Hope for the Church in Egypt

Walking recently in Tahrir Square, I realized how much Egypt has changed. No one would have predicted that in only eighteen days the formidable Mubarak regime would collapse and a completely new political situation would come into being. In the midst of this, the Egyptian Church has a new challenge, to not simply survive but, in this period of extraordinary upheaval, to proclaim the Gospel and become an instrument of societal reconciliation.

A Rich History: The Egyptian church has been a witness to the Gospel since the first century. It has contributed to Christianity through Bible manuscripts, Orthodox theology, monasticism, and missions to Africa and Europe. The Egyptian church has survived and retained faith despite the pressures of Islam since the seventh century. In the nineteenth century, Protestant missionaries from Europe and the United States initiated a new spirit and revival of faith in this ancient church. These efforts led to the establishment of the Presbyterian and other Protestant churches in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

From Persecution to the Revolution: Historically, Egyptian churches have not been far from political and social developments in the country, as has been the case in recent times. Christians, who number between eight and 15 million of 84 million Egyptians, have often found themselves in a confusing place. We were pressured by a corrupt regime from 1952 to 2011, and sometimes suffered as a religious minority in an Islamic country. Egyptian Christians experience discrimination and unsanctioned persecution from both the state and society. Having experienced centuries of hostility from the dominant, Islamic majority, Egyptian Christians developed a battered minority syndrome, largely withdrawing from public life. As a result, they express a sense of inferiority and a heightened sensitivity to persecution and discrimination. The necessary outward acquiescence to orders enforced by the majority and the lack of participation in the political decision-making process have been experienced as keenly humiliating.

From 1995 to 2011, hundreds of instances of persecution, including killing, church burning, and forced emigration took place. After the January 25 revolution, Egyptian Christians suddenly renewed hope that a free, modern and democratic country would rise. Egyptian Christians once again made a notable contribution in the public political life of their country. They went outside the walls of their churches into the streets to practice their role as citizens in calling for the rights of all Egyptians. Many Christians led demonstrations and some were among the martyrs of the revolution.

The evangelical Presbyterian Church in Tahrir Square, Kasr el Dobara Church, played a role. It is the largest evangelical church in Egypt (and in the Middle East) with 10,000 worshippers each week. They participate in mercy ministries, evangelistic teams, mission work in many countries and leadership training programs. During the revolution the leaders and members of this church were active among the crowds. The church opened its doors to all people, regardless of background, providing a refuge from tear-gas, care for the wounded and as a place to rest and pray. The church also held a number of services in the open air in Tahrir Square. The voice of the Christians was not weak during these days. Before Mubarak stepped down, the Council of Protestant Churches released a statement in support of people’s rights. This statement, the only one by a Christian Church during the revolution, kept the voice of Egyptian Christians before society and opened the door for greater Christian contributions in the public life of their country.

Hope in Uncertainty: Currently, the situation is characterized by uncertainty. Islamic groups quickly gained control of the political institutions. We have an Islamist President and Parliament who will largely shape our new constitution. While most Christians may have voted for the other candidate, this is the new reality in which we live. We need the Egyptian church to move past its wall of fear so it can proclaim the Gospel of reconciliation freely. Our greatest need is not more freedom; we have yet to use the freedoms we have to their current limits. The church needs to defeat the inner fears that bind it so that we can embrace two great opportunities before us today.

Proclaim the Gospel message of reconciliation. Reconciliation has never been more needed in modern Egypt. The church could be the instrument to accomplish this among the damaged relationships in Egyptian society. The challenge is great and the church needs to wake up and recognize its unique role and ministry. We are the ones who can do this. It is God’s call and He gives us the means to do it.

Plant and grow churches. We need to encourage rural churches that are often unable to afford pastors. Also, as many young people continue to leave rural towns, moving to Cairo and Alexandria, we need to plant urban churches. There are more than 150 legal Christian groups in need of a pastor in the cities. We also need to plant churches intentionally in areas such as the Red Sea coastline where Christians are not yet numerous. If we don’t do this now, we may not have the opportunity in the future.

Times are uncertain, but the church is full of hope. It will continue as a witness to Christ in this country. Although thousands of Christians emigrated to the West in this last year, many more decided to stay. The church flourishes under pressure. This has been true in history and it is true for the Egyptian church today. The number of converts increased dramatically this year. Opportunities to share the Gospel and to plant churches have doubled since the revolution. The future is for the church and for the values of the Kingdom of God. We need your prayers to stand firm for our faith and to share the message of hope and reconciliation in this confused society.

Tharwat Wahba

Tharwat Wahba serves as the Chair of the Missions Department at the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo and Chair of the Council of Pastoral Ministry and Evangelism for the Synod of the Nile in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Egypt. He teaches in the areas of evangelism, missions, and church planting and is passionate about developing pastors and lay leaders for the Church in Egypt. Tharwat earned his PhD in Missions at the London School of Theology. He and his wife Ibtesam have three children.

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