By Mark Michael
The Anglican Communion’s General Secretary strongly asserted the independence of the Anglican Church in Egypt in response to takeover attempts by the Protestant Church in Egypt, a largely Presbyterian denomination. Archbishop Josiah Idowu-Fearon’s July 17 statement said, “Contrary to statement made yesterday by the Protestant Church in Egypt (PCE), the Episcopal / Anglican Province of Alexandria is an Anglican Church and an integral part of the Anglican Communion. And it always has been an Anglican Church and an integral part of the Anglican Communion.”
Archbishop Idowu-Fearon continued, “The Anglican presence in Egypt began in 1819 with clergy sent by the Church Missionary Society who worked in partnership with the Coptic Orthodox Church. The first Anglican Church building – St Mark’s Church in Alexandria – was consecrated in 1839. And what was to become the Episcopal / Anglican Cathedral in Cairo began as a small parish church in 1876.”
He also pointed out that the Anglican Church in Egypt is at the center of the newly launched Anglican Province of Alexandria. This province, the Communion’s 41st, unites congregations in four dioceses spread across nine countries in North Africa and the Horn of Africa.
The Anglican Diocese of Egypt, the parent body of the new province, has been engaged in a series of court cases with the Protestant Church in Egypt since 2002. In a survival of the Ottoman Empire’s millet system, the Egyptian government exercises significant control over the institutional life of the nation’s churches, which claim the adherence of 6-10% of the country’s population. New church construction and major renovations must be approved by government authorities. While Egyptian Christians have freedom of worship, they must belong to one of 21 denominations recognized by the state.
In 2006, the nation’s Ministry of the Interior issued a ruling that identified the country’s three largest churches, the Coptic Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Protestant Church in Egypt (also called the Egyptian Evangelical Church) as “Egyptian denominations.” Eighteen other denominations, including the Anglican Diocese of Egypt, were identified as “foreign denominations” in the ruling.
The Protestant Church of Egypt is a network of 17 Protestant denominations, including Brethren, Baptist, Methodist, and Pentecostal churches. However, the Presbyterian Synod of the Nile, also called the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Egypt, is by far the network’s largest and strongest body.
The Presbyterian Synod of the Nile, which traces its background to mission work begun by American Presbyterian missionaries in the 1850’s has 314 churches and about 250,000 members. The Synod of the Nile founded The American University in Cairo and operates the nation’s only major seminary, Evangelical Theological Seminary.
The Presbyterian Synod of the Nile’s general secretary, the Rev. Andrea Zaki, also serves as president of the Protestant Church of Egypt. Despite the technical differentiation between the two groups, they are often directly identified with each other in the Egyptian religious press.
When the Egyptian government drafted a new constitution in 2014, an article in the document required the nation’s parliament to pass a law regulating churches “in a manner that guarantees the freedom to practice religious rituals for Christians.” Many Egyptian Christians felt that the previous system, which relied on church leaders brokering ad hoc arrangements with local government was unfair, and hundreds of churches had been constructed without proper permitting and were technically illegal. According to Human Rights Watch, there was widespread hope that a new law would allow for more regulatory flexibility and equality between the nation’s Christian denominations, in the spirit of the Arab Spring uprising that led to the drafting of the new constitution
After a series of attacks on Christians in 2016, the Egyptian parliament faced considerable pressure to make good on its promise to issue a law creating a unified process of review and approval for church construction. Human Rights Watch says that the law, which was passed by parliament in August 2016, had been hammered out in secret negotiations between the Egyptian government and leaders from the nation’s three “Egyptian denominations.”
The 2016 law’s procedure has allowed for speedier approval of church construction, and over a thousand formerly illegal church buildings were licensed en masse in 2019. However, the law has been criticized heavily by leaders of the 18 “foreign denominations” because of a provision requiring that they submit their church construction requests through one of the “Egyptian denominations.”
According to the human rights group Eshhad, the 2016 law subordinated the Anglican Diocese of Egypt to the Protestant Church of Egypt for construction licensing purposes. All requests for new church construction or major renovation must be approved by the Protestant Church in Egypt’s president, Rev. Andrea Zaki, and construction licenses are issued in the name of the Protestant Church in Egypt.
This procedure was consistent with a court ruling earlier that year which said that the Anglican Diocese of Egypt belonged to the Protestant Church in Egypt and could only be represented by the latter body’s present in dealings with the government. The Protestant Church in Egypt has claimed that the ruling means that it also holds title to all the Anglican Diocese of Egypt’s property. The Egyptian government insists that the Protestant Church in Egypt approve all visas for Anglican Church workers. The Presbyterian Synod of the Nile’s only English-language web page, ironically, claims that it is engaged in ecumenical dialogue with Egypt’s Anglican Church.
The Diocese of Egypt’s bishop, Mouneer Anis, has frequently argued that the Anglican church should be recognized as an independent body, with the same right to represent itself in dealings with the state that it enjoyed before 2016. He points out that there were Anglican churches in Egypt before Presbyterian missionaries arrived and claims that the court ruling ignores significant theological and ecclesiological differences between Presbyterians and Anglicans.
Shortly after the 2016 court ruling, Anis told the Anglican Communion News Service, “There is a very long tradition of Anglicanism in Egypt. We simply cannot lose our identity as Anglicans there. We hope and pray that the Egyptian government and the legal authorities will recognize that we are an independent denomination.”
The Diocese of Egypt appealed the 2016 ruling, and a series of additional court cases have been opened since then, litigating contested claims between the two church bodies over particular pieces of church property. In a recent public statement referenced by Archbishop Idowu-Fearon, the Protestant Church in Egypt claimed total victory in the ongoing litigation, stating of a ruling issued two months ago, “this judgment is a comprehensive end.”
A July 17 statement posted on the Diocese of Egypt’s Facebook page in response, says that the Protestant Church of Egypt’s claim is “totally incorrect,” listing four cases and two appeals currently scheduled to appear before Egypt’s Supreme Administrative Court and Administrative Judiciary.
“We had hoped that all these differences would be resolved away from the general courts in implementation of the Bible’s teachings,” the Diocese of Egypt statement says. “Indeed, we submitted a proposal that solves the problem amicably through a memorandum that ensures mutual understanding and cooperation between the two communities, and we submitted this proposal in writing to the president of the evangelical community for submission to the General Evangelical Council, and we explained that the position of the Episcopal community is different from the Evangelical cult doctrines.
Unfortunately, we have not received any response to this friendly proposal, and we find no reason to force the people of the Episcopal community to belong to the evangelical community, as this is incompatible with the rights and freedoms set forth in Egypt’s great constitution of 2014.”
Correction: The Rev. Andrea Zakai, president of the Protestant Church of Egypt, was incorrectly referred to as “Rev. Emile Zakai” in an earlier version of this story.