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Evangelicals woo Egyptian Copts

Orthodox Christians are accusing Protestants of recruiting youths as part of a plot to convert the country's eight million Copts.
Evangelical Egyptians attend a prayer meeting in Cairo recently.
Evangelical Egyptians attend a prayer meeting in Cairo recently.

CAIRO // As the largest religious minority in a nation of Muslims, Egypt's Coptic Orthodox Christians have long felt a sense of battered yet unimpeachable pride: their faith is strong, their institutions sound and, perhaps most importantly, their presence on the banks of the Nile predates Islam's by several centuries. But over the past few months, the Orthodox church's traditionally defensive stance has turned to face a new opponent. Prominent Orthodox leaders have publicly accused Protestant Evangelicals - a Christian sect with strong roots in the United States - of recruiting Orthodox youth as part of a broader plot to evangelise Egypt's estimated eight million Christians.

The growing row among Christian denominations has challenged old assumptions about the pre-eminence of the Orthodox faith in Egypt's vibrant Christian life. "There are many rules among [Christians]. One of the most important of these rules is not to recruit people from one church to another," said Father Abdel Masiih Basiit, the pastor of St Mary's Orthodox Church of Mostarid in Qalubiya, about an hour north of Cairo. "[The Evangelicals] did not respect this rule."

While Evangelical leaders acknowledge that they receive financial backing from the United States - just as the Coptic church takes support from the Orthodox diaspora - they have fervently denied that there is any such recruitment scheme. Like any religious institution, community leaders say, Evangelicals welcome all those who want to learn more about their faith. To the extent that Evangelicals do proselytise, it is to those Christians whose faith has lapsed and who may lack allegiance to a specific Christian sect, say Protestant leaders.

"We have to admit that the Evangelicals, in relative time, they are newcomers, said Andrea Zaki a church leader and a deputy director for the Lausanne Movement, an international Evangelical organisation. "They came to this country officially only 150 years ago. It is very normal that the majority of Christians would feel threatened by some people who come after." When Evangelical Protestants first arrived in Egypt in the 19th century, their original goal was to spread their message among the country's Muslim faithful. After that strategy met with resistance, the Evangelicals shifted focus toward evangelising - a euphemism for proselytising and one of the central tenets of Evangelical faith - Coptic Orthodox believers.

But a century and a half later, Orthodox Egyptians still enjoy a hegemony of sorts. While about 90 per cent of Egyptians are Muslims, Orthodox Copts represent 90 per cent of non-Muslims. Exact statistics are difficult to come by, but the fact that Evangelical Protestants are known to share the remaining one per cent of non-Muslim, non-Orthodox Egyptians with Roman Catholics and other faiths renders them an almost negligible minority within a minority.

The recriminations from Orthodox leaders began this summer over rumours of a CD that Father Basiit said had been distributed among Evangelicals. Documents on the disk apparently described a plan to fully convert Egypt's Christians to Protestantism within the next two decades. Those rumours dovetailed with wider perceptions of the Evangelicals as an aggressive, American-funded missionary campaign with a pied-piper approach to proselytising. Orthodox leaders were particularly critical of Evangelical youth organisations - through retreats, football games and prayer meetings, among others - as a means of reaching potential converts.

Orthodox leaders responded to last summer's rumours with accusations in the Egyptian media as well as with some disciplinary action for its own clergy. Bishop Bishoy, the secretary of the Holy Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Church and the church leader charged with internal discipline, will officially reprimand Orthodox priests who have been accused of Evangelical sympathies in hearings scheduled for later this month.

Bishop Bishoy did not respond to requests for comment, but Father Basiit said the priests are suspected of "reading too many Protestant books" and spreading Protestant ideology in their sermons. If they are found "guilty" of such crimes, the church could restrain their religious duties. All of this may point to insecurities within the Orthodox community rather than predatory proselytising on the part of Evangelicals, said Sameh Fawzi, a Coptic Orthodox intellectual and the managing editor of the church's weekly newsletter, Watani.

"If the Coptic Orthodox Church provided a high level of religious services, people would not leave their own churches," Mr Fawzi said, adding that football matches and religious retreats do not figure as prominently in the more old-fashioned sensibilities of the Orthodox Church. "[Protestants] provide the same services, but sometimes the quality of the social services is much better." In the end, said Father Basiit, the feuding between the churches comes down to a question of resources. The Coptic Orthodox Church, with its approximately 8 million members, has not always been able to provide the same kind of personal attention to individual parishioners as Evangelicals.

Now, faced with new competition from within the once-cohesive Christian community, the Orthodox church may have to try harder to hold the allegiance of its membership. Father Basiit said the Orthodox church is now making a particular effort to reach out to Christians in rural Upper Egypt, where Evangelicals have reportedly made inroads. But despite the interfaith sabre-rattling, the vast majority of Egyptian Christians see few important differences between the Orthodox and Protestant doctrines - at least, not enough to create a fuss.

George Tharwat, a 19-year-old medical student who was relaxing on the steps of Saint Mark's Cathedral near downtown Cairo last week, said he and his Orthodox Christian friends see no problem with worshipping at an Evangelical church. As Orthodox priests trooped through the cathedral grounds sporting their signature old-world look of long robes, long beards and large cross necklaces, Mr Tharwat held a colourful leaflet that a Protestant friend had given him. The slick, laminated handout, which was advertising a prayer meeting to be held at an Evangelical church, featured images of hip-looking kids in trendy clothes.

Such a meeting looked like it could be an interesting opportunity to practise Christianity in a different way, said Mr Tharwat. While he had not yet made up his mind on whether to go, he said sectarian divisions would not play into his decision. "Imagine an Orthodox who is Christian by name but doesn't know Christ - He is so far from God. If a Protestant succeeded in making him return to God, that's so much better," said Mr Tharwat, who said that while he had heard of the conflict between Orthodox and Protestants, he did not consider the issue too important.

"We are so close, Orthodox and Protestants. And there are no denominations in heaven." mbradley@thenational.ae

Updated: November 10, 2009 04:00 AM