Cover Story

The new Egyptian wilderness

"The new Egyptian wilderness" Continued...

Issue: "Trouble in Egypt," June 2, 2012

The Islamist dynamic isn't surprising in a country that's nearly 90 percent Muslim, and challenges to Christians may not be new but are now more open and direct. An estimated 12 percent of Egypt's population identifies as Christian-a designation given at birth. (National identity cards indicate an Egyptian's religion, and changing the designation from Islam to Christianity is forbidden.)

Most Egyptian Christians identify as Coptic Orthodox-an ancient tradition of Christianity and the oldest church in Egypt. A smaller percentage identify as Protestant or evangelical (often synonymous terms), making Egyptian evangelicals a minority within a minority.

Minority status brings huge hurdles: Egyptian regulations for building churches makes constructing-or even renovating-church buildings a sometimes decades-long process. Public evangelism is forbidden. Discrimination in the workplace is common. Social scorn is an ongoing reality in some areas. Beyond hassles, Christians have faced violence: Terrorists bombed the Coptic All Saints Church in Alexandria in January 2011, killing 23 congregants leaving a New Year's Eve service.

The growing Islamist power has compounded ongoing fears and sent thousands of Christians fleeing Egypt. In conversations with dozens of evangelicals in Cairo and Alexandria, many told me they knew dozens of Christians who had left the country and said more were contemplating a move.

At one evangelical congregation in Cairo, a longtime church member spoke in hushed tones and asked not to be identified when he talked about a handful of Christian friends who had fled since last year. He plans to stay, but admitted: "We are afraid the Islamists will kill the freedoms worse than before."

Despite the growing fears, other Egyptian Christians remain hopeful-and determined to stay. Back in Nasr City, the church's pastor, Shaker, seems buoyant when he talks about his church's vibrancy since the revolution. He says services remain packed (the congregation holds two services to accommodate 500 members) and that churches around the city are using the post-revolution environment to meet Muslim neighbors: "The churches are stepping outside their walls."

Churches in Cairo and Alexandria report new visitors, including Muslims curious about Christianity. (Since state police dispersed after the revolution, Christians and Muslims feel less scrutiny from local officials for now.)

Members of the Nasr City church continue their longtime efforts to serve their neighborhood: Three floors above the church hall, the congregation has operated a small community clinic for years. During a recent visit, patients sat in a small waiting room of the four-room clinic that maintains a dentist's office, a lab, and examining rooms for services that include cardiology and dialysis. Doctors from the church volunteer, and the clinic offers treatment for a nominal fee to all members of the community, including Muslims.

On another floor, the church operates a preschool program for community children at a low cost to parents that work outside the home. Children sit around low tables in colorful rooms working puzzles, coloring, and playing games. Volunteers teach the children using the Montessori method that stresses creativity and critical thinking-an innovative approach in a country that emphasizes learning by rote.

Shaker says such efforts have built the church's credibility in the community, and that they haven't encountered problems from government officials. They plan to continue working hard for as long as they can. "Of course there are some concerns that things could get harder," he says. "But I know the Lord is the Lord of the church, and He'll stay faithful to it."

Across town, the members of Kasr el Dobara have been working hard, too. The largest evangelical church in the Middle East is home to several thousand members that take turns packing into three worship services each week and a Monday night prayer meeting that draws more than 1,500 people.

The church has another notable feature: It sits on the edge of Tahrir Square-ground zero for political protests and filled by hundreds of thousands of demonstrators during the last year. The square has filled with protesters again during the days leading up to the presidential elections in May, but officials usually turn off streetlights in part of the area at night to discourage locals from assembling in the dark.

A handful of citizens remain on a patch of dirt in the center of the square full time, hovering over small campfires and sitting at doorways of makeshift tents. (Locals say the campers are family members of protesters slain during the demonstrations.)

Across the square and behind a government building, churchgoers streamed toward Kasr el Dobara for a recent Sunday night service. Each person filed through a high gate and a metal detector before passing into the church's grounds, but the extra security doesn't mean the church is closed to outsiders.

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