The other night, in our Cairo (Egypt) living room, as our small group gathered for the first time in 2012, we found ourselves reflecting gratefully on the fact that the past several weeks, from Advent through New Year’s and into Coptic Christmas, had come and gone in relative peace compared to 2011.
Recall the terrorists bombing a church in Alexandria on January 1, 2011, the out of control mob killing a dozen more Christians in March, the military’s heavy handed treatment of primarily Christian protesters in May, and then their deliberate slaughter of dozens more, mostly Coptic Christians, on October 9.
While Christians were not the only ones suffering to bring about change and freedom in Egypt, they did pay with their blood. And yet, as we looked back this week, we found ourselves thinking and praying: perhaps it has all been of God, perhaps this year and these sacrifices were for the greater good, perhaps the Arabic, Egyptian, Coptic church will finally become more visible and beautiful to this Muslim majority than it has been in decades, or centuries. Perhaps God is doing a new thing.
Isaiah 43:18-19 tell us: “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland.”
For the first time in living memory, and recent history, the church in Egypt seems to be waking with a renewed vision, with hunger for prayer, thirst for justice, seeking to be salt and light, to intercede for neighbors, and to stand up for their faith, with confidence, even in the face of threats and violence. And what is blossoming from this development is amazing.
One quick story.
This happened in mid-November, after Egyptian Christians had begun to gather in unprecedented numbers, with never-before-seen unity, tens upon tens of thousands, many denominations together, making peace, to pray, in vigil, interceding for the church and for the country. It was at this time that poison teargas was being sprayed at demonstrators in Tahrir Square, and tented first-aid clinics began to spring up, in the square, but mostly in nearby mosques, because they provided shelter and safety.
Then a God thing began to happen.
One mosque near Tahrir was exposed or targeted, and medical personnel were sprayed, forcing doctors and nurses to scatter, taking supplies and patients with them. One Muslim doctor, out of need for safety and a place to help his patients, joined a clinic in the courtyard of a large church near Tahrir. In fact, they welcomed him. They provided space and supplies. They encouraged him to bring in other personnel and patients. And then, when asked where he could go when he heard the Muslim call-to-prayer, they said, “Come to the sanctuary, where we pray.”
Since then, other Muslims joined this doctor and the members of the church, gathering together for common prayer meetings, and to sing—the words were so inviting, “God help our country, show love to our country, have mercy on our country again,” that, side-by-side, bearded Muslim men and veiled Muslim women sang, with the Christians, united in heart.
About a week later, within a similar meeting, the pastor of this church spotted a Muslim Sheikh sitting on a middle pew. Like a Rabbi, Sheikhs are those who have memorized the Koran and studied at Al-Azhar, Cairo’s centuries old University of Islam. The pastor welcomed him. There was much clapping. Then, out of respect, in a symbol of deference and honor and humility, the pastor of that large church invited this Sheikh to come forward and say a few words. He did. I am sure it took great courage.
He said, “I am from Al-Azhar, and I thank you for what you have done here. I bring greetings from all the Sheikhs in Al-Azhar, because we know that in all of our writings, in our holy book, it says that we should love the Christians. I am so glad that I have been here. It pleases me greatly to see you praying for our country, because your requests are the same as ours. You pray for the same hope as we have. Except, while we ask like you, we do not ask with tears the way you do. So I see that you truly love this country, and are praying for us with tears. And I thank you.”
Who would have believed, a year ago, that such a statement of trust, solidarity, and respect could be made, by a Sheikh, in a church, in Cairo? Who could think that the deaths of Christians which ushered in 2011 would be among the sparks that would set off a revolution? And who, in the thousand year Islamic history of Cairo, would ever have said that this month, this past New Year’s Eve, hundreds of Christians would stand, side-by-side, together with thousands of Muslims, freely participating in prayer and singing and worship, in the most public outdoor place in all of Egypt, Tahrir Square, “Liberation” Square? This is a new reality. Perhaps God is doing a new thing. This is our prayer. This is why we’re here: to witness it.