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Progress of the Gospel in Egypt

Gospel Beginnings

In Isaiah 19 we read the prophecy that worship of the true God would be established in Egypt and that the Egyptians would come to know deliverance through the promised Saviour (verses 19-21). In Acts 2 we notice that Egyptians were present to hear the Apostle Peter preach the Gospel on the Day of Pentecost and were among the many who were converted that day when the New Testament Church was established. According to tradition, the Evangelist Mark, possibly along with those converts who returned to Egypt, spent much time preaching, teaching and church-planting in Egypt. In God's providence, Egypt was ripe for the fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy and the Christian faith spread very rapidly throughout the land of the Nile River.

Already the Old Testament Scriptures were available in the Greek language that dominated the northern part of the Nile River delta. This played a very important role, not only in facilitating the spread of the Gospel in Egypt, but also in establishing a very prominent academic role for early Egyptian Christians. Alexandria, with its great library, became a very important Christian centre. Leading figures in the development of Christian thought came from there. Those included church fathers Clement, Origen and Cyril.

Athanasius of Alexandria (296-372) was used by the Almighty Hand of the Lord to preserve the cardinal Gospel truth of Christ's deity. He stood valiantly, against long opposition, leading those who held faithfully to the biblical view on the nature of Christ. Arius, a very articulate and influential North African church leader, had propagated a heresy which denied Christ's eternal and everlasting deity. At once his teaching spread throughout the church and was followed by prominent church leaders. The Holy Spirit used Athanasiusí convincing Scriptural proof to expose the falsehood of Ariusí teaching. Thus, he led the church back to Scripture and away from philosophical speculation.

Corruption and Division Gives Way to Islam

Alexandria continued to be a very important Christian academic centre for about three centuries. By the turn of the sixth century, the competition between the Byzantine, Roman and Alexandrian leaders of the Christian church drove the church away from working towards the spiritual Kingdom of God and towards interest in earthly power and riches. The Church had divided into a Western Roman (Catholic) group and an Eastern Byzantine (Orthodox) group. The Eastern Church was in turn divided between those who followed the teachings of the Council of Chalcedon (which declared that Christ enjoyed two full and distinct divine and human natures) and those who followed the monophysite doctrine (which claimed that Christ's divine nature overcame his human nature). The Egyptian church rejected the teachings of Chalcedon and separated itself from the Byzantine wing of the Church. In the meantime both Western and Eastern churches lost their interest in the study of the Bible and their zeal for the proclamation of the Gospel. The biblical tradition of Athanasius, however, gradually gave way to formalism, liturgical prominence and religious superstition.

Egyptian Christians found themselves isolated, rejected and persecuted by both the Roman church and the Byzantine church. When the Muslim forces reached the Egyptian borders by the middle of the seventh century, they were warmly received by the leadership of the Egyptian Church (who also controlled the state) as allies against both Rome and Constantinople. The lack of Bible teaching and weakening of genuine Christian conviction, along with the advantages of adopting the religion of the ruling Muslims, led more and more Egyptian Christians to convert to Islam. Still, the number of those conversions was limited and did not disturb the coexistence between the ruling Arab Muslims and the wealthy, influential church hierarchy. For more than three centuries the Muslim authorities ruling Egypt dealt kindly with their Coptic hosts. (The English word "Egypt" comes from "Icopt". Thus, "Coptic" literally means "Egyptian".)

By the turn of the 11th century, however, the new Muslim Caliph (Al ñHakim) determined that it was time for Islam to take over as the religion of Egypt. He ordered the imposition of the Arabic language on Egyptians and introduced measures restricting freedom to practice the Christian religion. This included very high taxes on those who chose to remain Christian as well as on church properties and businesses. At first these developments affected only the northern third of Egypt, which rapidly gave in to Islamic power and influence. Still, even there the rich Egyptian church was able to pay the taxes imposed upon its properties as well as those imposed upon many poor Egyptian Christians. Rich Christian families did the same on behalf of fellow Christians. Those who could not find a way to pay the taxes and did not want to convert to Islam moved southward up the Nile River and settled in Upper Egypt.

Steadily the populous northern third of the country became predominantly Muslim. The Coptic Church became more and more inward-looking and defensive, fighting a losing battle for its existence by trying to preserve the Coptic language as an ethnic and religious language. This proved to be a horrendous mistake since the Coptic language gradually became archaic. It could not keep up with the vibrant Arabic language, the language of philosophical and scientific learning throughout the Middle East, North Africa, Eastern and Southern Europe for several centuries. Instead of teaching the people the Bible in a language they could understand, the Coptic church resorted to keeping the knowledge of Scriptures to the learned monks and priests who kept up with the Coptic language. Church services had to be performed in that dying language. By the middle of the nineteenth century, Christians throughout Egypt (including Upper Egypt) numbered less than 40% of the population. Due to emigration and the much higher birth rate of the Muslim population, the percentage of Christians in Egypt continued to decrease over the next one hundred and fifty years. Now it is estimated to be less than 18%.

The Arrival of Reformed Missions:

European Protestant missionary efforts in Egypt and the Middle East go as far back as the middle of the seventeenth century. The German/Moravian Lutheran effort in Egypt lasted for more than one hundred years between the early part of the 17th century and the middle of the 18th century. The Anglican involvement commenced in the early part of the 19th century and continued until modern times. It was not, however, until the middle of the nineteenth century that evangelical missionary efforts began to bear lasting fruit. The key to this success was the very insightful focus of effort of North American and European Reformed missionaries upon the translation of the whole of the Scriptures into the Arabic language. Eli Smith and Cornelius van Dyke, together with converted Arabic language scholars, such as Naseef Yaziji and Butros Bustani persevered to accomplish this goal. The "American Printing Press" in Beirut became an important instrument for making the word of God available to millions of Arabic-speaking people. The Egyptian Coptic Church, in the providence of God, quickly endorsed the distribution of the Arabic Bible as a means of keeping hold of its own people. During the second half of the nineteenth century the Lord, however, used the efforts of dedicated Bible-believing Reformed missionaries to disciple tens of thousands of Coptic people and scores of Muslims. This led to the establishment of vibrant Reformed congregations throughout the country. Quickly the missionaries saw that they must train local pastors, evangelists, elders, deacons and others. This approach of training indigenous leadership for the growing churches proved to be very prudent and effective. It was the earnest desire to provide adequately trained spiritual leadership for the Reformed churches which motivated missionaries to establish many schools and colleges in Egypt and other parts of the Middle East. Today, the Egyptian Reformed community is not only the largest Bible-believing community in the entire Mediterranean region, but also continues to play a very active role in evangelistic, church-planting and teaching efforts throughout the Arabic-speaking world.

A Vibrant Evangelically-minded Movement Within the Coptic Church

The availability of the Bible to the common people in Egypt, together with evangelistic materials gave birth to a movement of people interested in the Bible within the Coptic Church. The church leadership sought to exploit that interest by encouraging the idea of having Coptic Bible study groups. Several Coptic societies were organized in major cities throughout the country. One of the best known societies is called "The Society of Christ's Soldiers." These societies encouraged Coptic Orthodox Christians to study the Bible on a regular basis. This brought about the rise of a class of Coptic lay preachers and ultimately led to the use of Arabic as the main language of worship. Moreover, in recent years the educational standards for the Coptic priesthood have been raised greatly. Today, most priests are university graduates and include Arabic Scriptural readings and short sermons within their liturgies.

Until about ten years ago, this "evangelical" like movement was estimated to number over two million people. In recent years, due to scandals and divisions due to charismatic influences, most of its membership were disenchanted and reverted to the "protection" of being more closely connected to the mother church. The rest have become fragmented, either belonging to small charismatic house-church groups or joining one of the many evangelical denominations, including Reformed churches.

In the early fifties a number of converted Coptic Christians with a very keen interest in evangelism established an independent non-denominational organization called the "Society for the Salvation of Souls." They determined to stick to a simple "salvation" Gospel message and steer away from any other aspect of "controversial" doctrine. Very quickly they had much impact on thousands of Coptic church members who liked the freshness of the simple message and wanted to remain loyal to their mother church. Avoiding doctrine, however, proved to be impossible, especially since the movement largely relied on itinerant evangelists identified with one denomination or another. Today this organization is much smaller and has become a kind of joint effort of people from different churches (including Coptic and Reformed ones). They seek to hold occasional evangelistic campaigns and Sunday evening worship services as well as midweek Bible studies, prayer meetings, etc. They also publish devotional materials translated from English. Even though most of their publications tend to be Arminian and pietistic they have published some good materials from the pens of the likes of Spurgeon, Whitfield, Edwards and other Reformed and Puritan writers.

The Expulsion of Foreign Missionaries and Continuation of the National Churches:

With the fall of Palestine to Jewish control and the end of the World War II, a very strong pan-Arab nationalist movement captured the imagination of the people as the hope for gaining independence from colonial powers and restoring Palestine to Arab control. One by one, the Arab nations managed to gain freedom from British, French and Italian rule. Since foreign missionaries were viewed as importers of a "foreign religion," the Coptic Church leadership was just as zealous to see them removed from the country as the new nationalist rulers.

The freedom enjoyed by different evangelical foreign missionary entities to operate in Egypt ended by the mid 1950's. This proved to be a blessing in disguise for three reasons. First, it protected the Egyptian Reformed churches from the growing impact of liberal theology which influenced many of the younger missionaries. Second, it challenged the national churches to take on the full responsibility of caring for their own people and cease to rely on outside help for reaching out to and nurturing them. Third, the local churches gained the acknowledgment of their countrymen as enduring entities loyal to their own nation. Today, the Lord continues to use faithful Egyptian pastors, evangelists, elders and others to evangelize their own people and instruct them in His ways.

The Minority Persecution Complex:

Like all other Christian minorities, Egyptian Evangelical/Reformed people suffer from a persecution complex. It is true that one must never underestimate the immensity of the pressures of living in an oppressive Muslim atmosphere. Foreign visitors might become annoyed by the very noisy calls to prayer that ring out from every direction over loud speakers five times a day. Western Christians might find the position of women in Islam very offensive. Egyptian Christians are exposed to pressures that the average westerners cannot imagine. Corruption of government officials, the prevalence of bribery, dishonesty in the work place, religious hypocrisy are all common daily experiences. The culture is dominated by a very un-Christian world and life view. Most of the laws which apply to Muslims citizens affect local Christians. Moreover, Christians are at all times bombarded by verbal attacks on their beliefs even over public radio and TV. Neither are they allowed the freedom to defend their beliefs. Christians are often discriminated against in job appointments and/or promotions. There is also the pressure of being identified with the moral and social decadence of the "Christian" West.

So, it is true that Christians in Egypt do not enjoy a western-style freedom of religious expression. Yet, one must not exaggerate the element of persecution in Egypt. There is no official government sanctioned law discriminating against Christians. Also, upon examining a cross-section of Egyptian society, one will quickly observe that on the average Christians generally (and evangelical Christians particularly) tend to be more educated and better off economically. This is because they generally tend to be more ambitious and hard-working.

It is true that most Christians who are not self-employed have to work on Sundays. But they still are free to hold and/or participate in public worship services in the early mornings or evenings on Sundays. In some ways, living one's life as a Christian in Egypt might be easier than in some of the so-called free western societies where pressures against Christians are much stronger in subtle ways. Egyptian Christians often complain about the extreme difficulty obtaining building or repair permits for church structures from government officials. Yet, they are quick to admit that many of the church buildings that already exist are not used to full capacity. In the larger Cairo area alone Reformed Christians have access to more than fifty licensed church facilities. In brief, Christian worship or witness is not seriously hampered by lack of facilities or freedoms. Even though the law does not allow for public (or loud) evangelistic campaigns, churches and Christians "societies" are able to freely proclaim and hear the Gospel within the walls of licensed facilities and the privacy of their homes. Moreover, wise and prudent Christians always have quiet opportunities to effectively witness to Muslim colleagues, neighbours, and friends. Regardless of their religious bias, thinking Muslims usually have deep-down admiration and respect for Christian values and are often struck by the lives of those who live consistent Christian lives.

It is important for the Christian media not to be carried away by stories of persecution of Christians in Egypt. It is more important to emphasize the positive blessings Egyptian Christians enjoy and inspire their readers to give thanks for them and pray that Egyptian Christians make the most of the many wonderful opportunities they have to live for Christ and witness to him in Egypt. Our good Lord does allow only the measure of suffering which leads the church to repentance and/or stronger commitment to his ways. Most violent events which occurred in Egypt in recent years labeled as persecution against Christians were either the result of local rivalries between Muslims and nominal Christians or were avoidable had the "Christians" involved demonstrated a Christ-like spirit of turning the other cheek.

The Impact of Radio, Literature, the Internet, etc:

Evangelical Christians must always remember that it is the Lord who controls and directs movements and events in human history for the ultimate purpose of gathering and completing his people from among the nations. Even though much wrong is propagated over the radio waves, on TV, in printed materials and through the Internet, it is obvious that Lord is using such media very effectively to bring the Gospel message to millions of Muslims today. The amazing advance of technology has made it much easier for the Church to overcome man-made barriers to the proclamation of the Gospel, especially to Muslim people.

Two to three million Egyptian Muslims listen to Radio Monte Carlo's hourly newscasts and other secular programmes. It is estimated that one third of them continue on listening to the Gospel broadcasts aired afterwards every evening. This is confirmed by the volume of letters received in response to these Gospel messages. Teams of trained Egyptian believers eagerly follow up one-to-one the serious listeners who respond to these broadcasts.

Tens of thousands of Bibles, Bible portions and evangelistic tracts are being made available to Egyptian Muslims every year. In recent years Egyptian society has become far more open to reading Christian materials than in the past. Thousands of Muslims purchase them at Cairo's famous annual book fair. The Arabic Bible is now also available to be read and/or heard over the Internet. Some of MERF's Gospel broadcasts are also available on the Internet. Muslim browsers can listen to, read or even download such materials in the privacy of their own homes, even in a very closed country like Saudi Arabia. In Egypt the Gospel goes out far more freely.

Taking Care of Converts:

One of the most serious mistakes committed by the church in Egypt (and other parts of the Muslim and Arab Worlds) in the past was insistence on acts of isolation for converts. Most of the Arabic names that Christians have identified as Muslim were actually used by Arab Christians prior to the advance of Islam. They are, for the most part, meaningful Semitic names. Insisting on Muslim converts adopting a so-called "Christian name," as missionaries and Arab church leaders did in the past, created an unnecessary obstacle and offence. This practice stirred up families and communities of converts to disown and persecute them.

On the other hand, Egyptian Christians are normally suspicious of Muslim converts. They can quickly dismiss them as spies or (if they are young male converts) as interested in a having a Christian woman. Even though there have been some encouraging changes in the outlook of Egyptian pastors and other Christian leaders, the majority of believing Egyptians are still closed to the idea of trusting Muslim converts as genuine brothers and sisters in Christ.

Converts from Islam in most parts of the world, even from westernized families, are initially threatened and rejected. Providing intimate care and wise counsel to them is essential to enable them to remain in a country like Egypt and gradually regain the acceptance and love of their families. It is most important for them to be counseled not to speak ill of their former religion or unnecessarily offend their families or communities by open defiance. Initially, the testimony of a changed gracious life goes a long way in gaining the sympathies of those upset by their conversion.

We can all give thanks to the Lord that in recent years Egypt has become a much more open society and that the Church is more interested in providing responsible care to the growing number of converts. Still, we need to do much more praying and soul-searching as well as self-preparation for the great spiritual awakening the Lord may have in store for Egyptian and other Arab people.

Learn more about the work of MERF and its ministries through a variety of articles. These deal both with current work and the history of missions in the Middle East.


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