Egypt Trip Blog: The Church in Egypt
by Rob Weingartner
Our time here is quickly drawing to a close, and we are discovering that even as our hearts turn towards home, a part of our hearts will remain here, in Egypt, with the church. Outreach’s board chair, Rev. Dr. Nancy Fox, Stephanie Eshelman, a member of National Presbyterian Church, and I have been richly blessed, including by the Egyptians who joined us for our journey south to visit churches in the cities and villages of Upper Egypt. We thank God for Mourad Sedley (churchman and travel agent extraordinaire), Amany Shokry (staff with the Pastoral and Outreach Ministries Council of the Synod of the Nile) and Tharwat Wahba (Director of the POMC and Professor of Missiology at the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo.
Amazingly, as the Egyptian government has undertaken construction of 17 brand new cities, it has given land in most of them to the Presbyterian Church, contingent upon the church building quickly, sometimes within one year. We gathered to pray at the site of the church in New Minya whose congregation is now meeting in temporary facilities. They are working on the building plans and getting the approvals in place to move forward with construction. It is amazing to think that 25% of the Presbyterian church buildings have been built in the last ten years! God is opening up new opportunities all over the country.
The First Presbyterian Church in Mallawi, Egypt, was built in 1867-68 and is now pastored by Rev. Medhat. This large congregation is known for long pastorates, two of the pastors each served the congregation for 56 years, and active outreach ministries through off-site Sunday schools, revival days, clinics and meetings for study and fellowship for all age groups. But on August 16, 2013 the church was completely burned during a night of terror that saw 68 churches, ministry offices and Christian bookstores burned across the country. The Christians were being blamed for some of the political turmoil. Before and as the building burned, the attackers stole most anything of value and broke everything else. It was heartbreaking for the congregation, but through it all they have remained undaunted, staying focused on their mission and not retaliating. The church in Egypt has consistently responded to violence with forgiveness, and this steadfastness has been a powerful witness to the gospel.
In the case of Mallawi, the government directed the army to assist with the rebuilding of the sanctuary, which is almost finished, and the members of the church are slowly rebuilding the 7-floor ministry building beside the sanctuary. Thinking of Joseph’s assertion when his brothers knelt before him in Egypt – “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good” – I asked if any good had come out of all this terror and trouble. “Yes,” Pastor Medhat replied, ”The church needed to be demolished and rebuilt, and we were having trouble getting the permissions!”
Reaching out was (and is) a critical component of the congregation’s recovery from the violence and burning. At a time when relations with the church’s Muslim neighbors were strained, the church initiated peacemaking conversations which drew people together in families’ homes to restore friendships. The Presbyterians will prepare meals for their Muslim neighbors during Ramadan. It is a remarkable congregation which serves 300 children through their Kids’ Club and reaches out to support 1,100 families through its Love Ministry.
At Dronka we met Pastor Ibrahim, a participant in the Outreach Foundation-supported Lay Training Program that helped the denomination renew its ministry and revitalize congregations. Having gone on to seminary, Ibrahim was ordained just one week ago as a pastor. With 70-80 now in worship and 100 primary kids in Sunday school, the congregation founded in 1890 has permission to rebuild on its site after removing their dilapidated building.
This is an extraordinary time in Egypt for the church, including the 400,000 Presbyterians and their 400 congregations. Many of them are attempting to build large, beautiful buildings. They don’t know how long this window will stay open and so they build not primarily for themselves but for future generations. We were challenged by the believers’ commitment to sharing the gospel in a complicated context and inspired by the faith of those whom we met, some of whom still face pressure and persecution. We were excited to learn of the Synod of the Nile’s growing efforts to send missionaries themselves to other countries.
Several days ago we visited the grave of John Hogg (1833-1886), a Scottish pastor and one of the early missionaries to Egypt. He planted some 30 different churches. I wonder what he would think of the church in Egypt today so committed to church planting and now sending missionaries herself. Perhaps he would invite us to join him in singing a good mission hymn by Watts, “Jesus shall reign where’er the sun.”