CAIRO, Egypt (BP)–Some time ago, the elder sister in an Egyptian Muslim family decided to follow Jesus Christ as Lord.
Instead of keeping her faith a secret, as many Muslim-background believers do, she told her younger sister – who also became a believer. One day, their mother overheard the sisters whispering about Jesus. Distraught, she slipped poison into the family’s food –- a little taste for everyone, a deadly dose for the older sister. The police later concluded it was an accident.
Better for her own daughter to die, the mother reasoned, than to bring shame and dishonor on the family. Such is the reality that faces many new believers in Egypt, particularly in conservative Muslim families and communities.
“Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid,” Jesus told the disciples when He came to them, walking on water amid the storm (Matthew 14:27, NIV).
But some storms are stronger than others.
Until you walk in their shoes, do not judge Egyptian believers too harshly if they sometimes respond as Peter did when he joined Jesus on the water. He stepped toward Jesus, but looked at the storm and began to sink beneath the raging waves. Later, in Jesus’ hour of deepest suffering, Peter denied knowing his Savior.
In turn, the Lord forgave Peter, filling him with holy boldness and strengthening him to lead the fledgling church in Jerusalem. When Peter eventually died at the hands of his persecutors, he was not alone. The One he had failed in moments of fear did not fail him.
Egyptian followers –- and seekers -– of God need to know that they, too, are not alone. The peoples of Egypt are the focus of this year’s Day of Prayer and Fasting for World Evangelization, set for June 4, which will unite Southern Baptists and other Christians in prayer for Egypt (see article in today’s edition of Baptist Press: “Day of Prayer and Fasting June 4 to focus on Egypt’s peoples.” To order the video/DVD “Blessed be Egypt: From Desert to Delta” and other free resources, visit ime.imb.org or call 1-800-999-3113).
Egyptians have good reasons to fear following Christ -– or leading others to follow Him. Persecution of the traditional Coptic Christian minority goes back many centuries and continues to this day. The smaller evangelical community also faces opposition. Islamic extremism finds some of its deepest roots in Egypt. A watchful government periodically cracks down on any group -– Muslim, Christian or otherwise -– that it considers a potential threat.
But the deepest fears find their source closer to home: extended family, friends, local communities. Community is everything in Egypt. If the community casts you out, you essentially cease to exist.
“This culture is harsh,” a Christian believer says. “There is no one to turn to. They are scared of each other. They don’t trust each other. Everybody is an informer. There are no secrets.”
Such fear doesn’t just oppress spiritual seekers or secret believers. It afflicts the church. Even if followers of Christ overcome the ethnic divisions or social taboos that divide Christians from Muslims in Egypt, they fear the possible consequences of sharing the Gospel across all boundaries: personal rejection, conflict, persecution.
“Until that fear is broken, people will not pick up the cross,” says a Christian believer. “But when they say, ‘I don’t care anymore’ [about the consequences of reaching out], that is when the tide will turn and the church will start growing. I don’t know what it’s going to take. It might be one person.”
It might be someone like “Rafik,” a Coptic-background evangelical believer. He has endured the scorn of his own community and the rejection of others to go far from home. He shares Christ with Muslim Bedouin, who exist on the fringes of Egyptian society.
“I started my ministry for Christians only,” he reflects. “But God opened my mind. He told me, ‘I am sending you out for all people and all nations’” -– perhaps even beyond Egypt’s borders.
When the tide turns, scattered believers will gather. Churches will multiply. “Persons of peace” will become spiritual doorways to their communities. Believers will not only declare their faith but train other believers to do the same.
When the tide turns, persecution will not end. It will very likely increase.
So be it. For when the tide turns, the fear will be gone.
Erich Bridges is a senior writer with the Southern Baptist International Mission Board whose column appears twice monthly in Baptist Press.