Egypt, Coptic Christians & turmoil

NOBTS professor of theology and Islamic studies and former missionary to the Middle East Mike Edens. Photo of Nile River Delta by night courtesy of NASA.
NOBTS professor of theology and Islamic studies and former missionary to the Middle East Mike Edens. Photo of Nile River Delta by night courtesy of NASA.

By Mike Edens, courtesy of Baptist Press

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Mike Edens is professor of theology and Islamic studies at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and an emeritus missionary who served 25 years in the Middle East with Southern Baptists’ International Mission Board.]

NEW ORLEANS—The news from the banks of the Nile River has left many without hope of ever understanding from the outside what has happened over the past several months in Egypt, especially in recent weeks. We live in a small world deeply affected by other places which operate within different cultures. This is true of Egypt. What is important there differs from here. Let’s look at various aspects of this reality.

Egyptians expect a stable strong ruler. However, the decades of dictatorship under Hosni Mubarak made them wary of that style of leadership. After deposing the dictator, Egyptians elected Mohamed Morsi by a slim majority, and he soon began to install men in governing functions whose only qualification was their Muslim Brotherhood party membership. The economy and other vital parts of Egyptian life began to deteriorate in his first year of office.

As an elected president Morsi began to gather to himself unrestricted power. He hurriedly formed a constitutional revision committee devoid of non-Islamist input and drafted a pro-Islamic constitution. He then recanted on his promise to hold elections after the constitution was approved by the Egyptian Parliament’s upper house. Freedom of expression was suppressed. Non-governmental organizations monitoring civil liberties and human rights were harassed and employees arrested. Leaders of state-run media and news outlets were replaced. All of this led Egyptians to see that the president was not a stable and strong ruler but just another dictator like his predecessor Mubarak. After one year Morsi’s actions, administration and words were destabilizing the country and its economy and threatening the future of Egypt.

After one year Morsi’s actions, administration and words were destabilizing the country and its economy and threatening the future of Egypt.

By June 30 a large swath of Egyptians — Muslims and Christians — were committed to remaining in the streets and squares of Egypt until Morsi resigned as president. There was a general sigh of relief when the military began to act to remove the president from office. However, within days of his removal, those Muslims who had held hopes for Morsi to establish their view of Islam and government began to demonstrate for his reinstatement. Members of the Muslim Brotherhood, a group which had been denied political involvement through their 80-year history, began to demonstrate for legitimacy. In their various ways, all the elements — the huge mass rallies before June 30, the army and its leadership, and the Muslim Brotherhood — are seeking stability. It is valued as much as life itself.

On July 3, the military deposed the elected president and established a transitional government. Since that time the nation has moved into open, armed and violent confrontation between two forces: the Egyptian security forces (army, police and State Security office) and the National Coalition to Support Legitimacy (Muslim Brotherhood and several extreme fundamentalist salafist organizations) in cities and villages across Egypt.

A mark of the Muslim Brotherhood’s sponsored violence since that time has been the increase in attacks on Coptic Christians and their institutions and on other Christian minorities. In the preceding months, all Egyptians including Christians suffered the pain of political and social turmoil. But during August, the number of churches, monasteries, Christian schools and orphanages damaged and Christians injured has dramatically increased. In Muslim countries many churches are identified as “religious societies” because of prohibitions for registering new buildings as “churches.” This is a reason for the vastly different numbers (from 33 to more than 90) in reports of damaged or destroyed churches. Many Christian families have been intimidated, terrorized or have suffered the death or injury of family members in recent weeks in some form of retaliation for current events. During times of social upheaval, minorities are frequently marked as scapegoats — and Christians are the clear minority here.

During times of social upheaval, minorities are frequently marked as scapegoats — and Christians are the clear minority here.

Lastly, Arabs are more tribal whereas Americans are more individualistic in our orientation. This leads to a more pronounced “other” to fear and hate. However, Egyptian Arabs and Copts are united by the river Nile basin. A fertile valley bisecting a vast and harsh desert has drawn the peoples into a strong national identity which transcends tribal interests in many ways. This makes the Arab/Coptic and Egyptian Muslim/Egyptian Christian relationships complex.

All three of these factors help us understand the current situation. Whether an Egyptian is the deposed president or a victim of sniper fire while seeking to peacefully demonstrate for or against him, that person is more than the individual. They are corporate representatives of the religious community, the broader clan and the Egyptian identity.

The situation remains unclear, with deep grievances tearing through the Egyptian population. In such situations Christians and other minor segments of the Egyptian population will suffer more than the Sunni Muslim majority. In this reality, simple Christianity has tremendous power.

The story reached me of an Egyptian pastor and his family whose residence/church came under attack by a mob inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood. After the mob’s initial assault, the family fled to the shelter of a neighbor. The mob returned, broke into the building and began to destroy the church. The pastor’s cell phone rang. Muslim neighbors were calling to say they were coming to defend the church. The Christian minister responded: Don’t come! Don’t defend the building! Your lives are too precious to God and to us to risk them in this way. That building is brick and sand. Stay home.”

Your lives are too precious to God and to us to risk them in this way.

Where such light shines, God in Christ Jesus can bring good from evil.

For prayer

Pray for Egyptian Christian brothers and sisters who have in the past two weeks suffered greater loss than any generation of Christians since the 14th century that they may express God’s love and grace.

Pray about giving more through your church to the Cooperative Program, missions offerings and Baptist Global Response because many people hurt in these days will be ministered to in various locations in our world through your Baptist ministries.

Pray for workers to go into the harvest which follows the explosion of hatred being experienced in Egypt today. Our God will call some of our sons and daughters to go and share Christ.

[Mike Edens also serves as New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary’s associate director of the Institute of Christian Apologetics and associate dean of graduate studies.]