By Jeff Walton (@JeffreyHWalton)
UPDATE: Bishop Anis has released a letter about upcoming June 30 demonstrations in Egypt that can be viewed by clicking here.
Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby is this week embarking on his first visit abroad since his enthronement earlier this year. Lambeth Palace says the Anglican official chose the Holy Land because of the region’s importance to global stability.
Welby is “deeply concerned for justice and for the security of all the peoples of the region, and the pressures on its Christian communities,” according to a statement from Lambeth Palace. “In particular he wants to support and honour the work of the President-Bishop of the Episcopal Church in Jerusalem and the Middle East, the Most Revd Mouneer Anis in Cairo; and the Anglican Bishop in Jerusalem, the Right Revd Suheil Dawani, with whom he will be staying in Jerusalem and who will accompany him on all his visits.”
This spring I met Bishop Anis in North Carolina at the New Wineskins for Global Mission Conference. Bishop Anis spoke on the difficult situation his fellow Egyptian Christians face, especially in the aftermath of the “Arab Spring” uprising that toppled former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
“It was like the honeymoon,” Anis described of Egyptian Christians and Muslims joining together to protest corruption, low quality of life, high food prices and unemployment. Women and Christians began to participate in political life, and one man openly proclaimed “I am a convert from Islam, I am a Christian, that is my right.”
Unfortunately, harmony did not endure as Islamist groups asserted themselves. Anis outlined four Islamic groups in Egypt, each a smaller concentric circle within another:
Anis described the majority of Egypt’s Muslim population as “ordinary, normal people without an agenda except to live peacefully.”
Within the Muslim population is a smaller group of Islamists who primarily seek political power. A third, smaller subset of Islamists (Salafis) are more militant than the broader Islamist group, reject the use of modern things and want to return to the ways of the “fathers.”
Finally, a small circle within the Salafis are the Jihadists: militant Muslims who count terrorists among their numbers and “have an agenda to create an Islamic nation – the Caliphate.”
Anis determined that the second group – the Islamists – posed the greatest danger to Christians. While not as extreme as Salafis or Jihadists subsets, the Islamists have a much wider base of support within the population. Usually, Islamists lack the anti-modernist teachings that make the “vocal and self-defeating” Salafis “out of tune” with Egyptian voters, such as opposition to women in the workplace.
Following elections, the Egyptian parliament is now dominated by Salafis and other Islamists that hold about 70 percent of seats, according to Anis. The Egyptian bishop assessed that “people who are not educated are easily moved,” something Egypt’s high rate of illiteracy exacerbates.
“There was disappointment in the hearts of the young people who sought revolution,” Anis reported, cited churches burned and people killed. “All of them are Christians.”
Anis attributed the election of Muslim Brotherhood official Mohammed Morsi, and his predominantly Islamist government, upon “people [who] didn’t want anything from the previous regime.”
The bishop, however, was quick to assert that Morsi was accountable to a broader power structure and was individually not as powerful as might be perceived.
“It became obvious that the Muslim brotherhood leadership had the power,” rather than Morsi himself, Anis reported. The Anglican bishop and other Christian leaders met with Morsi to share their concerns, “He listened to us, but nothing happened.”
The dour situation has not been without silver linings, however: increased difficulty for Christians has also led to increased unity.
“One of the greatest joys [has been] to start the Egypt Council of Churches,” Anis exclaimed. The Anglican leader had high praise for new Pope Tawadros II of the Coptic Orthodox Church, a man who is “very keen for Christian unity.” Welby will meet with Tawadros this week during his visit.
Describing the former pharmacist as a man with “a very big heart,” Anis, himself a medical doctor, praised Tawadros as “a gift from heaven” and assessed that historic differences between Christians of Eastern and Western traditions was dissolving.
Among the issues facing the Coptic church is an exodus of young adults departing for other countries. Alarmed at the departure of 100,000 Christians in 2011 alone, Anis lamented that among them are “the best minds” in the Christian community.
“It is amazing that the Middle East could be a place without a Christian witness,” Anis worried, connecting the link between presence and witness.
“Because we live in a [majority] Islamic country, the only thing we can do to show God’s love is serve society,” Anis added, highlighting English instruction, arts camps and other ministries to both Christian and Muslim Egyptians.
In closing, Anis asked American Christians to pray for:
-An end to the emigration of young people from Egypt’s Christian community
-Good Samaritans in Egyptian society
-All churches in the Middle East