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Hopeful signs of harmony in Egypt but a way to go

Egyptian academic Anne Zaki says ME crises have made the Church more intentional

By Mark Brolly

February 7 2019Stability and justice need to be held together in order to achieve religious, political and social harmony in Egypt and there were increasing signs that this was happening, an  evangelical theologian from Cairo said in Melbourne last month.

Ms Anne Zaki, Assistant Professor at the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo, said the recent simultaneous inauguration by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of the largest cathedral in the Middle East and one of the largest mosques in Egypt’s new administrative capital near Cairo had sent out a very strong message of religious harmony and peaceful co-existence but the test would be how that was done into real-life situations away from the capital, where there were religious factions and tensions.

In a story posted on the website of Australia’s Anglican Primate, Melbourne’s Archbishop Philip Freier, the leader of Egypt’s Anglicans, Bishop Mouneer Hanna Anis, called the joint inauguration “an obvious statement of solidarity” and said: “We are one step closer to restoring the tolerant culture that Egypt has known for centuries. Only through loving our neighbours, seeking to understand them and working together for a better future will we achieve this beautiful Egypt we once knew.” See http://www.anglicanprimate.org.au/news/historic-day-in-egypt/.

Ms Zaki also welcomed the event but warned: “I think it’s important for real harmony to happen that stability and justice go hand-in-hand because simple stability could easily equal when the Bible says, ‘And they cry out “peace, peace” when there is no peace’.”

She was speaking to TMA at the Church Missionary Society’s (CMS’) annual Victorian Summer Under The Son (SUTS) conference, which was held from 16-19 January at Syndal Baptist Church. Ms Zaki, who has taught practical theology since 2003 and was visiting Australia for the first time, spoke at SUTS over three nights on “The Risk of Missions”, based on the Parable of the Talents in St Luke’s Gospel, chapter 19; “The Sacrifice of Missions”, based on the call of Peter from Luke, chapter five; and “The Inspiration of Missions”, based on the prayer of Jesus in the Gospel of St John, chapter 17.

“There are increasing signs of stability and there are increasing signs of justice,” Ms Zaki told TMA. “I think the Egyptian people are tolerant people in general and moderate people, whether they be Christians or Muslims, but there have been political and economic conditions that have increased the gap between us in, I would say, the past three or four decades.

“I think that the more stable we are, our good nature comes out more willingly, more readily.”

Ms Zaki said Egypt was a unique country in that although Christians were a minority in the country, Christianity had existed before Islam. “And so we have this historical, cultural presence and heritage in the place, which gives us a rootedness and it gives us a sense of identity … Muslims respect that and they understand that we are the people of the land and partners in the nation.

“Now this doesn’t mean that there aren’t fundamentalist voices and extremist voices that would love to see us gone and would love to see the Church dead. However, in Egypt, thank goodness, the voice of moderate Islam is still louder and stronger and the more stable the regime, the bigger the platform that moderate voice has.

“So, yes, I am hopeful but I am not hopeful in a system, I’m not hopeful in a regime, I am hopeful that Christ’s justice and righteousness will reign. When and how, I don’t know but I know that we are to participate in this reign of justice and peace.”

Ms Zaki said there were multiple factors that led to a country’s stability and sense of hope, including the Government and non-government organisations. But the Church could do what others could not.

“I believe that the Church – Evangelical and traditional, Orthodox and Catholic – the Church as the Body of Christ is the hope of the world … we are the ones who know that you can forgive and it’s good for both parties, we’ve tasted grace more than anyone else and it’s a good taste – good enough that it’s irresistible to keep drinking from it and to keep offering it.”

On Christianity in the Middle East more generally, Ms Zaki said “it’s a story that breaks your heart that the cradle of our faith is being emptied of the followers of Christ”.

“And yet there are also many incredible stories of conversions and of people seeking Christ that we would have never expected had we not gone through this time of crisis because times of crisis push us to ask the existential questions of life.

“So the crisis in the Middle East in the last 40, 50, 60 years I think has made the Church more intentional about articulating its own identity, has made the Church more intentional about living out its faithful presence, faithful witness, but has also made the neighbours of the Church more attentive to who we are and to what the Christian faith is, more curious about why we stay ...”

Ms Zaki can trace Christian names and roots in her family back seven generations. Her grandfather and father are Presbyterian pastors, her husband Naji Umran is a pastor in the Christian Reformed Church in Canada and the US and she is seeking ordination in the Presbyterian Church of Egypt.

She said she came to know Christ as her personal Saviour at a youth camp when I was 15 “and ever since then, Jeremiah 1 has been my calling: ‘Do not say I am only a child, I have set you apart to be a prophet to the nations.’”

“It’s been an exciting journey to see how this calling keeps unfolding. I would never, ever have thought when I was 15, having this verse claim my life to Jesus, that I would in 2019 be here in Australia speaking to the nations.”

Ms Zaki said being a female theologian in evangelical circles in Egypt in the context of a patriarchal society and majority Islamic society “has in many ways been surprisingly encouraging for me”.

“The level of respect and honour that I receive from male colleagues, from other pastors, from my male students has been incredibly encouraging,” she said. “The level of curiosity and interest that I get from my female colleagues and female students has also been inspiring me to be a better person and a better theologian and a better church leader.

“And yet, to be honest, it has also been a difficult journey to find the right place of serving freely without stepping on people’s toes. It’s been a difficult challenge to find that balance, but overall, I feel like I think and write and teach and serve from a place of the freedom of my call much more than a place of needing to prove myself. And that’s been a gift of grace.

“… I look at Christianity as the one religion that has elevated women to their original value, place and design by God, which is equal to men.”