Arab spring or winter?
Conversations with the President of Cairo’s Evangelical Theological Seminary
By Carmen Fowler LaBerge, The Layman, January 19, 2012
ORLANDO, Fla. — A student at Reformed Theological Seminary asked the President of the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo, Dr. Atef Gendy, about the support that Egyptian Christians are receiving from the global church.
The eminently polite professor answered very slowly, “I don’t want to be negative. I really have gratitude to the global church. My church and the seminary where I work is the product of American missionaries. But more than the dollar or financial support, minority Christians need Western Christian churches to provide moral and ethical support. When the church in the West stands for just and right causes, we are blessed. But when unwise ethical positions are taken, that impacts us in a very negative way. Muslims use that as legitimacy. I am sorry to be so bold.”
Those “moral and ethical positions” to which Gendy refers are front of mind for the more than 2,100 Presbyterians he will address on Thursday night as the headline preacher for worship at the Fellowship of Presbyterians event. But for those gathered to hear Gendy on Tuesday evening at an event sponsored by Overseas Council and for the group gathered at RTS for the President’s Forum on Wednesday, the subject matter was largely the tremendous shifts taking place in the Middle East.
Providing some context for the discussion, Gendy described Egypt. He said that because of the Nile and the desert, Egypt’s 81 million people are “squeezed on about 3 percent of the land.”
In terms of religious preference, he said that Egypt’s population is “85 percent Muslim and 13-15 percent might be Christian.” When asked why there is not more certainty, Gendy noted that “for political reasons, we don’t have accurate data.” He went on, breaking down the percentages of Christians further. “Eighty-five percent of the Christians belong to the Coptic Orthodox which was started in the first century — 10 percent are Protestant and 5 percent Catholic.” He also shared that the Gross Domestic Product in Egypt is less than $3,000/person.
The realities that led the people of Egypt to rise up in open opposition to their government on Jan. 25, 2011, Gendy outlined as including:
- a lack of democracy
- a lack of freedom
- a lack of social justice
- a lack of jobs and therefore widespread poverty
- a lack of dignity in terms of how people are treated, especially by the police
- widespread corruption
“The people of Egypt were hopeless and for many years, they thought they were also helpless. People were literally led to light themselves on fire in front of the Parliament. Then everything changed,” Gendy said.
He outlined several positive outcomes and many negative realities that have resulted. “In the beginning,” Gendy said, “the demonstrations were peaceful and Egypt was united as a nation. Protestors were able to overthrow a very well established dictator in 18 days. There was great optimism — great hope. In the beginning, the intervention of the army was positive.
The trial of Mubarak and his son and the other regime leaders was positive. The freedom we experienced in terms of media was new and exciting. And the Church had a great role in the street.” Here Gendy shared stories of the church of Sameh Maurice, which opened its large facility during the revolution and offered itself as a field hospital. Gendy describes the goodwill that lingers throughout Cairo toward the people of that church.
Then Gendy turned his attention to what he describes as “negative outcomes.”
- The collapse of the Ministry of Interior resulted in the ongoing absence of security.
- He described the reality: “Imagine living in a place where one day there are 1.5 million police officers and the next day there are none. More than 33,000 prisoners escaped from prison.
- There was no one managing traffic. There was no one to respond when people broke into homes. The faculty of the seminary stood shoulder to shoulder in front of the campus to protect it.” He concludes, “for 15 days it was terrifying.”
- Demonstrators were killed and wounded.
- Thousands of “blacklisted” Islamic fundamentalists returned to Egypt from exile in Afghanistan and Iran.
- There continues to be violence and an increase in crime.
- There are now frequent strikes and sit-ins and protests “because,” Gendy says, “people thought they would have democracy in a day.” Instead, the stock market, economy and tourism have collapsed and there is a rise in unemployment.
- There is also a growing suspicion about the alliance between SCAF and two different groups of Islamist fundamentalists.
Dr. Don Sweeting, President of Reformed Theological Seminary-Orlando asked Dr. Gendy to discuss further the differences among Muslim groups and the rise of the more fundamentalist branches.
Gendy responded that “there is a diversity among Muslims. There are tens of different groups but three big groups: moderate Suni Muslims who are socially liberal. They look for civil society and would respect diversity. Working with them is a pleasure. We have no problem as neighbors or colleagues. This is a group that represents a large number in the population. But because of power and money, two other groups have louder voices.”
Gendy continued, “The Muslim Brotherhood started in 1928 and is political Islam. Their goal is to Islamize the whole culture – education, art – everything. Sometimes they use violence but not usually. They want a religious state and if this would happen, Christians and moderate Muslims would…
The third group is militant Islam. They are salifists; they believe in the use of violence, including the use of the sword, to achieve God’s teaching according to Islamic laws. These two groups together won close to 65 percent of the last election.”
Sweeting asked, “Why?”
Gendy responded, “There are several reasons, number one, there is frustration from previous secular governments that did very little to help people. So the people want to try a religious state. Second, and unfortunately, close to 40 percent of the people are illiterate and religious. It is easy to say to them that if you support liberal people, you are not with Islam. Another reason is that the Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood have had 80 years of organization — other parties are only recently formed since the revolution. It is not easy to organize for national elections that quickly. And four, these fundamentalist groups receive lots of outside money and so they have the ability to hire many people and even bribe people for their votes.”
Gendy also shared that as fundamentalist Islamic influence is growing, Christians are leaving both Egypt and the region. He said that “in 1948, 40 percent of the Palestinians were Christians. Now it is less than 1 percent. In Iraq, 15 percent of the population was once Christian. Now, maybe 3 percent — and, in Lebanon, 65 percent to 30 percent.” Egypt was once 100-percent Christian (prior to the arrival of Islam in the 7th century). “But today, as we have said, maybe 13-15 percent Christian.”
Christians in Egypt have many concerns as the influence of Islamists grows. Gendy enumerated seven concerns.
1. The hope for greater freedom has turned to fear of less religious freedom. We anticipate more restrictions on freedom to worship, evangelize and the banning of conversion to Christianity.
2. The hope of greater freedom of expression has turned to fear of t
he imposition of Islamic dress codes on women and the banning of liberal art and movies.
3. The hope of greater social justice has turned to fear of greater discrimination against women.
4. The hope of greater freedom of the press and education has turned to fear of an intensified effort toward Islamic culture through schools and the media.
5. The hope of economic expansion has turned to fear of heavy restrictions on tourism to keep Western influences out of Islamic culture.
6. The hope of opportunity to improve has turned to fear of heavier restrictions on church buildings, construction and renovation.
7. The hope of freedom has turned to fear of Jizyah and the application of the law of the confines, where stoning is used against those who commit adultery and the cutting off the hand for theft.
Sweeting asked simply, “Atef, what is going on?”
Atef responded, “Very rapid change. Egypt is used to a very static pace of life. Now, every month, the ups and downs in our emotions are amazing. From hope to hopeless comes very quickly. In 18 days, demonstrators were able to stand for very appropriate requests: freedom, social justice, dignity, and were able to force Mubarak and his regime to step down. Mostly through very peaceful demonstrations.
We felt very hopeful that we would reach a modern democratic state in a short time. But as you can see, every month there is violence, sit-ins, lots of strikes and the performance of some major players like the Supreme Council of Armed Forces, SCAF, is no longer the same.”
“So,” Sweeting inquired, “is it an Arab spring or is it more accurately an Arab winter?”
Gendy replied, “I think it is turning into Arab winter. We are fighting very hard to restore the revolution that we feel was hijacked by Muslim fundamentalists during the last election. Things are not as good as they started but we still have hope. “
That hope, Gendy declares, comes as Christians reconnect with the core theology of the Gospel. He is calling for the restoration of the proclamation and living out of the theology of the Incarnation, the theology of the Cross and the theology of the resurrection.
Gendy says, “Christians in Egypt need to recall and live into their theology — first, the theology of the Incarnation. The Body of Christ must embody Christ. This requires kenesis and dispensing with the comfortable. We cannot just watch and be either happy or sad about – nor can we just pray for salvation to come from outside. We must embody what we believe. We need to be the body of Christ. There is no escape.”
He continues, “Next is the theology of the Cross and suffering. If you want to follow Jesus, you must expect and accept and carry the Cross. Authentic Christianity does not exist apart from the Cross.” The speaker choked up as he said, “We don’t ask for problems and persecution but we must be willing to give our lives for the One who gave his life for us.”
Regaining his composure, Gendy made his final teaching point. “And then, we need to live the hope of the resurrection. The Cross is not the end nor the destiny. The grain of wheat must fall to the ground and die in order that it might bring fruit. Resurrection is true and the hope of resurrection is the hope that people in Egypt and everywhere need as the answer to all their needs. The problems in Egypt are problems that the Gospel answers.”
Dr. Gendy is the President of the Evangelical Seminary in Cairo, Egypt (ETSC) where he also serves as an associate professor of New Testament. ETSC began as a school boat floating down the Nile River in 1863. Today, the seminary has 240 students. The seminary is a primary training institution for the evangelical Presbyterian Church of Egypt, graduating all of its prospective pastors and a majority of its lay leadership.