May 13, 2011
What a trip this has been! Although the news has been full of stories of demonstrations, violence, and burning churches in the Middle East, I have spent three weeks safely getting to know some of the most wonderful Christians I’ve ever met. Believers here in Egypt are certainly concerned about the turmoil that surrounds them, but they are also confident in God’s protection and His plans to use these events to advance his kingdom. The following is an account of what Chip Zimmer, our VP of Global Ministries, and I experienced in Egypt.
I arrived in Egypt on Saturday evening, and joined Chip, who had flown in the day before. We were hosted by Dr. Mouneer Anis, the Anglican Bishop of Egypt and Archbishop of Jerusalem and the Middle East. After worshipping at All Saints Cathedral on Sunday, Dr. Mouneer’s chaplain, Rev. Drew Schmotzer, drove us to the beautiful Coptic Orthodox Anafora Retreat Center north of Cairo, stopping on the way to visit St. Macarius Monastery, one of the oldest Orthodox monasteries in Egypt.
We had come to hold a three-day peacemaking conference starting Monday with leaders of the Anglican, Orthodox, Evangelical, and Roman Catholic Churches in Egypt. Tragically, Sunday evening turned violent in Cairo. Demonstrations incited by Islamic extremists resulted in the burning of two Orthodox churches, the death of twelve people, and the injury of another 250. (One of those killed was a guard at a church who, with a knife at his throat, refused to renounce Christ.) Fearing that the violence might spread, Dr. Mouneer and many of the other denominational leaders were compelled to stay in Cairo and meet with Muslim leaders to investigate the church burnings and issue a joint declaration condemning the violence. Thankfully, the crowds dispersed and no further demonstrations occurred during our visit.
These events delayed many leaders’ arrival at the meeting and kept some in Cairo all week. Even so, we began our teaching Monday morning with twenty-five Anglican leaders and one Roman Catholic lay woman, and were joined later by Dr. Mouneer, a Roman Catholic priest (who is the communications director for the Catholic Church), and a woman from his church. These brothers and sisters gave Chip and me three of the most stimulating and rewarding days of training I’ve ever experienced.
Three excellent translators took turns converting everything Chip and I taught into Arabic. Wanting to contextualize the material, we had prepared three detailed case studies. All that we taught we applied to these three scenarios. We were delighted with the level of engagement of the entire group. Beginning with the first session, they jumped wholeheartedly into the case studies, freely sharing their thoughts, questions, and wisdom. We learned a great deal from them about conflict resolution in Arabic culture and how we can adapt our resources and training to be of value to the church in this country. Chip and I are deeply grateful to God, and can’t adequately thank our families and friends for praying for us. We are already discussing plans to bring another training team back to build on the work we did this week.
On Thursday, Chip and I visited the Great Pyramids of Egypt, which are the only remaining members of the “Seven Wonders of the World.” Incredible structures! Our guide told us that the revolution has drastically cut tourism to Egypt. The pyramids are normally surrounded by thousands of tourists. When we were there, we saw no more than 30 or 40 at a time. My heart went out to the dozens of guides, vendors, and camel drivers who approached us hoping to earn a little income to take home to their families. It grieved me to think the great toll recent events have taken on thousands of innocent people who just want to live normal lives.
We drove back through Tahrir Square in Cairo, which was peaceful, filled with normal traffic. Nearby, we saw the burned-out high rise building owned by one of the former president’s sons. Anger against the president and his family has been building for 30 years, and I suspect that it has not yet been fully vented.
We then went to the Evangelical Theological Seminary (ETSC) and enjoyed a lunch with its president, Dr. Atef Gendy, who shared his insights on the challenges and opportunities Christians face in Egypt. Egypt has the largest percentage and total number of Christians of any Muslim country in the world. Up to 15% of the population is Christian; of Egyptian Christians, 90% are Coptic Orthodox. Although Egypt is rated as one of the twelve worst countries in the world in terms of religious violence, the believers I talked with are hopeful that God will work through recent events to bring them relief. Among other things, they are praying that the recent violence will show the general population what will happen if Islamic extremists gain power in the new government, and will convince Egypt’s citizens to support moderate leaders.
After lunch, I was invited to present a one-hour introduction to biblical peacemaking to the school’s staff and faculty. Even though they live in the context of major religious and political conflicts, they realize that the most frequent conflicts they encounter are in their families, churches, and workplaces. As a result, they responded enthusiastically to my talk, and we finished our time together exploring ways we could work together to provide peacemaking training to the seminary’s student body and the leaders of the 340 churches connected to the school.
Today (Friday morning) Chip and I woke early and walked the streets of Cairo for awhile. Throughout our visit every person we’ve met has been friendly, even when they learned we are Americans. Some of them have gently asked, “Why won’t America be more supportive of Arabs? We want to be your friends. We know that your influence can do much to bring peace and justice in our land.” This is not the picture most of us get from the nightly news. I have much to think about and many more people to talk with before I come back to the region again next March to teach at major peacemaking conference in Bethlehem. I would appreciate your prayers for me in my need for greater understanding.
Lord willing, I’ll be on a plane headed home when you receive this message. After reflecting on all we experienced during the last three weeks, I hope to send one more letter to you in a week or two, summarizing the lessons we learned on this trip and the ways we hope to continue to serve the body of Christ in the Middle East.
Warmly in Christ,