Isaac, and make him a shepherd to his people.
About six weeks ago, we welcomed baby Alexander into our lives. According to Egyptian tradition, one week later we should have given him a Subuu3.
Subuu3 is related to the Arabic word for ‘week’, and the number three at the end represents an Arabic letter absent in English. We delayed his party, however, until his eighteenth day of life, until both sets of grandparents could arrive. But this is acceptable according to the local traditions, as Egyptians tend to be very, um, flexible, on matters of time.
Our good friend, a Coptic Orthodox priest, Fr. Yuennis, traveled three hours one way from Upper Egypt to perform the religious rites of what is essentially a cultural baby party – received from the Pharaohs. We weren’t really sure what these rites included, though, until he was about fifteen minutes from our home.
My friend, who had already arrived, told me I needed to have a basin prepared for the priest to bathe Alexander in. I racked my brain, but couldn’t think of anything appropriate. Fortunately our neighbors upstairs had a foot bath which worked perfectly for the event.
I learned after the fact that we should have had a similar party the previous night where Alexander was also bathed. This time, all the guests would have thrown an Egyptian coin or two into the water, and the lucky woman who was chosen to bathe the baby would then collect that money. It is up to the family to choose, but the main criterion is that she is an older woman. My friend told me that for the Subuu3s done for her two children, the women took 100 and 150 Egyptian pounds (US $17 and $25) respectively. Not a bad fee for giving a baby a bath!
Instead, our party began with the arrival of the priest, who chanted prayers before taking Alexander from me to bathe him. The point is to bless the baby; it is not a baptism. In the Orthodox tradition boys are baptized forty days after birth, and girls eighty.
I have to admit that I was quite distracted during the priest’s words since we had about fifteen children, ages 3-9, holding lit candles and standing very close to each other and many other flammable items! Even when I took Alexander to get him ready for his bath, I was very conscious of the candles behind my back and prepared to catch on fire at any minute!
Later, when I asked my friend about the craziness of putting lit candles in young children’s hands, she just laughed and said this was a key part of the ceremony, and that, unlike our party, the children should have marched around the whole apartment holding the candles.
(Please click here to watch a video clip from the religious part of the ceremony. Translated subtitles are provided, though we are not yet able to translate the parts in Coptic. You may need to select ‘captions’ from the YouTube screen.)
After getting cleaned up and dressed in white, as is customary, Alexander got to experience the most stimulating part of the evening. First, he was put into a special bed made for the occasion. Then we put him and his bed on the floor and I stepped over him seven times, showing my authority over him as his Mother. Next he was taken by my friend and shaken a bit in his bed.
If that didn’t wake him enough, another friend took a mortar and pestle and made lots of noise right next to him. As it rang out, she chanted something like, “Listen to your mother, listen to your father, listen to your aunt, but don’t listen to your grandfather.” They will say several variations on this, always joking around by adding the “don’t listen to” part. When I asked the ‘why’ behind all this, I was told that it helps him not be afraid in the future when he hears a loud noise. Having been put through this ordeal, the rest of life should be much easier.
This is all followed by walking around the room in a circle with the noisemaker in his ear while the guests chant something like, “Lord, be with him and grow him; may he have the prettiest gold in his ear.” This is said regardless of gender, for some reason.
(Please click here to watch a video clip from the cultural part of the ceremony. While there is lots of chatter, no subtitles are necessary – just take in the hubbub.)
Once all this was done, it was time for the food. In general, Egyptians are very generous and great at hospitality, so we wanted to be sure we had more than enough food as well as a nice-looking spread. It probably wasn’t enough, but with a lot of help from the four grandparents, we mixed ready-made Egyptian favorites with American items.
The final aspect of the traditional baby party is the party favor, also called a Subuu3, where we comically veered too much into American baby shower traditions. The Egyptian bag should be filled with peanuts, popcorn, and some hard candy, along with perhaps a baby-looking figurine or something similar and labeled with the baby’s name. But our friends were enamored by the favors we gave out as they weren’t the least bit traditional.
In preparation for this party, my mom came with American items. Our bags were filled with a lollipop and a couple pieces of candy – all wrapped in blue, of course – then tied together with a miniature pacifier and a card bearing Alexander’s vital statistics: name, date of birth, weight, and length — information all our stateside friends expect to hear at the birth of a new baby. This was far too much detail for our Egyptian friends, though. They only include the baby’s name and a written blessing. This is what happens when you combine two cultures!
All in all it was a great night. Our Egyptian friends had a chance to meet Alexander and we were able to share in Egypt’s unique cultural traditions. Perhaps most importantly our child received a blessing, as did we, of an ever deeper sense of belonging.
Today Egypt witnessed a historic referendum over a highly disputed constitution. Two days earlier, Christians placed their nation in the hands of God.
Many did so hoping for a miracle. Egypt’s churches earlier withdrew from the committee writing the constitution, finding their voice sidelined amidst an Islamist super-majority. Noteworthy, however, was that not one speaker prayed against the constitution. Instead, they asked God to be with Egypt, give her peace and stability, and bless Islamists in particular.
I will save more description for a few articles I hope to write in the coming days, but here is the essential fact: About 10,000 Christians from all Egyptian denominations interceded with God for their nation. Slightly less than half of these spent the whole night in prayer.
Here are the pictures, with links to video interspersed:
Please click here for a medley of Arabic praise songs from the meeting. It includes the crowd’s favorite – chanting Yesuu’ (Jesus) over and over again.
Please click here for a variation on the above link. One of the speaking priests urged the audience to add the word ‘Masr’ (Egypt) to their ‘Jesus’ chant. Boisterously, they went back and forth.
Here are a few pictures showing the size of the crowd:
Please click here to watch this choir perform and the crowd chant along.
Only God knows what is best for Egypt in terms of this current constitution. But may he honor the prayers of this community, of Muslims, and of Islamists, who pray for the peace of Egypt.
When the candidates for the Coptic papacy were reduced to five, Bishop Tawadros, along with all the others, gave an interview on Coptic television. The full video, along with English subtitles, can be found here.
I culled the interview for useful nuggets about the pope-to-be’s background and views about church and ministry, and arranged them for an article with Arab West Report. The full text can be found here, excerpts follow below.
Tawadros was born in 1952 in the city of Mansoura. At age five his father, a landscape engineer, moved the family to Sohag for work where they remained for three years before settling in Damanhour. Here, he studied in a Coptic school run by the sister of then-Pope Cyril VI.
Tawadros’ family was very religious; many of his uncles and cousins were or became priests. His mother was originally from the area of St. Dimyana Monastery near Mansoura, and each summer would take her family there to visit. He has two sisters.
‘All our life was related to the church,’ said Tawadros.
Later on in the interview he addressed certain issues. Here is an example.
‘As Egyptians we live with our brothers the Muslims, and it is a priority to keep this unified life,’ he said.
He spoke positively about how Pope Shenouda was called a ‘safety valve’, and then answered this question in light of necessary history.
‘Look at our beautiful diversity: a Pharaohnic obelisk, a Christian steeple, and a Muslim minaret. This is the diversity that Egypt brings to the whole world,’ stated Tawadros.
‘Do our youth know these treasures? We have many common roots, and the media should focus on them.’
It had been stated in the media that Bishop Tawadros was commended as keeping good relations between Muslims and Christians, and with Islamists in particular. Labib questions the last point.
‘You cannot say that he has had good or bad relations with Islamists, as he has no relations at all, he stated.
‘He just has no clashes with anyone. I have no documented information otherwise.’
From the conclusion:
The picture provided of Bishop Tawadros is at best incomplete, but does offer a slice into his personality and upbringing. He is a faithful son of the church. He is quiet, thoughtful, and concerned about its long term internal spiritual growth. He offered few insights into issues of state or relations with Muslims, except for the necessity of mutual esteem and preservation of unity. He grounded this relationship in the diversity of Egyptian history, which in light of current politics can be understood as a nod to its identity.
Further research, of course, is necessary. Certainly Bishop, and soon-to-be Pope Tawadros will offer more than enough insight into his papacy in the days and years to come.
In typical Coptic Orthodox clerical fashion with his flowing black gown and long white beard, you would never know Bishop Thomas was almost a Jonah.
The Jonah of old is characterized for his rebellion against God. He was commanded to preach to the people of Nineveh, went instead on a boat to Tarshish in the opposite direction, and met up along the way with a famous whale.
A point often missed in the story applies equally well to the case of Bishop Thomas: Jonah was a man of God already, at the point of his calling. He was a prophet with a well established ministry in Israel.
Bishop Thomas, meanwhile, was a missionary monk serving in Kenya. He had already dedicated his life to God, when, at the age of thirty, God interrupted.
The interruption came through Pope Shenouda, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, now deceased. He identified Thomas for the position of bishop of Qusia in Upper Egypt, giving him one day to prepare for his ordination.
Thomas actually said no to the pope – an almost unheard of boldness in clerical circles. Yet his spiritual father encouraged him to wait and pray before making any final decision.
At the cathedral in Cairo Thomas knelt alone before the altar of God and cried the tears of resistance. He begged God to take this burden from him. The word ‘bishop’ implied title, respect and responsibility of men. Thomas preferred his quiet, unknown service among the Africans.
It was then God revealed to Thomas exactly where he was kneeling.
In the Coptic language, ‘anafora’ means ‘offering’ – that placed in sacrifice upon the altar. Thomas pictured himself no longer weeping beside the altar, but surrendered upon it.
God showed him a bishop was not a hand to rule over people, but a hand to come beneath them to lift them up. With this his heart rested and he accepted the mission – to own the work of a bishop, and not the title.
Moving to Qusia his vision – in particular the word ‘anafora’ – remained with him. He purchased empty land along the Cairo-Alexandria desert highway over two hundred miles from his parish. Here he oversaw a reclamation project he named Anafora, an offering of spiritual retreat for all who were in need.
Anafora became a retreat center open to all Christian denominations, local and foreign. It also provided employment for the people of Qusia suffering from a difficult job market. These he formed into a team able to administer the center independently in democratic manner. He teaches them even to positively say ‘no’ to the bishop, as he once did in error to the pope.
Anafora is being developed additionally into an education and training center for personal capacity building. Its focus is on women’s development, but also on men, to allow their wives to develop. Furthermore, Bishop Thomas is creating a life-size Biblical panorama to aid in scriptural education, as well as a school of mission to train in service for fields abroad. Currently France is asking for trained Arabic speakers, in cooperation with the University of Lyon.
Jonah, though he repented, remained a bitter servant even after seeing the harvest of his preaching in Nineveh. In contrast, Bishop Thomas did not succumb to rebellion but embraced the call of God. He remains full of joy in the life God has given him, a servant to all he comes across.
A whale can chasten, but not transform. Only God can change a heart.