The Presbyterian Mission Agency Board (PMAB) issued a surprising comment about an overture from Pittsburgh Presbytery (11-02) which called for the Presbyterian Church (USA) to turn its attention to the plight of Christians suffering persecution due to sectarian violence in Egypt and other parts of the world.
The comment reads:
The suffering of the church in Egypt and other parts of the world is not only “due to sectarian violence and persecution.” There are many factors involved, including geopolitical and economic factors. The General Assembly should consider all the factors that result in and contribute to sectarian violence. For example, our mission partners in the Middle East have clearly pointed out that U.S. government policies (and Western attempts to dominate in general) affect them adversely by fueling sectarian tension. Therefore, the role of the U.S. government (often seeking national or special interests rather than principles the U.S. purports to support) should be addressed by the overture.
The overture names only the church in Egypt, and fails to mention the suffering of other Christian populations in the region. For example, following the 2003 American-led invasion of Iraq, more than half of the country’s Christian population became refugees. Likewise, the plight of Syrian Christians, Palestinian Christians, and others in the Middle East should not be neglected. Additionally, while the overture mentions “Other Parts of the World,” it does not consider countries outside of the Middle East, such as North Korea, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Sudan, where Christians suffer from maltreatment no less than in the Middle East.
Use of the word “persecution” mischaracterizes the nature of the maltreatment of Christians in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East, and in many cases would be an unhelpful exaggeration. At the same time, the Presbyterian Mission Agency and the Office of the General Assembly maintain ecumenical and interfaith relationships and humanitarian programs that can enable efforts such as those requested by the presbyteries submitting this overture.
Admittedly, the issue is complicated. So, I called an Egyptian Presbyterian serving as a missionary in the United States to help me understand.
His initial reaction to the comment by the PMAB was, “I was born and bred in the persecuted church. It is not an idea or research project for me. It is my life, my family, where I was raised and nurtured in the faith.” He expressed his gratitude for “the heroes of the faith who carry the banner of Cross” even though it costs them, dearly. He also expressed his dismay at the comment by the denomination’s highest council. “It is very condescending for people to impose their worldview by writing papers.”
“I consider persecution of the Church as one of the marks of the Confessing Church. I’m not talking about some silly commentator on American T.V. network who mocks the Christian faith. That is not persecution … real persecution of Christians is demonstrated in churches being burned and Christians being killed simply because they are a follower of Jesus Christ,” he said.
He also rebuffed the idea that the violence perpetrated by Muslims against Christians was economically motivated. “It has nothing to do with the fact that there is high unemployment and Muslims are angry at Christians because some of them are wealthy and have good jobs,” confirming that the differences are religious and the hatred is both historic and deep.
He then offered a history lesson about Christianity in Egypt. “There have been Christians in Egypt since the days of the apostles,” recalling Acts 8:24 with reference to Apollos who was a Jew native of Alexanderia Egypt and he became a companion to Paul and had influence on the church in Corinth (1 Cor. 3:6).
He said that “Coptic Tradition asserts that St. Mark is the one who brought the gospel to Egypt between 41-44 A.D. but from the day of Pentecost Jewish converts who heard about the Jesus’ came back to Egypt with the good news and within less than 2 centuries the Alexandrian school of Theology became one of the pillars of early Christian tradition and writings outside the New Testament,” referring to Clement of Alexandria 150-215 A.D.
The “Coptic people were in Egypt for hundreds of years prior to the Islamic invasion of Egypt in the 7th century.” He reminded me that the “Nicene Creed was largely drafted by a Greek speaking Egyptian theologian”– St. Athanasius of Alexandria in the 4th century. And then he talked as if the division in the Church that occurred in the 5th century was a personal wound that he experienced.
“The church in Egypt was weakened. And the Byzantine Chalcedonian Church persecuted the Coptic Christians over difference in doctrine concerning the nature of Christ which eventually deemed more linguistic rather than theological.”
“That weakening of the Church in Egypt,” he said, “made it easy for the Islamic invaders to overtake Egypt two centuries later. But even with that, Christianity remained the majority religion in Egypt at least to the 12th century when Islamic persecution resulted in mass conversions to Islam.”
Since the 12th century, Egypt has been a majority Muslim nation, “which made it of great interest to Presbyterian missionaries in the 19th century. That’s when you came to bless us with the Gospel. That’s when the revival that is underway today got started. You did it. Presbyterians.”
He said that because of the faithful evangelical witness of Presbyterian missionaries from 1850-1950, the “Presbyterian denomination in Egypt has at least a half a million people today. It is growing, even as the mother church here is shrinking.”
That’s why he’s here: To re-evangelize the nation (and denomination) that sent missionaries to Egypt 150 years ago.
I asked him to respond to the content of the overture itself.
“That overture sounds very good to me. Part of what may be confusing some is the official position of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt, which does not acknowledge that there is an official persecution and also there is a great hope with positive political changes in Egypt that Christians once again would be acknowledged as true stakeholders in the nation. However, some liberals are using this to say that Egypt is not under an official state of persecution.”
He then differentiated for me “official” persecution and discrimination from “societal” persecution and discrimination. “There is not an official decree by the government to persecute Christians, but there is a huge undercurrent of societal persecution.”
“Anyone who denies that there is pressure on Christians and persecution of Christians is denying the truth — but more importantly, denial of the persecution robs those who are persecuted of the spiritual blessing of being persecuted for the sake of Jesus and His kingdom.”
Jesus says in Matthew 5:11-12, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
“If I am already persecuted for Christ … and you deny it … you wound me again.”
He then addressed the part of the comment by the PMAB specifically related to Egypt.
“Why do we say Egypt, Iraq and Syria? Because we have had Presbyterian missions in these countries. There is a direct relationship. The official name of the denomination is the Synod of the Nile. Why is that? Because at a certain point in time, the Church in Egypt was an integral part of the Presbyterian Church in the United States. The Shenango Presbytery still has a mission to the Nile and the Sudan today. In this specific case we are talking about a specific relationship we helped initiate over a century ago. The PCUSA has a relationship with the Church in Egypt, that should not be denied.”
Neither, does he insist, should the reality of persecution.
“Prior to the fall of Mubarak — there were rolling attacks on Christians and churches in Egypt. I remember the Christians in Alexandria in January 2011 who were gunned down as they exited worship. Is that not persecution? Can you even imagine that? Of course you can’t because for you these are intellectual exercises, these are papers you write, for me this is my life, this is my family — and this is persecution. For the PCUSA to say that ‘mischaracterizes’ the situation or that it is ‘an unhelpful exaggeration’ is arrogance.”
I asked him to tell me what life is like for his Christian family and friends in Egypt today.
“Until recently, before the revolution, Christians were treated as second-class citizens in many practical ways. It has been very difficult for churches to get building permits or the permits needed to do maintenance on buildings and make repairs. Christians are also discriminated against in terms of employment. Your religion is written on your I.D. card — or, you might be discriminated against based on your Christian name which can be easily distinguished from Muslim names.”
He talked about many well-documented cases of Christian persecution in Egypt including the “burning churches is an act of hatred toward a people group,” adding that these should not be mischaracterized as “a response of socio-economic jealousy.”
He then shared about a mutual friend, a pastor of a large Presbyterian Church in Egypt. He asked, “Did you know that man was almost kidnapped about 10 years ago and that he had to run for his life?” I did not know that. “This is a man you know. This is a man we both know. He was persecuted for his faith in Jesus Christ, and his life was in grave danger. God uses this man to transform the Church in Egypt in many amazing ways. To deny his persecution for Christ is to deny him his witness.”
And as Presbyterians living in freedom and peace in the United States we dare not do that to a brother on the front line of the real battle.
My conversation partner asked not to be fully identified because he still has family in Egypt and to speak publicly – even in America – about the status of Christians in Egypt, puts his family at risk.
The overture discussed here will be before the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) when it meets in Detroit, June 14-21.