On Wednesday, August 14, we had plans as a family to spend the day at the Seminary. Around 9:00 a.m. we received a call informing us that the Egyptian Army had begun to forcibly remove the demonstrators from al-Nahda Square and the Rabaa al-Adawiya Mosque.
These two demonstrations, organized by the Muslim Brotherhood, had been gathered continuously for about six weeks ― ever since President Morsi was removed on July 3. Their presence had become unbearable for the residents of those neighborhoods.
We all knew that the demonstrators would not leave peaceably, so we were instructed to stay home for the day to be on the safe side — as we have gotten very good at doing this past summer.
As you know, August 14 and the days that followed were full of much pain and violence. It is now six weeks since that day, and things finally seem to be returning to the new normal here in Egypt, at least for our family.
That same morning, in the more rural parts of the country known as Upper Egypt, Muslim Brotherhood extremists led multiple attacks on Christian communities, burning churches and other buildings. Five of these were Presbyterian congregations.
The price of freedom
On September 10, we had the opportunity to travel with other visitors from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to one of those congregations in Upper Egypt to hear their story, to express our sympathy, and to affirm our connection not just as Presbyterians but as brothers and sisters in Christ. Here is the story they wanted you to hear:
At 10:00 a.m. on August 14 Pastor Hani Jack of the Beni Mazar Presbyterian Church received a phone call from a parishioner telling him that a motorcyclist had driven past the church throwing a Molotov cocktail over the gate and into their courtyard. It burned out with no damage, and Pastor Hani (attending a conference some distance away) urged patience by his congregation.
By 3:00 p.m., as news of the violence in Cairo reached this village three hours away, a large mob had gathered outside of the church and began to break into the property. The large cement block they used to break through the gate still sits outside the sanctuary door.
Upon entering the church building, which included the sanctuary, an adjoining social services building and youth center, a bookstore, and a canteen, as well as the pastor’s apartment, the mob began to steal anything of value and destroy anything too big to carry. Air conditioners were thrown out of windows, stucco and plaster were beaten off of the walls of the sanctuary, and electronic equipment used for worship was all loaded onto trucks and taken away.
They climbed the gate to destroy the cross that topped the entrance to the church. And then they set the church on fire. It burned for two days.
The Beni Mazar Church was founded in 1905. The building that was destroyed was built in the 1940s. The social services building, only half completed, was the site of the congregation’s vibrant outreach to their community. In recent years the congregation has helped to put plumbing in 60 rural homes and offered assistance to over 600 families annually. A clinic on the first floor of this building was reduced to rubble.
Church members repeated again and again that none of this work would stop because of the attack. They even told us that if someone they knew had been involved in the attack came to their church for help they would not turn the person away. It is a remarkable declaration of forgiveness and Christian charity.
During the attack on the church the elders repeatedly preached a message of peace to the young people of the congregation, telling them that they should not go out and attempt to defend the property. This did not keep Muslim neighbors from going out and trying to stop the destruction, some of whom lost their lives in the process.
The elder who shared his story and took us on a tour of the burned building told us that in his 36 years as a member of the congregation, the service that took place two weeks after the attack was his favorite. As they met in one of the unfinished levels of the social service building, adults, youth and children all spoke, sharing a message of hope and of forgiveness.
When we asked what we could do for them, they shared their appreciation for our prayers and for our solidarity with them. They asked for prayers for progress in Egypt, for the improved welfare of her people, for hope, for strength as the church takes on an even more prophetic role in the country, standing up to and naming the evil around them.
The entire Presbyterian and Christian community here was deeply wounded by the attacks this August, and yet there is a hope within them that is undeniable.
In sharing the story of this visit with an Egyptian friend at the seminary here in Cairo, we lamented the loss and the devastation. But then she said something that truly captures this very pivotal moment in the life of the church here, and for so many Egyptians who have lived through this tumultuous summer and a year of repression under President Morsi. “This is the price of our freedom,” she said.
We are grateful to the many partners at home who make it possible for us to be here through your financial support of Presbyterian World Mission. If you have not yet taken the opportunity to give, please consider doing so. Investing in our work means that the Presbyterian Church continues to invest itself in this longstanding and important relationship with the church in Egypt in these changing times.
We continue to pray for peace, for forgiveness, for freedom, and for strength for our friends and colleagues in Egypt. We hope that you will do the same.