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03 August 2012

Teaching evangelism in Egypt

by Jayson Casper

"Should we sacrifice evangelism for coexistence, or coexistence for evangelism? This debate will concern us for the next several years."

This quote from Rev Andrea Zaki ended a presentation by the Evangelical Theological Seminary of Cairo (ETSC). Founded in 1863 by American Presbyterian missionaries, preaching the gospel has been a core component of the Coptic evangelical identity since its inception.

Perhaps this is not appreciated by the Western evangelical Church. The common perception is that Muslim dominance over Egypt has prevented Christian witness. They see a Church shrinking, not growing. On the contrary, the assumption is the Church has abandoned evangelism in order to survive. The Western Church is sympathetic, but wonders if in forsaking the Great Commission to preach the gospel to all peoples, Egyptian Christianity is doomed to wither away.

In the choice above, settling for coexistence is a death warrant for Christian vitality. Better the sacrifice of martyrdom than the slow and steady decline of accommodation. Most Western evangelicals do note the juxtaposition of this thought with the reality of their religious freedom.

Dr Atef Gendy would protest at the false choice of evangelism or coexistence. As president of the seminary, he oversees that both are taught. The missions department of ETSC has courses in dialogue and in evangelism.

"We have adopted the holistic approach," says Gendy. "We encourage dialogue, we preach the gospel through ethics, service, and ministry, but we also support direct evangelism."

Yet he noted that dialogue was absolutely necessary, given the social reality in Egypt. A seminary professor polled both Muslims and Christians concerning values. The three worst sins in descending order ranked: 3) killing someone, 2) changing religion, 1) committing adultery.

Such an order does not bode well for the convert, let along the evangelist.

Therefore, Gendy takes pride in the good relations the seminary enjoys with Muslim leaders, especially the Azhar, the pinnacle of Islamic learning in the Sunni Muslim world. They not only frequently attend interreligious dialogue meetings, they also cooperate practically.

"We try to develop the religious speech of both Christian and Muslim leaders. We emphasise a shift away from simple ritual and surface issues to focus on ethics and transformation."

Gendy celebrates much which took place during the Egyptian revolution, but also is worried about increased restrictions on freedom in an Islamic context. Yet for this he emphasizes the strategic decision the seminary has taken in theological education.

"We must recall our theology in incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection. This is to challenge our leaders to empower the church. Why should Christians emigrate? Maybe we will suffer – along with many Muslims – but this is only a precursor to our resurrection!"

Within any potential suffering, love must push Egyptian Christians to stand by their Muslim neighbors, but love in the evangelical understanding implies more than just solidarity.

"We must testify, amidst all sensitivities. But we must also show our love through service."

In Egypt, the future is unknown, but this is fitting with evangelism, whose outcome is also unknown. Gendy's hope is in God in both cases. Whether or not the Church is declining, he knows his duty as an evangelical Christian.

"We do not have the responsibility to convert anyone, this is for God. We only must witness to our faith."

Perhaps he, along with Egypt's Christians might add, "and coexist at the same time". Over the next several years this will be the vital challenge facing the Church.

Jayson Casper is an Egypt-based writer and blogs regularly on religious, political, and cultural affairs at A Sense of Belonging. Follow him on Twitter at @jnjcasper.