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Signs of hope for Christians in Egypt

17 October 2014


WHEN supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood set fire to Egyptian churches and Christian-run businesses and social centres in August last year (News, 23 August 2013), they intended to spark a civil war between the country's majority Muslim and ten per cent Christian populations.

Instead, the attacks united the majority of Christians and Muslims in Egypt against a sectarian approach, and helped to reinforce a new image of the country's Christians: that they were patriotic Egyptians, too.

One of the worst-hit areas was the town of El Minya, about 140 miles south of Cairo. Engy Magdy took her youngest child, Ganna, to the town's Amir Tadros Coptic Orthodox Church to be baptised; the next day, the church had been gutted. The outer walls and stone columns were all that remained.

But the 30-year-old mother-of-three described the attacks as a "blessing", because the new church, which is being rebuilt by the army, will be bigger than the previous church, and will have a second storey (above).

Ms Magdy's view, that life for Christians in Egypt is better after the attacks, is shared by many of the country's Christian leaders, including Dr Ehab El Kharrat, whose consulting room in Tahrir Square, Cairo, still bears the signs of bullet damage from the protests.

Dr Ehab was elected to the upper house of the country's Parliament, the Shura Council, after the first revolution, and chaired its Human Rights Commission. He also presents Bridges, a weekly live current-affairs programme on the Christian Arabic television channel Sat-7; and he credits the work of Bridges as helping to change the way in which Christians in Egypt are viewed.

"We have contributed to raising awareness . . . of the spiritual principles in politics," he said. "We demand religious freedoms for all. We put the public interest [before] the interest of our churches. And maybe this contributed to what happened when people got their churches burned, and they said: 'But the country is in a better state; so we will build our churches again.'"

In the aftermath of the attacks, the leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church, Pope Tawadros II, urged people not to protect the buildings, and told Christians that they were the Church, not the buildings.

But perhaps the biggest transformation in the way in which Christians are viewed in Egypt came about through the use of Kasr El Dobara Evangelical Church, at the opposite end of Tahrir Square from Dr Ehab's office, as a field hospital during the revolutions.

"We felt there was a role for the church here," a volunteer administrator, Eva Botros, said. "Usually, the church is isolated . . . and the only connection we used to have between the church and society was the community services.

"The situation in the Square was increasing and increasing until the attacks turned to be like a war in the street. The wounded people became unlimited, and some of the Muslim doctors who were offering little field hospitals in the streets ran towards the wall of our church and said: 'Can we hide our stuff?'

"I connected them with our Pastor, and said, 'We have doctors at the door; they are being attacked by the army and by the police and they can't make a field hospital.' In a very courageous way, he said [to] help them inside the church. And that's how the field hospital started."

The country's leading doctors from medical universities in Cairo joined the volunteers, and ambulances brought the injured to be operated on.

The work of the church attracted national media attention: "Every day we were on the TV," Ms Botros said. "They were saying: What was going on in the square? What was going on all over Egypt? And what was going on in Kasr El Dobara Church? It was as if the Lord wanted to lift it up."

When a message went out on Twitter to say that the army was attacking the church, members of the Egyptian parliament, religious leaders, and other celebrities stood between the troops and the church with a message that anybody attacking Kasr El Dobara was attacking "the shelter of Egypt".

The importance of Kasr El Dobara Church in Egyptian culture was demonstrated on New Year's Eve 2011, when an overnight prayer-service was broadcast on Sat-7. Several of the mainstream channels in Egypt began relaying Sat-7's coverage, leading hundreds more people - from members of parliament to prominent Muslims - to turn up at the church to take part in the service, which continued until past 4 a.m. A weekly service from the church is now broadcast live on Sat-7 every Friday afternoon.

The buildings on either side of the church were destroyed during the revolution; and the church itself, in contrast to the churches in El Minya, survived unscathed.

"God is good, and he has a plan for each church," Ms Botros said. "Those churches that were on fire, the Lord is blessing them now much more. . . The Lord turned all of this to be for his glory. Maybe he used our church to be a field hospital to help people and to treat them; and he used the other churches that were on fire to be announcing his forgiveness."

Kasr El Dobara Church is now afforded official protection: an armoured police van and several armed officers are stationed outside the church; and visitors must go through airport-style metal detectors before entering. When rumours of new protests surface, a fire engine is sent on standby.

In El Minya, building work continues at the Amir Tadros church, but that has not stopped the congregation returning to what remains a construction site (health-and-safety rules are more relaxed in Egypt than they are in the UK). Worshippers first returned to the site for an impromptu service just two days after the attack; and, today, Sunday services take place amid the sound of builders' hammers.

The Second Evangelical Presbyterian Church near by still carries the marks from the Molotov cocktails that were thrown at it during the August 2013 attacks. A number of its decorative, small blue-glass square windows have melted; but the church itself was relatively undamaged.

"All of the churches came together. It was a very good sign that people came together to pray for the country," Pastor Essam Ataia said. And now: "It is a very good time for the church, because people are now more open - very open; and easily you can speak with people about the gospel.

"People are coming to us; they are open, ready to hear about the gospel, and they are searching, waiting for people to go to them."

Gavin Drake visited Egypt as a guest of the Christian television station Sat-7.

ON TUESDAY next week, Sat-7 will broadcast an official visit made by the Egyptian Prime Minister, Ibrahim Mahlab, and Pope Tawadros II to a church in Cairo that is revered by Copts as the site where the Holy Family stayed after their flight from Bethlehem. In a sign of the increasing recognition of Christian institutions, it is the first time that the Egyptian government has invited Sat-7 to be the official broadcaster of the event.

Sat-7 seeks to provide "culturally relevant" Christian TV across the Middle East and North Africa. The network, whose headquarters are in Cyprus, and which has broadcast stations in Beirut, Istanbul, and Cairo, has four stations that serve Arabic-, Farsi-, and Turkish-speakers; and a dedicated Arabic-language channel for young people, Sat-7 Kids.


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