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Click here to print this page in a friendly format Inside Egypt's persecuted church Parker T. Williamson The Layman Volume 35, Number 3 A plume of smoke trailed British Airways flight 155 as it hit the runway just before midnight. It was a portent of things to come, for while we were airborne, Israeli tanks penetrated Palestinian territory, triggering a firestorm throughout the Arab world. Brandishing its armor at checkpoints, tourist hotels and most noticeably entrances to Christian churches, Egypt declared a full military alert. Christian shows cross tattoo that marks his faith.
Our purpose for this visit scheduled months before the Israeli-Palestinian conflagration was to make contact with Egypt's evangelical Christians. Having received reports that believers are under siege by militant Muslims, we wanted a firsthand look at the persecuted church. Egypt's treatment of Christians has a checkered history. It was here that Mary and Joseph took refuge with their newborn child. Egyptians were present at Pentecost, and they brought good news back to their native land. Tradition says that the gospel writer Mark founded the Egyptian church. And it was here, in temples dedicated to the gods and goddesses of Pharaonic times, that early Christians hid from Caesar's sword.
Pharao = (Pharaoh)
The Egyptian church flourished for six centuries. Christian thinkers found fertile ground in cities like scholarly Alexandria. It was in Egypt that the great Athanasius insisted on the essential tenet that Jesus = (Yeshua) Christ = (Mashiach) = (Messiah) is God incarnate. A change of heart But in the seventh century, history took a terrible turn. Like the Hebrew people centuries before, Egyptian Christians found themselves confronted by a Pharaoh = (Pharao) who knew not Joseph. The Arabs swarmed down upon our people like a cloud of locusts, says Wahid Marcos, who is quick to remind visitors that his family descends from the Pharaoh = (Pharao)s. Don't call our language Arabic. We speak Egyptian. Marcos says that what happened to Egypt is similar to what befell the Roman Empire when invading barbarians hurled civilization into the Dark Ages and drove the church underground.
Some people say that Islam is a peaceful religion, he said. Mark my words: there is nothing peaceful about it. Just look at the record: Islam has spread, not by conversion, but by conquest. It spread through Egypt all through the Arabic world by the sword. Killing Christians And look at what Islam is doing today in every country where it plays a dominant role. Muslims are killing Christians in Pakistan, the Sudan, Indonesia, the Philippines and they are certainly killing us in Egypt. Wherever they have the power, they are doing exactly what the Koran tells them to do. The words in that book are clear: Muslims are told to slay unbelievers. Armed Muslim monitors Christian service.
Apologists for the government assess the situation differently. Ours is a land of many faiths, says Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who claims that the government welcomes diversity. Guardhouses beside church entrances and armed observers who monitor the worship services inside, prove the point, say government leaders. We protect Christians. Institutionalized Islam But is this protection or intimidation? After all, the guards are Muslims, as are almost all officials in Mubarak's administration. Islam is the official religion of this country, whose treasury finances the construction of thousands of mosques. Encouraging business people to add minarets to their office buildings, the government offers free utility services as an incentive.
Meanwhile, strict Hamayouni laws will not allow Christians to repair their churches without a permit that is almost impossible to obtain. Family courts take children away from parents who convert to Christianity, and local officials often look the other way when Muslims kill Christians. The situation is most extreme in the villages of Upper Egypt, where the Muslim imam commands far more authority than government officials. In January 2000, 21 Christians were slaughtered in the village of Al-Kosheh An independent Freedom House investigation revealed that the massacre was perpetrated not by terrorists but by mobs of ordinary Muslims, stirred up by the local imam. Witnesses say security officers stood by passively or participated in the attacks. The highways in Upper Egypt are dangerous places for everyone, but especially for Christians. There have been numerous incidents in which they have been dragged from their cars and beaten.
Those who renounce their faith are spared, while others have been killed. Egyptian newspapers (whose editors are appointed by the government) downplay these atrocities. In some cases, contrary to the evidence, they have suggested that the perpetrators of such massacres were foreigners. When Surial Gayed Isshak, a Christian, spoke out against the massacre of Al-Kosheh, he was arrested and sentenced to three years of hard labor for publicly insulting Islam. Amnesty International has declared Isshak a prisoner of conscience and has issued a call for his release. In the light of such incidents, it was difficult to know if armed guards who waved us through checkpoints and monitored our appearance at churches would act as friend or foe. Clearly, Mubarak, whose government receives $2 billion annually from the United States, wanted no incident involving Americans in his country.
But government protection could also prevent us from fulfilling our principal purpose, visiting those who suffer in the name of Jesus = (Yeshua) . Joy to the world Contrary to what one would expect in such circumstances, Christians in Cairo and in many villages along the Nile displayed an outpouring of joy. These are radiant people, filled with the love of Jesus = (Yeshua) and an unquenchable urge to express it. Receiving Christian visitors from another land bolstered their confidence that they are not alone, and they greeted us with tears of gratitude. The contrast between Christians and their Muslim counterparts especially the women could not have been clearer. In Christian gatherings, women exchange the traditional black robe for colorful clothing. Their head covering appears more decorative than diminishing and, in public, they will look you in the eye rather than fix their gaze upon the ground. Dueling deities Guards stationed in front of churches. Blaring loudspeakers, often aimed directly at Christian sanctuaries, wail several times daily.
There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet, intones the imam in a high-volume blast that threatens to obliterate every alternative voice. But inside the churches, Christians continue their worship with no sign of intimidation. We just sing louder and pray longer,said Sameh Awad. We know the Lord Jesus = (Yeshua) and nothing can take him away. The inner strength Constructed of mud brick and coated with plaster, village buildings require routine maintenance. But before Christians can repair their church, they must obtain a permit from local authorities.
Applications from the Quena Province church have been denied for years, but believers continue to gather inside their crumbling structure, facing a painted cross that displays the words, The Lord is my strength and my salvation. Whom shall I fear? In one village, Christians gather at night for Bible study. Then they roll up their sleeves and plaster an inside section of wall under the cover of darkness. From the outside our wall looks weak,an elder told me, but we know that strength comes from within. Obstacle course Slipping through military checkpoints in order to visit Christians in Upper Egypt proved a formidable challenge. Guards allow foreigners to visit tourist areas, often with military escort, but they do not want us inside their villages.
So we chose an unmarked car in place of the more obvious cab, employed an Egyptian driver, and hid our faces as we slipped past observation posts. Our secrecy was not always successful. Shortly after we arrived in one city, our driver was picked up by the police and taken to the station for interrogation. Who are these Americans and where are you taking them? he was asked incessantly. Following his release, I asked him how he handles such treatment. Without a word, he raised his arm, revealing a tattooed cross on his wrist. I took out a ballpoint pen and drew a cross on my wrist, then pressed mine to his. We are brothers, I said. Matta took us exactly where we wanted to go, weaving his way among burro-drawn carts, down narrow dirt streets, and on to house churches where cloistered evangelicals bear the cross of Jesus = (Yeshua) .
Christians often tattoo the cross on their children's wrists. Should parents meet an early death, many courts insist on an Islamic education for their children.
But the sign of the cross gives Christian orphanages a basis for requesting that they be allowed to care for the child. Tattoos are not the only sign of one's faith.
Christian names often reveal their allegiance to the Lord. Among names that we frequently heard were Abdel-Malek (Servant of the King), and Abdel-Nour (Servant of the Light).
Every Egyptian must carry an identity card that states his religion. Additional lines call for parents names.
The mother's space is defaced with a bold line because women do not count when verifying their sonsidentity.
A woman's name does appear on her husband's card.
Four pages are included for his wives, the number allowed under Islamic law.
A new creation Aware that conversion to Christianity is punishable by death, I asked a village pastor, Do you share the gospel with Muslims? Maged Akhnoukh seemed surprised by the question. Of course, he said. Isn't that what Christians do?How do you do it?We just tell them about Jesus = (Yeshua) . What happens if they receive him as Lord? I asked.
Muslim converts have two options. Some join the underground church, worshiping, not in public, but in the safety of their homes. For others who wish to go public with their faith, another tactic is used.
We get them out of town, said one of the elders. Working with fellow Christians in a major city, they relocate the convert and his family, forging an identity card that says he is a Christian. We have Scriptural warrant for this, he told me: If anyone is in Christ = (Mashiach) = (Messiah), he is a new creation.
How can Christians in our country help you? I asked. You are not called to preach the gospel in Egypt, replied Akhnoukh. That is our job, and, besides, from what we hear, your own culture needs the gospel as much as ours. But you can pray for us, knowing that we are also praying for you. And you could ask your national church leaders not to forget our pastors and local congregations particularly those in the villages of Upper Egypt when they allocate resources to this part of the world.