Egyptian Christians are experiencing new freedom, protection, and encouragement from their civil government for the first time in decades.
A long-standing law prohibiting the construction of churches has been overturned. Christians have been newly appointed to gubernatorial positions in the government. Church leaders are in new dialogue with a national government previously distinguished by its intolerance of the Christian faith. Most astonishingly, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, a devout Muslim, earlier this week presented the largest cathedral in the Middle East as a gift to the Christian church in Egypt.
President Tim Tomlinson of Bethlehem College & Seminary and I were privileged to be invited by President el-Sisi to attend the dedication of The Nativity of the Christ Cathedral in the New Capitol of Egypt. We joined a delegation of fourteen other American evangelical leaders including its organizer, author Joel C. Rosenberg, and three commissioners of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.
The Coptic Orthodox Church celebrates Christmas according to the Julian calendar, so our American delegation was treated to an extraordinary additional week of holiday festivities this year.
God Opens Another Door
We first gathered with Egyptian Protestants for their Christmas service in a downtown Cairo church building known colloquially as “The Revolution Church” for its role in compassionately tending to the wounded gathered from uprisings in the streets nearby. While worshipers still are required to clear an armed security perimeter, the worship service indoors was as joy-filled, gospel-proclaiming, and even high-tech and contemporary as many U.S. congregations enjoy.
Later that day we had an intimate audience with Pope Tawadros II of The Coptic Orthodox Church. If you don’t know about the Coptic Orthodox Church, one of the oldest Christian movements in the world, Kevin DeYoung explains the history (and controversy) and why we may have greater hope for Coptic Christians today.
We had an open exchange with Pope Tawadros about the challenges and opportunities abounding in Egypt. Even more fascinating was hearing of a revival of Bible study and reading in the Coptic Orthodox church, a movement initiated in the mid-20th century by Habib Girgis by which the aged Pope and the patriarchs and metropolitans who now surround him were profoundly influenced. It bears noting that even here the papal residence was guarded by an armored tank with a machine-gunner at the ready.
The next day, Rev. Dr. Andrea Zaki, President of the Protestant Community in Egypt and General Director of the Coptic Evangelical Organization for Social Services (CEOSS), who serves as the official liaison between the Protestant churches and the national government, gathered the delegation for extended talks with Egyptian pastors, youth, and mercy ministry leaders, as well as leaders of Egyptian civil society: parliamentarians, judicial officials, business leaders, media executives, and NGO executives. While the breadth and depth of religious liberty seem short by Western standards, all with whom we spoke pled with us to acknowledge the recent progress in “coexistence” fostered by the el-Sisi government.
Short History of the Last Century
At the admitted risk of grossly oversimplifying modern Egyptian history, after Gamal Abdel Nasser led the military overthrow of the Egyptian monarchy in 1952 and shortly thereafter emerged as the nation’s second president, he encouraged a measure of religious tolerance that earned him enmity and an assassination attempt by elements of the Muslim Brotherhood. His crackdown on extremism turned Egyptian prisons into academies of contemporary jihadism.
Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat, while revered there and here for his historic inclination for peace, is thought by many of his own countrymen to have made an ill-fated political calculation when in May 1980 he declared to parliament, “I am a Muslim President of a Muslim State.” This declaration was followed by the release of many imprisoned Muslim Brotherhood members and extremist journalists. Sadat’s act of mercy was reciprocated by an assault rifle being emptied into his body a year later, bitten by the same mouth he sought to feed.
For the next thirty years, President Hosni Mubarak ruled with ironhanded intolerance of extremism of any kind. As the hammer came down on the Islamic extremists, the Christian church itself experienced decades of harassment, administrative obstruction, construction sanctions, and limits on their freedom of worship. After Mubarak was deposed in the wake of the extended Arab Spring uprisings, Mohamed Morsi, a long-standing member of the extremist Muslim Brotherhood, became Egypt’s fifth president in June 2012.
When millions took to the streets in 2013 to protest Morsi’s quasi-theocratic regime, a soft-spoken general of the Egyptian Armed Forces, Abdel Fattah Saeed Hussein Khalil el-Sisi, led a military coup de’état deposing Morsi, establishing yet another new government in Egypt. He became the country’s sixth president in 2014. Which brings us to the events of last week.
Strange and Promising Christmas
Our experience in Egypt seemed tantamount to an Egyptian guest being invited to Philadelphia to participate in a rededication of Independence Hall. In Egypt, in many ways, it was. President Sisi has now raised an Ebenezer to religious coexistence in the Egyptian desert in the New Administrative Capitol of Egypt, 28 miles east of Cairo. The first buildings constructed here are the al-Fattah al-Aleem Mosque and The Nativity of the Christ Cathedral, two of the now-largest houses of worship in the world. Little did we know that in addition to being on hand for the dedication of the new cathedral that we would also be honored guests at the opening of the new mosque.
On the Coptic Orthodox Christmas Day, we were escorted to the New Capitol where we first became part of a live audience that included Mahmoud Abbas, President of the State of Palestine, emissaries of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and others for a state-televised stage presentation exulting in Egypt’s commitment to Muslim-Christian coexistence. It was like being on hand for the Kennedy Center Honors in Washington.
Notable figures of Egyptian popular culture, celebrities, musicians, and entertainers advocated for coexistence as elaborate animated backdrops presented Christian Scriptures and imagery on equal footing with Muslim holy texts. Imagine “There is no God but Allah” presented side by side with a portrait of Christ holding a book reading, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” and several other such presentations. Egyptian children, Muslim and Christian, were featured in a highly produced video speaking of the ease of their friendships with one another.
Such syncretism and church-and-state intermingling can clearly make an American reformer squirm. We did come away mindful that the good deposit can be well-guarded with one hand whilst the other clears away brush that otherwise obstructs the flourishing of the gospel. President el-Sisi clearly is at greater risk to his own life in sanctioning these displays than we were at risk of theological drift in accommodating such a presentation.
We obviously would not hold up Mohammed next to Christ like we witnessed. These fresh developments are only truly good news if Egyptians place their faith in Jesus. But we rejoice to see a once-hostile nation newly opened for the worship of Christ and gospel advance.
What Every Imam Needs
We then were escorted to the mosque where we welcomed Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, Grand Imam of the al-Azhar Mosque, as he entered figuratively arm in arm with Pope Tawadros II. At the mosque, it was the Coptic Orthodox Pope who made the first address of dedication, a process reversed when both later traveled together to the other end of the capitol to dedicate the new cathedral. While we were discouraged to linger for the Muslim time of worship, we did get to experience, shall we say, an extended Coptic Orthodox Christmas Mass.
The blossoming of new religious liberty on untended land is as beautiful and uplifting as that of flowers in spring. This lawn may yet be brown but anticipates new and abundant color. Such is our hope, and such will be our prayers: that more church buildings will be approved, that President el-Sisi will have divine protection as he leads his people both toward religious coexistence and public safety. Indeed, that ultimately no worshiper would require armed government protection in order to lift high the name of Jesus.
Joel Rosenberg took the personal initiative to greet President el-Sisi after a speaking engagement in the U.S., a year or more ago. He encouraged the Egyptian leader to get to know more American Christians better. Rosenberg told us, “Imagine a gospel-believing Jew approaching an Egyptian ruler to say ‘Let my people come.’” Hence, our extraordinary invitation.
When asked by locals, “Why are you here?” we would simply reply, “We are here as ambassadors of Jesus Christ, and are obeying the commandment common to all three Abrahamic faiths to ‘Love your neighbor.’” Rosenberg told us more than once, “Everyone who doesn’t know Jesus needs a friend who does,” even the leader of one hundred million people in Egypt, ninety percent of whom are Muslims.