CAIRO (BP) — “Anger. Killing. Blood.” These are words that currently describe Egypt, said Mounir Sobhy Yacoub Malaty, pastor of First Baptist Church, Cairo.
“Attacks have not stopped. Innocent people are being killed. Big numbers of protesters themselves are dying,” he lamented.
But a fragile calm seems to be settling across Cairo as life slowly returns to normal. In spite of the presence of armored personnel carriers, traffic once again moves along the city’s major thoroughfares, and people are returning to work.
Just days before, Egyptians experienced violent clashes that left nearly 900 people dead and more than 4,000 injured.
Last Wednesday (Aug. 14) the Egyptian government used force to remove tens of thousands of supporters of ousted president Mohammed Morsi from two protest camps in Cairo. The deadly confrontation sparked violence that lasted for days.
Among the ousted president’s supporters is the Muslim Brotherhood, and it had vowed to take revenge by attacking Egypt’s churches.
By the end of the week, more than 75 churches across the country had been attacked, looted, burned or destroyed. Among them were Minya Baptist Church, 150 miles south of Cairo in Minya, a city of 200,000, and Beni Mazar Baptist Church in the Egyptian governate (province) of Minya.
In addition, one of Egypt’s oldest churches, the fourth-century Virgin Mary Church, a historical landmark in Minya, was torched and destroyed.
“I learned of the tragic news in Egypt on Thursday,” said Hugh Carson, a South Carolina Baptist pastor who ministered at Beni Mazar Baptist Church in 2011. “It was a shock to hear that dozens of churches had come under a coordinated attack.
“Even in reflecting on this tragedy, the Father has convicted me that I hear this kind of news all too casually,” Carson said.
“But this story coming out of Egypt is different because it involves a church that I know — people, names, faces that are real to me,” he said.
“I visited one of the churches that recently came under attack,” Carson, pastor of Renewal Church in Greenville, said. “I remember hearing of their fears of coming under persecution from the community and even under the government with changes in leadership.”
Carson recalled the pastor and his wife were especially concerned for their safety and the safety of their children because they lived in the church building.
At the time pastor John Amin* said, “We live here at the church, so if someone attacks our church, they attack our home. The kids are afraid.”
“I was told they got out safely, but watched helplessly as their church and home burned,” Carson said.
Since the attack, Carson was able to contact the young man who served as his translator at the church in Egypt. “He was discouraged by the attack that has come upon these churches,” Carson said, “but full of faith reminding me that the Father is in control of all this.”
Carson’s visit to Egypt was part of a partnership that started in 2011 between the Baptist churches of Egypt and the South Carolina Baptist Convention.
“The churches involved in the partnership are praying for their sister churches in Egypt during these difficult days,” said Tim Rice, director of the state convention’s missions mobilization group.
“In 2011 persecution was a daily challenge, even as it is today,” Rice said. “Our pastors learned so much from the leaders of the churches in Egypt — about being faithful under persecution, about trusting God for their daily provisions and needs for their church family.”
Rice said that as South Carolina Baptist churches pray, they pray particularly for followers of Jesus living in Egypt and going through this time of persecution.
“We pray that God will protect them and give them many opportunities to live out their faith in the midst of this crisis,” he said. “We pray they will cling to God and find peace and safety in Him.”
One Egyptian Baptist pastor, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons, said, “The situation is volatile. Our country is in desperate need for prayers…. Our main concern at this point is that we overcome those relentless attempts to place the future of this nation into the hands of radicals.”
Malaty, the Baptist pastor in Cairo, said, “Fear is the dominating feeling here” but he added that the church has much to learn from the current crisis in Egypt.
“Church buildings have always been of great importance to Egyptians,” Malaty said. “It is good to hear how the believers are now encouraging each other that the church is not a brick and sand building, but a spiritual building of believers.”
He called for Christians to respond to the crisis with forgiveness, as a witness to non-believers.
Margie Harris*, a Christian worker in Cairo, reflected on one positive aspect that has emerged from the crisis. “My close friend Fatima, a Muslim, has realized that people who follow the Son are a peaceful people,” Harris said. “One day she told me, ‘We like to fight, but you love one another.'”
Two bookstores of the Egyptian Bible Society were looted and destroyed last Wednesday — one in Minya and the other in Assuit, the two largest cities of southern Egypt.
In a report filed with the United Bible Society, Ramez Atallah, the General Secretary of the Bible Society of Egypt, said, “The attackers demolished the metal doors protecting the bookshops, broke the store windows behind them and set the bookshops on fire.”
Atallah said pro-Morsi supporters had called for nationwide protests. “In response to these calls, Muslim fundamentalists all over Egypt have gone on a rampage of violence; some of it aimed at Christian targets.”
He said one of the reasons why the government had been “reticent” in dispersing the pro-Morsi supporters’ camps in Cairo was because of threats of retaliation. “So most Egyptians expected the violence,” he said.
On Monday, The Daily Star, Lebanon’s English-language newspaper, said, “The campaign of intimidation appears to be a warning to Christians outside of Cairo to stand down from political activism.
“Christians have long suffered from discrimination and violence in Muslim majority Egypt,” the paper said.
The paper said attacks on churches coincided with assaults on police stations, leaving most police “pinned down to defend their stations or reinforcing others rather than rushing to the rescue of Christians under attack.”
“The attacks served as a reminder that Islamists, while on the defensive in Cairo, maintain influence and the ability to stage violence in provincial strongholds with a large Christian minority,” the paper said.
In a speech on Sunday, Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Egypt’s defense minister, warned that the military would not allow further violence, the BBC reported.
“We will not stand by silently watching the destruction of the country and the people or the torching of the nation and terrorizing the citizens,” the news agency reported the defense minister as saying on the Egyptian military’s Facebook page.
But el-Sisi also appeared to strike a conciliatory tone toward his opponents, urging them to join in the political process, the BBC said.
“There is room for everyone in Egypt, and we are cautious about every drop of Egyptian blood,” el-Sisi said.
Mike Turner*, a senior missions strategist for North Africa, said, “From a geopolitical perspective, the current situation in Egypt is a mess, for sure.
“The images on TV and the Internet are disturbing, and one could easily become consumed by them and think there is absolutely no hope for the people of Egypt.”
Even though there has been unprecedented violence and loss of life, Turner said there is good news.
“The good news is that there is hope for the people of Egypt. Even in the midst of chaos and mayhem, we believe and know with certainty that God is at work in the hearts and lives of countless Egyptians,” Turner said.
“Thankfully, we, as the body of Christ, do not have to succumb to the rhetoric of the media and their analogies and opinions of the situation,” he said.
“Instead, we as the body of Christ can cling to the promises of God and know that He has yet to be taken by surprise in any of the latest tragedies.”
Turner said that Christians have unprecedented opportunity to be salt and light in a place that is experiencing darkness.
“As the country of Egypt trudges through this dark, desolate valley, the people of God should raise the banner on their behalf and stand in the gap for them like never before,” he said.
“We pray for the many who still don’t know Jesus as Savior,” said a Christian worker in Egypt who asked not to be identified. “We pray they would come to know Him as true peace — the Prince of Peace — so that we may experience peace in the land.
“To pray this is like praying for a mountain to be moved from one place to another, but that is the power of the God we serve,” she said.
*Names changed. Charles Braddix is a writer for the IMB based in Europe. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).