The final session of the Embrace the Middle East and Churches for Middle East Peace “Conversations with Middle East Christians” webinars featured Rev Colin Chapman speaking to Dr Martin Accad and Revd Dr Rima Nasrallah from Lebanon.
Dr Accad grew up during Lebanon’s civil war (1975-1990). He served as Chief Academic Officer at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary until 2020 and is leader and founder of the Action Research Associates.
Revd Dr Rima Nasrallah is the associate professor of Practical Theology at the Near East School of Theology. She is an ordained minister at the National Evangelical Church of Beirut and is active in the work of Embrace’s partner the Middle East Council of Churches.
Archbishop Samy is the Anglican Bishop of Egypt and the Archbishop of Alexandria. Dr Ghada Barsoum is an Associate Professor at the American University of Cairo and an advisor to the Bishopric of Public, Ecumenical and Social Services (BLESS) – the development arm of the Coptic Orthodox Church.
As well as being a great destination for the holiday of a lifetime, Egypt is also a country with immense biblical significance and a long Christian history. It has a population of around 106 million, with Christians comprising roughly 10-15%*, making it the country with the largest Christian population in the Middle East.
Embrace the Middle East supports 10 different partner organisations in Egypt, in the fields of education, healthcare, women’s empowerment and helping people with disabilities.
Rev Colin Chapman: What does it feel like to be a Christian in Egypt today? Archbishop Samy: Things have changed dramatically with the economic situation over the past year, and it is a great crisis for many poor people. But Egypt is a very stable country and, as Christians, we feel secure. Our vision for the church in Egypt is a living church for a better society. We are passionate about discipling, evangelising, and being salt and light in our communities. None of this is for its own sake but because we want to reflect the light of Christ and influence society for good. We are not an NGO doing social work – we are a living church, serving and helping society in so many ways.
Dr Ghada: I think we are at a historical moment – there is a strong emphasis on religious dialogue. The Egyptian president visits a church every Christmas Eve, which is very unusual in Egyptian history. 2013 was a very difficult time for Christians, and in less than a week 200 churches were burnt. Today, most of these have been repaired. The state even builds churches today, which is a new and unusual development.
Rev Colin Chapman: Tell us about the general situation in Egypt. Dr Ghada: There are two crises that are defining the moment now. The first one is increasing food prices and inflation. The war in Ukraine has had a significant impact on this and Egypt is one of the top countries in the world impacted by it. We worry a lot about children – we have stepped up our nutrition programmes at BLESS and we provide nutritious meals to children on a regular basis.
The other big defining moment is what’s happening in Sudan. The conflict has led to a huge refugee crisis in Egypt. The Coptic Christian community in Sudan are generally upper middle class and well-educated, but they are coming to Egypt with nothing – and they are coming to the ‘mother church’ for help. The church had to respond – we started with food vouchers, and then onto housing. We used some of the church facilities for immediate housing for people with nowhere to stay. We’re now working on providing furniture and healthcare support, and getting children back into school.
Rev Colin Chapman: We talk a lot about the cost of living in our country. What is the reason for the economic crisis in Egypt? Archbishop Samy: Covid-19 played a big role. Then immediately after that, the Russia-Ukraine war had a huge impact on pushing up food prices. It hasn’t been easy for us to cope with these big changes.
I think the government has been clever – bread is a staple here and it’s very important. The government has been careful to keep bread affordable, and as a church we try to offer to help to poor families, especially refugees, by distributing packets of food. We have thousands of refugees from Sudan – they have no home, no food. The need is great but we do our best to help people in need. At 5am, Sudanese refugees stand in the street around the cathedral, waiting for a small parcel of food – often they stand for hours, just waiting for this food. It shows there is a great need.
Rev Colin Chapman: How are the relations between the different Christian churches in Egypt? Archbishop Samy: We have a wonderful relationship with the Coptic Orthodox Church and other denominations, like the Catholics and the evangelicals. There are conferences we attend together and it is wonderful to have fellowship with many different Christians in Egypt.
When it comes to Christian-Muslim relations, the world can learn from Egypt! We have experience of living together for 1,400 years. We live in peace and harmony with Muslims – I have many Muslim friends and many Muslims come to the church for cultural activities. At our Centre for Christian-Muslim Understanding and Partnership, we have regular lectures from leaders in both faiths. We have lived with each other for many years – in many ways we understand each other very well. It is good to discuss what unites us rather than looking at the things that divide us.
Rev Colin Chapman: How can Christians in the west support Christians in Egypt? Dr Ghada: We need to pray for the many people who are serving their communities. We need to pray for the peace of Sudan. Before the crisis, I never thought about Sudan but now we pray that these displaced people would be able to return to their homes. It is devastating for them. We also need to pray for wisdom – at BLESS, we have to make tough decisions all the time.
Archbishop Samy: Pray that our vision (a living church for a better society) will become true. Pray for the refugees ministry. So many things are happening in Egypt. Pray for us as we continue to serve God and reflect the light of Christ in different ways.
Following the conversation with Colin, webinar attendees were invited to put their own questions to Archbishop Samy and Dr Ghada. Q: What is the role of women in Egyptian society?
Dr Ghada: The MENA region has one of the worst rates of female labour force participation in the world, and we’re not sure exactly why. Women in Egypt are not as present in public life as they should be. I think more women are starting to join the labour force, but we’re not yet seeing this reflected in the statistics.
Q: For young Christians in Egypt, how do they engage with the church?
Archbishop Samy: This is a hard question. I think the most important problem for youth in Egypt is to find their vocation in life so it’s really important to give them training and opportunities to develop new skills. In the churches, when the church allows them to participate, many young people are so gifted.
Dr Ghada: We want them to have a strong relationship with God – that gives them meaning in life. A lot of the time we talk negatively (e.g. about high levels of unemployment) but we need to adjust the narrative and think about how young people can have a more purposeful life.
Q: How is the church engaging with climate change?
Dr Ghada: Water is a big issue. We have the River Nile but the water from River Nile is not enough for the growing population. We are working with farmers on improving irrigation methods and choosing the best seeds that can handle drier conditions. We are also working on sending text messages to farmers about expected weather patterns.
Archbishop Samy: We do a lot of work around raising awareness about this issue, for example in schools. We talk about keeping the environment clean and recycling. We want to help young people look after the environment. Climate change is a big problem for us in Egypt. Sea level rises pose a huge threat to Alexandria.
Q: Can you talk more about how Christians in Egypt are helping refugees?
Archbishop Samy: More people are coming every day. The latest statistics tell us there are about 9 million refugees in Egypt. Egypt has always been a land of refuge, since the time of Jesus. We do our best to help and accommodate refugees. Egypt is not a rich country, but you cannot ignore people who cross your borders for help and support. The presence of refugees in Egypt does not help with the cost of living and inflation – but we welcome refugees because it is very important.
The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
*There are no official figures as to the exact number of Christians in Egypt.
The above post is a condensed version of the third session of our summer series, “Conversations with Middle East Christians”, from August 2023. Watch the full session above.
Any views or opinions contained herein are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP).
Thirty years ago on the 13th of September, with a great deal of fanfare, the State of Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization met in Washington and signed the Oslo Accords. For many of us, this was an occasion for hope, a promising signal of a brighter day in the Middle East. The Accords established a process of land for peace in Israel/Palestine; the ultimate outcome being two states- Israel and Palestine, with peace and justice for all.
Thirty years later, what we celebrated as the dawn of a new day for the peoples of Palestine/Israel has failed to deliver. The hope and promise of September 13, 1993 has proved to be an illusion. On that day we were like the people of Jeremiah’s time, hearing words of peace, when there is no peace.
In the second installment of our ‘Conversations with Middle East Christians’ webinars, in partnership with our friends at Churches for Middle East Peace, Rev Colin Chapman speaks with Archimandrite Abuna Emanuel Youkana. ‘Father Emanuel’ is a leader of the Assyrian Church of the East and the Director of CAPNI, an Iraqi Christian NGO. He is based in Duhok in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Father Emanuel opens by acknowledging that for many decades Iraq was making the news. Today, it does not feature so prominently in western media, but he hopes that his country is still in the minds and prayers of Christians around the world. He reminds listeners that Iraq is part of the biblical lands – it was the homeland of Abraham, and the prophets Jonah and Daniel walked there too.
Today, Christians make up just 0.6% of the Iraqi population, compared to 3% before the 1991 Gulf War and the ensuing exodus of many people. Father Emanuel is passionate about shining a light on the practical and vital role of Christians in the land, who can trace their lineage back 2,000 years.
I had the great privilege to hear the first of the Embrace the Middle East and Churches for Middle East Peace “Conversations with Middle East Christians” webinars, where Rev. Colin Chapman spoke with Christian leaders from Israel-Palestine. The two speakers shared powerful accounts of their experiences at the intersection between political situations and the outworking of their personal faith.
First was Jack Munayer, coordinator of the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI). Jack describes himself as ‘a half British and half Palestinian Christian with Israeli Citizenship’.
When asked ‘After the recent violence in Jenin, what does it feel like to be a Christian in the land today?’ Jack replied: ‘I think that we are reaching now the point that we have been warning and expecting and dreading for decades… Since COVID the human rights violations, the violence, the challenges that specifically Palestinian Christians are facing, are reaching a turning point. I think that Jenin was a part of a new phase that we are about to enter where the levels of violence, displacement of people and carnage, in many cases, is what we are expecting to see in this next time to come.’
The Unknown Saint of Armenia – The Devout and Beautiful Hrispime
Rev. Dr. Mae Elise Cannon
During my September 2022 travels to Armenia, I had the opportunity to visit ancient churches and learn about the oldest Christian State. Armenia’s king converted to Christianity and made Christianity the state religion in the early 4th century. Proud of their Christian lineage, the Armenian Orthodox Church centers the community around the Etchmiadzin Cathedral, considered by many to be the oldest cathedral in the world. Archbishop Vicken Aykazian, Ecumenical Director and Diocesan Legate of the Diocese of the Armenian Church of America (Eastern) led our delegation from Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP). Our purpose was to learn about the late 19th and early 20th century of genocide against the Armenians and to have a better understanding of the current conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia. I did not expect how spiritually moving I would find our pilgrimage, which included the sharing of some of the early stories of faithfulness and deeply rooted Christian faith in the ancient country of Armenia.
My favorite piece of Armenian history is that of Saint Hripsime (pronounced Rip-se-may). Hripsime lived during the third century, a beautiful woman who escaped from the clutches of an evil emperor in Rome and committed herself to live a simple life of Christian mission in response to her love of Christ.
The Work of Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem
By: Father John Paul, Rector of Tantur
The Tantur Ecumenical Institute can trace its foundation to the Second Vatican Council in the 1960’s. Few people realize that this historic Council had a number of Protestant theologians and church leaders serving as “observers” as well as advisors to those writing the documents of this Council, especially on Ecumenism. The momentum in ecumenical dialog and conversation was further enhanced in 1964 with the historic meeting, in Jerusalem, between Pope Paul VI and the Ecumenical Patriarch, His Beatitude Athanagoras. Flowing out of that meeting was the desire to found (in Jerusalem) a center for theological study, dialogue, and research that would continue to build bridges of understanding and reconciliation between the various churches in Western Europe as well as the Orthodox and Oriental Churches in the East. Thus, the Vatican was able to obtain from the Knights of Malta a hilltop overlooking Bethlehem and establish this Ecumenical Center.
Do dreams really come true? Well, mine did! On January 3, 2023, I boarded a plane bound for Tel Aviv. Bucket list item #1…check. I booked this tour a year and a half prior and told anyone who would listen that I was going to The Holy Land: I was going to Israel.
I have a very dear friend, Hassan, who is an American of Palestinian descent. In the Summer of 2022, my husband and I were on our way to Arkansas with Hassan and his wife Jennifer to see their son play baseball. During that long drive, I told them the news that I would be going to Israel on a pilgrimage to The Holy Land.
Hassan snapped his head around and glared at me as though I had just cursed his mother. Jennifer quickly interceded with, “She is going to The Holy Land… It’s a tour of The Holy Land.” I couldn’t understand Hassan’s reaction, so I asked him to explain, and he proceeded to tell me of how his grandparents were forced to leave their homes and businesses. He relayed to me the stories his mother would tell of how they were able to bring very few possessions, which were put in the back of a truck and taken to Jordan. Hassan’s mother knew she was born in January, but her birth certificate was left behind with the rest of her family’s belongings, so she never knew the day. I could not imagine these things happening; I did not know the history of Palestine and some things he was telling me just weren’t sinking in. Hassan told me to simply go on the trip and see for myself. He said that when I returned, we would talk.
What I saw and learned on that trip was beyond my imagination. On the first day of our trip, we were in Bethlehem. Tensions were very high throughout the entire city. We would find out later that this was because a 16-year-old Palestinian boy was shot and killed by an Israeli soldier. The unarmed child was killed because he did not respond to the soldier’s command fast enough. We were told about the different license plate colors, one for Palestinian cars and one for Israeli cars, and the problems these plates can create for border crossings. We were told that many Palestinian families keep the keys to their old homes, which they were forced to leave decades ago, in the hopes that they will someday be allowed to return. This simple idea of keeping keys filled me with such sadness, hopelessness, and despair. I learned about the Nakbah, where military forces entered Palestinian homes and forced the inhabitants to leave, while new families moved into these same houses under the watchful protection of the same forces.
The Work of the World Council of Churches in Jerusalem
By: Yusef Daher – Coordinator of the WCC Jerusalem Liaison Office*
The World Council of Churches’ Jerusalem-based programs include the very successful Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine Israel (WCC-EAPPI) which was created in 2002, based on a letter and an appeal from local church leaders to create an international presence in the country. EAPPI is a continuous presence of 25-30 Ecumenical Accompaniers on the ground who serve for three months in accompanying, offering protective presence, and witness. There are now almost 2000 former Ecumenical Accompaniers (EAs), of whom many keep involved and interested in working towards a just peace in Palestine and Israel. These former EAs have served, lived and accompanied communities in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Hebron, North West Bank and the Jordan Valley throughout these years. This has meant monitoring checkpoints, accompanying children to school in front of a settlement, or accompanying field owners and shepherds to their lands within closed military zones or behind the separation barrier.
Lessons Learned Through the Nassar Farm By: Rev. Charlie Lewis, Co-Pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Snohomish, Washington
The day I met Daoud Nassar and the Nassar family, I felt an instant connection. Land is something sacred to Palestinians and, having grown up on a third-generation family farm, I have experienced the sacredness of the land as well. The Nassar’s grandfather instilled in his family a keen awareness that the land is a part of their identity, that they belong to the land. When I hear Daoud or his family speak about their land, it seems like they are referring to a member of their own family.
The Nassars founded the Tent of Nations, a peace project established in 2001 on a portion of their 100 acres of grape, apple, olive, almond, and fig trees about six miles southwest of Bethlehem in the West Bank. The land, purchased by their family in 1916, has been cultivated for over 100 years, passing down responsibility from generation to new generation. For over three decades, Daoud (Arabic for David) has been involved in a David-and-Goliath struggle to hold onto the land through active, non-violent means.