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In Egypt, Christians praying, hoping for greater freedom

AUDIO: A Christian representative in the Middle East gives one main prayer request for believers in the region http://media1.imbresources.org/files/122/12298/12298-68731.mp3

CAIRO (BP)–A thunderous roar went up from hundreds of thousands of Egyptians jammed into Cairo’s Liberation (Tahrir) Square Feb. 1 as Hosni Mubarak announced he will not run for another term as Egypt’s president.

Mubarak’s pledge likely will do little, however, to calm the social revolution sparked by protests against his rule. And the euphoria in Liberation Square turned to rage and fear Feb. 2 as Mubarak supporters violently clashed with protesters who continue to demand his immediate departure.

Rival groups threw rocks and chunks of concrete at each other as injuries mounted. Mubarak loyalists wielding whips and clubs rode horses and camels into the crowd — and were themselves attacked by angry demonstrators. Shots were heard in some areas of the square; members of several foreign news crews reportedly were beaten.

Soldiers circling the square didn’t immediately attempt to stop the fighting. The army had appealed to protesters to go home the night before, but promised not to harm those who refused. It was unclear whether the hundreds of Mubarak supporters were acting on their own initiative or on orders from the government, but they reportedly were bused to the square and allowed to enter it by the army. Similar reports of organized pro-Mubarak groups instigating clashes came from the northern coastal city of Alexandria.

Elsewhere in Cairo — and in other Egyptian cities — living conditions continued to deteriorate as food shortages grew worse. Clashes and looting were reported in upscale neighborhoods as the “have-nots” confronted the “haves,” according to sources reporting from Cairo.


But rays of hope and unity also emerged as events brought together Egyptian followers of Christ — who also are forging new bonds of friendship with Muslims as citizens stand together for peace, freedom or simple personal safety.

“Neighbors are having to side together to protect their homes, and in so doing, a new community spirit is developing,” said one observer.

A Southern Baptist representative based in the Middle East offered this perspective:

“Folks are concerned about their future, about their safety, about their country. We are praying that the changes don’t create a greater animosity or enmity between the 10- to 15-percent Orthodox Christian population and the majority Muslim population. It’s not at root a religious conflict. It’s political, and we just pray for greater freedom to come out of this for [Egyptian Orthodox and evangelical] believers to be able to not only practice their faith but to share it with others.”

One tangible demonstration of new unity: During Friday prayers Jan. 28, Coptic Christians offered to guard Cairo’s Islamic mosques from potential attacks or vandalism as Muslims entered them to worship.

“I think this has a great potential for being a unifying thing on a grass-roots level between [Christian] congregations and the communities that surround them,” the representative said. “The offer, quite frankly, was really more of a gesture, because you are talking about literally thousands of mosques and a very small Christian population. But just the fact that they made that offer was an attempt on the part of the Orthodox community to say, ‘We want what’s best for our country.'”

In one Cairo neighborhood, according to news reports, a group of young Christians with sticks were seen patrolling the streets all night. The neighborhood church, they said, was protected by local Christians and Muslims. “The bamboo sticks we used to scare off the looters were used previously to build our Christmas Nativity scene,” they told a reporter.


Elsewhere in the region, movements for political change continued to spread. Protests in Jordan prompted King Abdullah II to sack his cabinet and name a new prime minister Feb. 1. Demonstrations also continued in Yemen, where longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh announced he will not extend his presidency beyond 2013. The Palestinian government in the West Bank promised long-delayed municipal elections “as soon as possible.” Organizers in Syria called for protests. And in Israel, the government and the public looked on with wary concern.

As calls for change spread across the Middle East and North Africa, however, one Christian leader with long experience in the region cautioned against over-optimism about an increase in personal freedom.

“I think it remains to be seen if this is a move toward democracy or not,” he said. “One of the things that has clearly changed in many of the [Egyptian] cities is that neighbors are getting to know each other and figuring out how to work together for their common defense. I think that’s an amazing change, because people who have just sort of amalgamated together from many different places within a country now suddenly are connecting. That will change the internal fabric of the country.

“Whether they actually achieve anything in terms of democracy, though, still has a long ways to go. The kind of change to be brought about by popular uprising is quite unclear. It could bring an even more authoritarian type of government. Right now in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood (the largest Egyptian Islamist group, currently outlawed) is far more present and out in public making demands than they would have been if the secular government kept them under control. So the likelihood of the country becoming more Islamic is probably greater than it becoming more secular.”

His main prayer request:

“That we won’t blink. That we will find ways to join the Lord in the midst of this chaos and let the Good News ring out in ways that will help people find true freedom in Christ. That’s what I want to see more than anything else. I want people to know Him — and in knowing Him, to know what it’s like to really be free.”
Erich Bridges is global correspondent for the International Mission Board.

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  • Erich Bridges