CAIRO (BP) — It’s ugly for Christians in Cairo right now, deeply unsettling even to those who have weathered the ups and downs of the Arab Spring, said Hal Greaves*.
Another church was burned by a mob. Coptic Christians, fed up with being targeted, announced a peaceful protest for religious freedom Oct. 9. The Egyptian military intervened, things escalated quickly and more than 20 were left dead, with hundreds more injured, international news outlets say.
Eyewitnesses reported seeing mangled bodies and body parts run over by military vehicles in the fray, but the Egyptian military denies driving into the crowds and opening fire on them, according to BBC news.
Sources differ on who’s to blame. But many report this — it’s the worst violence in Egypt since President Hosni Mubarak was ousted in February, and possibly the worst violence toward Christians there in modern history.
“Needless to say, Egypt is still in development and even in crisis. The events of the Christian march has firmly put Egypt on the list of countries with poor religious freedom,” said Ron Robinson*, a Christian worker who has spent time in Egypt.
The unrest and violence has been growing over time as the nation’s leadership remains unresolved, he said. Christians are tense, wondering who is behind the attacks and who will have power when all is said and done — a secular government, or an Islamist one?
“We have been seeing probably some of the highest numbers of Copts and evangelicals leaving Egypt this year than any other year posted,” Robinson said. “There is great fear of where this is heading for those of Christian background to belief.”
Coptic Christians — whose Christian ancestors have lived in Egypt since before the Islamic conquest of the seventh century — make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s population. More than 100,000 Coptic Christians have already fled revolutionary Egypt this year, according to the Union of Egyptian Human Rights Organizations. UEHRO officials predict an additional 250,000 may seek refuge elsewhere before year’s end.
“The Christians I have talked to are afraid and want to leave,” said Greaves, a Christian worker who has spent time in Egypt. “Even before this event, people have been anxious about the uncertainty of the future. There is a lot of fear in the Christian community.”
Generally, Coptic Christians are “Christian” by tradition and birth rather than by a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, Robinson said. If your parents were Christian, your ID card says you are, too.
“In Egypt, they make a distinction that if you follow Jesus Christ, then you will hear Christians use the term ‘Believer,'” he said. “Many of the Coptic Orthodox church members have never made a profession of faith, and many never really go to church.”
Like with most denominations and religions, only some are truly Jesus’ disciples among the crowd of nominal adherents, said Nik Ripken*, who has served 25 years with the International Mission Board and is an expert on the persecuted church in Muslim contexts.
“But we dare not ignore historical or cultural Christians who are being slaughtered,” Ripken said. “This is the oft forgotten ‘rule’ of history, that when the bad guys come after true Believers, they take everyone — especially the historical Christians.”
And historical Christians dare not continue without embracing a real faith, he said.
“If one is going to face persecution, he or she should make it count by being true to Jesus and His teachings, otherwise persecution comes and we get little spiritual strength, or we fight persecution with the wrong and ineffective tools,” Ripken said.
Believers in Egypt are hoping just that — for the Spirit to sweep through Egypt, and for Copts and Muslims alike to find true faith in Christ and “make it count.” Before the violence took place, Egyptian Believers were already planning a series of revivals all across the country for mid-October.
“Pastors are reporting an openness to the Gospel in their communities and a hopefulness that the Lord will foment another revolution, but this one in the hearts and souls of every Egyptian,” said Marshall Jackson*, a Christian worker who has lived in Egypt in the past.
Sarah Jenkins*, a Christian worker who has spent time in Egypt, said Believers have responded to the extreme tension by fasting and praying that God would bring peace to Egypt.
“Please pray with us that God would answer this prayer and fulfill the promise of Isaiah 19 in bringing ultimate peace to Egypt through the person of Jesus Christ,” she said.
Believers in Egypt also asked for Christians in the West to pray:
— for Egypt’s Believers to stay in Egypt.
— for them to forgive as Jesus commands.
— for their main concern to be seeing their Muslim neighbors come to faith in Jesus.
*Names have been changed
Ava Thomas is an IMB writer/editor based in Europe.