Grace in the face of oppression: what I saw in Egypt – by Martin Kuhrt

Land of the Nile, pyramids, the Valley of the Kings, a centre of early Christianity; Egypt well deserves its status as ‘a cradle of civilisation’. But its glories do not all lie in its past.

Its fast growing, population of roughly 100 million people is among the most youthful in the world, with a staggering 75% of people under 25. Whilst the ‘heart of Islam’ is in Saudi Arabia, scholars believe the ‘mind of Islam’ is in Egypt. Its ancient Al-Azhar University considered the ‘Oxbridge’ of the Muslim world.

Despite widespread poverty, illiteracy and political turmoil it remains a key nation in both the Middle East and Africa.

My visit to Egypt

I recently visited Christian communities in Egypt to learn about what God is doing here. Today there are at least 10 million Coptic Christians and one million Evangelicals.

Since the 1970s, Christians have been increasingly harassed and discriminated against. Long running dictator Hozni Mubarak was toppled in the Arab Spring of 2011 and the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood was elected to power.

The Muslim Brotherhood government, however, was quickly regarded as a disaster by most Egyptians and was ejected by a second popular uprising led by the army in 2013. Elections produced a new president but extremists blamed Christians for the demise of Islamist rule.  It has led to constant attacks on churches and monasteries throughout Egypt since 2013.

Without bitterness or hatred

Christians in Egypt have been willing to both to face martyrdom and forgive their oppressors.  I stood in St Peter and St Paul’s chapel in Cairo, where one year ago a suicide bomber killed 29 worshippers. Some of the dried blood still stains the masonry, pock-marked with the force of the blast. The youngest killed was a ten year old girl called Maggy. I heard her grandfather speak about the family’s grief. Yet he spoke without bitterness or hatred and emphasised how Christians should unite in prayer for the nation.

The present government fears religious extremism and doesn’t want to be seen to be soft in dealing with terrorism. Most Muslims are genuinely appalled at murders of Christians and minority Muslim groups like Sufis, hundreds of whom were slaughtered recently in Sinai.  Armed soldiers guard all Christian places of worship now but they too become targets – I saw many wearing balaclavas to protect their identity.

Easy targets

However the powerful disdain for Christianity within Egyptian Islamic culture regularly spills over into mob-violence against the most vulnerable which the police are disinclined to prevent or punish.

Christians are easy targets for neighbourhood bullying and bureaucratic discrimination. Even minor repairs to church buildings require government permission and it is nearly impossible to extend or build new churches. Many Christian girls have been abducted and forced to marry Muslim men and convert. Whereas the mere rumour that a Christian man has designs on a Muslim girl can result in the most savage of attacks.

The most severe persecution occurs against believers from a Muslim background. This year alone in Upper Egypt eleven girls who wanted to follow Christ have been killed by their families. No police action has been taken over these so-called ‘honour killings’.

Turning to Jesus

Despite all of this, many are turning away from Islam and considering the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I went to a large Evangelical church where about 10-15% have a Muslim background and many Muslims are turning up to hear about the Christian faith.  During the uprisings and violence in Cairo this church turned itself into a hospital, providing help for all those injured, whatever their religion.  I saw a huge range of Christian ministries: helping lift people out of poverty, care for refugees, literacy programmes, bible teaching, marriage and parenting courses.

The ugly face of Islam is prevalent in Egypt. And many are rejecting and seeking the truth of Christ. The day after 21 Coptic Christians were beheaded by the Mediterranean coast, a Christian pastor (who is also a medical doctor) I heard preach in Cairo, composed this poem. It soon went viral.

Two Rows By the Sea

Two rows of men walked the shore of the sea,
On a day when the world’s tears would run free. 
One a row of assassins, who thought they did right, 
The other of innocents, true sons of the light. 
One holding knives in hands held high, 
The other with hands empty, defenceless and tied.
One row of slits to conceal glaring-dead eyes, 
The other with living eyes raised to the skies. 
One row stood steady, pall-bearers of death, 
The other knelt ready, welcoming heaven’s breath.
One row spewed wretched, contemptible threats, 
The other spread God-given peace and rest. 
A Question… Who fears the other? 
The row in orange, watching paradise open? 
Or the row in black, with minds evil and broken?

Martin Kuhrt is vicar of the Church of the Holy Spirit in Aylesbury, UK

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