Hello there! Welcome to Open Door Southern Africa’s virtual trip to Egypt! My name is Samantha, and I will be your trip leader and guide. Before each trip, Open Doors trains all travellers. This email aims to prepare you for our trip.
Today we’ll be taking you on a journey, learning about the country, from its most interesting facts on the Body of Christ, to its political landscape. We’ll also be discussing the main factors that drive persecution in the land and why Open Doors helps the Church to continue carrying the message of Jesus Christ throughout the country.
With a human history stretching right back to the book of Genesis in the Bible, Egypt is considered one of the world’s oldest populated countries. A desert land, fed by the Nile River, Egypt’s written history can be traced back to almost 4 000 B.C., carrying great significance in human history.
Today, Egypt is one of the world’s most visited countries, drawing many people to explore its ancient monuments to try and catch a glimpse into a world long past. For Christians, this country holds special biblical significance, because of the stories of Joseph and Moses through to the New Testament when Jesus and his family fled to Egypt to escape King Herod. Notably, Egypt was where one of the world’s oldest churches was founded by the apostle Mark. Let’s dig deeper and find out more about this fascinating country…
THE CHURCH IN EGYPT
The Coptic (Egyptian) Orthodox Church, claims its origins in the apostle Mark who brought the Gospel to Egypt. This took root in Alexandria, where a vibrant Church developed with its own school of theology in the 2nd century. One of its foremost theologians, Athanasius of Alexandria (+373 A.D.) was instrumental in the understanding of the Trinity. Interestingly, the Coptic church became the birthplace of monasticism, on which the Monastery of St. Anthony located in the Eastern Desert of Egypt became an important model for monasticism throughout Europe.
The early Church started suffering severe persecution under Roman rule, to whom Egypt was subject to during the period 284 A.D. Many Christians suffered torture and death by mass execution under the brutal reign of Diocletian, Emperor of Rome at that time. Once Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire, Coptic Christians found themselves in danger since their theology had been branded heretical at the Council of Chalcedon (451 A.D.). Further hardship for the Church followed when the Arab armies conquered Egypt (639-646 A.D.) and led to severe persecution with the advent of Islam in the region. The Church went into survival mode and stopped playing a public role in society. By the 10th century, Coptic Christians had decreased in number to about half of the population in the country.
Christians in the region were given a reprieve from persecution under British rule in Egypt (1882–1952), with Christians given much freedom. However, that freedom has been slowly eroded since the Egyptian Revolution in 1953, mostly on a community and familial level.
Today, the vast majority of Christians belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church (about 93%). Along with this denomination, church life constitutes the Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Church, the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church and various other smaller denominations who entered Egypt from the 18th century.
THE POLITICAL, SOCIAL AND ECONOMIC LANDSCAPE
Today, Egypt is a republic with a president (currently Field Marshal Abdul Fattah al-Sisi) who was sworn into power in 2014. President Al-Sisi came into power after a period of instability between 2011 and 2014, when President Hosni Mubarak was forced to step down during the Arab Spring uprisings. After he was deposed, Mohamed Morsi, a politician and senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood won the presidential election. Once in power, President Morsi assumed dictatorial executive powers alienating many Egyptians. The people organised demonstrations and uprisings which were supported by the police, army, businessmen and prominent Islamic and Christian Coptic religious figures. President Morsi was ultimately ousted by the army who adopted its own transitional road map. This led to the adoption of a new constitution and new parliamentary and presidential elections.
When the new constitution was implemented, President al-Sisi ran as a civilian for the presidential election. Given the personality cult built around him before the election, he won with an overwhelming majority. Since his ascent to power, there has been a large-scale crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood. In 2018 he was re-elected with 97% of the votes.
Islam is the dominant religion in Egypt, with about 85% of Egyptians identifying as Muslim. Although Christianity has deep roots in Egypt, Christians are often marginalised and treated as second-class citizens in modern Egypt. Egypt seeks to be a social and cultural centre of Islam. It continues to be influential in this through its Islamic Al-Azhar University and its media production houses.
The population of Egypt isn’t as ethnically diverse as other countries in the north of Africa. Egyptians share a strong national identity. Unfortunately, deep social fault lines between the Christian and Muslim population uproot this due to their contrasting belief systems. In the more rural areas, especially in Upper Egypt, radical Islamists promote aggression, and attitudes of rejection towards Christians, particularly Christian women and children. Women and children from rural Christian communities are often targets of kidnapping either for conversion, ransom or forced marriage. In general, women are considered inferior to men in Egypt, whether Christian or Muslim. This view compounds their vulnerability as Christian women, children, and communities.
Economically, many Egyptians live below the poverty line of $2 (approximately R30) a day, although this has increased compared to 2015. Structural problems of illiteracy and unemployment continue to devastate the Egyptian economy. Low levels of health awareness and education are common for many Egyptians. Domestic violence is widespread, and power dynamics are at play in all levels of society. An example of the power play is Muslims oppressing Christians; men oppressing women; institutions oppressing individuals, and so forth.
All these factors come into play when looking at the persecution of the Egyptian Church. Let’s have a look at the drivers of persecution at work in Egypt today.
FACTORS DRIVING PERSECUTION TODAY
Three main drivers of persecution in Egypt can be identified today. Mainly Islamic oppression, clan and ethnic antagonism and dictatorial paranoia. Although these are not exhaustive and various other factors may also be identified. Let’s unpack these three persecution drivers:
Islamic oppression: This generally takes the form of violence and non-violence. Christians are viewed as second-class citizens in Egypt, who are actively undermined and not provided for in policy decisions. Education, for example, in the public school system is based only on Islamic ideology, giving Christian children no other choice but to participate to receive an education. Many Islamic teachers promote antagonism towards Christians, making Christian church buildings easy targets for violence. Church buildings are often burnt and destroyed by mobs, Christians are accused of blasphemy toward Islam (often falsely) and made to serve lengthy jail sentences.
Dictatorial paranoia: Egypt’s government have been characterised by its dictatorial style, which is mostly maintained despite the deposition of two dictatorships between President Hosni Mubarak (2011) and President Mohamed Morsi (2013). However, it would seem that the despot nature of government remains an institutional reality for many Egyptians. For Christians, this means there is little focus on enforcing fundamental religious freedom and human rights. This leaves very little room for Christians to worship in safety. An example of this is when atrocities committed against Christian communities are left unpunished, leaving communities in a constant state of anxiety and preventing Christians from fully living out their faith.
Clan and ethnic antagonism: Ethnically, Egyptians are either Coptic Christians or Arab Muslims. However, there is little distinction between these groups. There is, however, a strong ideological divide between the two major religions and subsequently adherents of these religions. In general, tribal thinking is a vital element of Arab countries like Egypt, which strongly influences group thinking. This often leads to verbal and physical violence aimed at those outside the group, which is often Christians. In Upper Egypt, this can lead to violent mobs targeting Christian communities, their church buildings or families.
Watch this short video to get a glimpse into what Islamic oppression and clan and ethnic antagonism looks like in Egypt:
WHY DO WE GO
One of the consequences of persecution for the Church is the feeling of isolation and hopelessness that can overcome believers. The Church is cut off from life-giving resources such as access to Bibles, teaching tools, prayer support and finance through a systematic and strategic system of persecution engines, either from the government or their own communities.
Open Doors has been working since 1955 to strengthen and support the persecuted Church worldwide. This vision started when Brother Andrew, the founder of Open Doors, received the following verse from the Lord: Revelations 3:2 “Wake Up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have found your deeds unfinished in the sight of my God.” Since then, we have been walking alongside the persecuted Church with the help of the rest of the Body of Christ through prayer, financial support and presence support.
We live by the principle taught to us in 1 Corinthians 12:26: “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it.”
I look forward to taking you on a journey to give you a glimpse into the suffering our persecuted family in Egypt endure. But also, a journey to rejoice in the hope that we share as one Body in Christ Jesus, no matter what we face!
Please do not forward this email and subsequent emails about this trip to anyone, do not start SMS or WhatsApp chains, do not say anything about the trip on any social media or internet site, and do not publish anything in a church newsletter. This applies before, during and after the trip. Your compliance will help protect Open Doors work and will ensure that we, as an organisation, can continue to safely support the persecuted Church in Egypt.
Psalm 46: 11
“The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.”