By Samy Fawzy Shehata
Christians represent a small minority of the population of Egypt, which is overwhelmingly Muslim. Anglicans, in turn, are a small minority of the Egyptian Christian population, which is dominated by the Coptic Orthodox Church, the largest of the Oriental Orthodox churches. But Christianity and Anglicanism have influence beyond their numbers in the lives of Egyptians.
As an ethnic group, the Copts comprise a significant majority of Egypt’s population, and Christianity deeply shaped Egypt’s pre-Islamic culture. Since the Arab invasions of the seventh century, many ethnic Copts have converted to Islam, so that Christians of all denominations only make up about 10% of the populations. There have been times when the Muslim ruling class has fully affirmed and supported the Christian minority, and there have been times of conflict and persecution. The Church learned to survive by affirming its cultural ties with the Muslim majority while remaining fully committed to Christ.
In 1818, William Jowett from the Church Missionary Society (CMS) started work in Egypt by distributing Gospels, and at the end of 1825 five representatives of the Basel Evangelical Missionary Society, a nondenominational Protestant group, were sent and with a degree of success in cooperation with the Coptic Orthodox Church. In 1888, Dr. Frank Harpur was transferred from Aden to Egypt to establish the medical work based in Old Cairo which was, with the Rev. W.H.T. Gairdner, to become the main source of membership and leadership in the Anglican/Episcopal Church in Egypt. In 1921, Gairdner saw the necessity of building up an indigenous Anglican Church. The Church for him was a center for learning (discipleship) and worship (doxology), and he aimed to mobilize the Church for the dual work of witness and worship.
The three-dimensional ministry of the Anglican Church in Egypt can be seen in its ecumenical relationship with the Coptic Orthodox Church, witness to Muslims, and service to the community. Our identity and ministry as Anglicans in Egypt do not stop with the spiritual ministry of believers but extends to other areas such as: education, interfaith dialogue, and social work. All Egyptians face the same economic, social, religious, and cultural challenges in contemporary society.
The Church of Christ upon earth is essentially, intentionally, and constitutionally one, consisting of all those in every place that profess their faith in Christ and obedience to him in all things according to the Scriptures. Fellowship is more than an idea. If it is to become effective it must assume form and structure. We share in the experience of faith and mission in a dramatic way that both we and the world can see and know that Christians are one.
The Anglican Church in Egypt acts as a bridge between different churches in the Middle East. This ecumenical work is carried in three different directions. On a global level we share in dialogue between Anglicans and Oriental Orthodox Churches. The fellowship of the Middle East Council of Churches is aiming towards unity between the churches in the Middle East. Anglicans are also members of the Egypt Council of Churches, which unites Egypt’s five largest Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant denominations in mutual fellowship and friendship.
As a member of the Anglican Oriental Orthodox International Commission (AOOIC). I had the privilege of visiting and meeting theologians not only from Egypt but from the Oriental Orthodox Church in Syria, India, Turkey and Ethiopia. It is a very illuminating experience to discuss issues such as person of Christ, the procession and the work of the Holy Spirit, the role of ecumenical councils, and many other important topics.
In 2014 the commission signed an agreement outlining their mutual understanding of Christology: what we believe together about the person of Jesus Christ. This agreement addresses a major point of theology that divided Christians following the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD. In 2017 the commission singed another document on our mutual understanding of pneumatology. This statement addresses a major point of disagreement about the doctrine of the Holy Spirit that has divided Eastern and Western Christians since the late sixth century, namely the addition of the words ‘and the Son’ (filioque) after ‘who proceeds from the Father’ in the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed. The Anglican Church also hosts a monthly ecumenical meeting for clergy from all denomination.
The mission of the Church is essentially the transformation of human beings, community, and the whole creation. In a majority-Muslim context, the Anglican Church of Egypt must serve as “the light of the world” and “the salt of the earth.” For the sake of presence in the Muslim context, in the words of former Bishop of Jerusalem Kenneth Cragg, we must never say “God so loved the Christians…” The role of the Anglican Church is to be a humble, honest Christian presence within the majority population, articulate when opportunities occur and questions emerge, but always embodying the evidence of what was once notably described as “being with Jesus.” (Acts 4:13).
The Church must engage in dialogue. Controversy is not beneficial, and it widens the gap between Muslims and Christians. The informal dialogue we advocate is a ‘life dialogue’ that takes place between friends who live together and share together in work or study, with both testifying to their own beliefs and spiritual values. In this kind of dialogue, the Church should also offer sound teaching for its members. Christians should understand Islam in a correct way and respect other beliefs, yet at the same time be able to give witness of the work of Christ in their lives.
The Anglican Church pioneered a project called “Together for Egypt.” The idea of the project was to bring together 30 Muslim and Christian leaders and invite them for four, three-day events throughout the year, to develop relationships between the imams and priests.
The imams and priests were chosen from areas that had suffered from sectarian conflict. The three-day programs included seminars in which leaders from Al-Azhar and the Church gave lectures on how to face extremist ideology, and visits to Christian and Muslim sites of religious significance, like churches, mosques, and monasteries. Participants also went to to schools, hospitals, and youth centers, and participated in training sessions for joint community work, with the aim of involving youth in development projects.
The Project developed after the first year to include Muslim and Christian youth in coordination with the Misr El-Kheir Foundation (an Islamic Charity Organisation). The project aims to establish strong and real relationships and friendships between young people, developing their capabilities, and raising their cultural and historical awareness. It seeks to bring trainees together to implement practical initiatives that benefit their local communities, aiming to bring young leaders together and to create projects of excellence, closely coordinated with government agencies and community organizations.
The Arkan (Corners) and Gesour (Bridges) cultural centers, based at St. Mark’s Pro-Cathedral in Alexandria and All Saints Cathedral in Cairo, are places where Egyptian youth from all corners of society, both Christian and Muslim, come together and create art. The centers support talented young artists by providing facilities for producing and displaying youth artwork, and host cultural and artistic workshops. Artistic expression opens up forums for discussion that invite people to new perspectives and ideas. This is a quiet challenge to intolerant attitudes. As the lives of youth from many different backgrounds intersect, we see bridges of peace and friendship gradually replacing walls of intolerance and fear.
The Anglican – al-Azhar al-Sharif Joint Committee, a gathering for formal dialogue, also meets regularly. On the Anglican side the dialogue was administered on behalf of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s office by the Network for Interfaith Concerns of the Anglican Communion (NIFCON). The formal dialogue among Muslim and Christian leaders helped to create a forum called Beet Eila (House of the Family), where Muslims and Christians leaders meet to discuss and deal with issues in relation to the community.
The practical example of Christ washing his disciples’ feet should be followed by the Anglican Church in Egypt. The Church’s services are offered to all without discrimination on the basis of denomination or religion. The work in the Deaf School in Old Cairo is serving Christians from all denominations. The social centers, hospitals and schools offer services to Muslims and Christians alike (98% of beneficiaries are Muslims).
The understanding of the Church as a visible sign is very appropriate to the mission of the Anglican Church as a servant. Service is the practical expression of the life-transforming Gospel. Faith without works is dead. We serve others as Christ, servant of all, served those who came to him.
The Rt. Rev. Dr. Samy Fawzy Shehata is Bishop Coadjutor of Egypt and a member of the Living Church Foundation.