Thursday, May 26, 2011

Holding their breath in Egypt

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For Sabri,* the daily lurch between excitement and fear has settled into queasy uncertainty about Egypt’s future — and what it holds for followers of Christ.

Sabri, a white-collar worker who lives with his family in Cairo, is an evangelical Christian. When massive demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and other cities sparked national demands for freedom in January, he joined many other Egyptians in hoping positive change might be coming after decades of stagnation and dictatorship.

As a member of Egypt’s embattled Christian minority, he also wondered how Islamic extremists would react to the situation.

Hope and concern, however, took a temporary back seat to terror as chaos spread. Longtime Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak first tried to hang on to power, then lost his grip amid bloody clashes on the streets — and behind-the-scenes maneuvering among contending government factions and the military.

“There were no police on the street,” Sabri recalls of the worst moments leading up to Mubarak’s exit. “It was very scary. We had to guard our homes. We would stay up all night in the street with whatever we could carry — a bat or a piece of metal — just to defend ourselves. There were criminals and guns firing all the night. Everything was moving very fast and we didn’t know what would happen tomorrow. We didn’t know what was right or wrong [politically], so our prayer was: ‘God, whatever You think is right, we are asking for Your will to be applied.’”

Mubarak stepped down Feb. 11, unleashing a wave of euphoria among millions of young Egyptians calling for freedom. Political tensions have eased in the months since, or at least moved to other stages, as the military runs the government while the nation prepares for elections in September. World news coverage has shifted to more violent locales — such as Libya, Syria and Yemen — as movements for change continue to shake the Arab world.

Police have returned to the streets of Egypt’s cities, but crime is on the rise.

“Business is not yet back to normal,” Sabri reports. “The police are scared of taking action because they are afraid the people will attack them.”

Everyone is “holding their breath” and waiting for what happens next, adds a recent visitor, as the young reformists, the old power structure, the military, secularists and Islamists jockey for position. Despite the disillusionment of recent days, a deep sense of pride in the change that has been accomplished remains from the early, heady days of the demonstrations.

“They are proud of what they have done, and there seems to be a sense of hope about the future that we haven’t really seen in the past,” says the visitor, who lived in Egypt for many years. “There’s also a great deal of caution, like they’re trying not to get too excited. One man said, ‘It’s going to be five years before we see the results.’”

What about prospects for minority Christians, who continue to suffer attacks by Muslim extremists?

The worst such incident in recent weeks occurred May 7, when a radical Muslim group, the Salafis, assaulted a Coptic Christian area of Cairo. The attack resulted in 12 deaths, at least 200 injuries and the burning of two churches. Enraged, Copts took to the streets to fight back. The Salafi movement, Coptic leaders charge, is trying to foment sectarian civil war between the Muslim majority and Coptic Christians, who comprise about 10 percent of Egypt’s 83 million people.

The conflict illustrates divisions that could sabotage change throughout the Arab world, according to Anthony Shadid and David D. Kirkpatrick of The New York Times.

“The revolutions and revolts in the Arab world, playing out over just a few months across two continents, have proved so inspirational to so many because they offer a new sense of national identity built on the idea of citizenship,” they wrote in a May 21 article examining the fissures confronting reform movements.

“But in the past weeks, the specter of divisions — religion in Egypt, fundamentalism in Tunisia, sect in Syria and Bahrain, clan in Libya — has threatened uprisings that once seemed to promise to resolve questions that have vexed the Arab world since the colonialism era. … [T]he question of identity may help determine whether the Arab Spring flowers or withers. Can the revolts forge alternative ways to cope with the Arab world’s variety of clans, sects, ethnicities and religions?”

The situation is “supremely complicated,” says Sabri, who urges outsiders not to jump to conclusions about where Egypt is headed. “For Mubarak to step down, that’s a miracle. For unity between average Egyptian people in the street — Christians and Muslims together — that’s a miracle that’s still happening now. There are miracles happening from a spiritual point of view.”

The many young, educated people who demonstrated for democracy in Tahrir Square support religious liberty for all Egyptians, he believes. Other forces do not — including the influential Muslim Brotherhood, banned under Mubarak but now allowed to participate in politics.

“I would be very concerned if the Muslim Brotherhood or the extremists get power over the parliament,” Sabri warns. “If they write the new constitution, it will be more tight on us as Christians. They’re not going to do it through violence. They’ll try to do it very smoothly so they don’t lose international support.”

Some Christians don’t intend to stick around to find out which scenario plays out. They’re leaving the country, or considering it. Sabri, however, isn’t going anywhere. He’s using this historic moment to share the hope of Christ with other Egyptians.

“Muslims are asking a lot of direct questions — questions we’re not used to being asked” without years of relationship building, he says. “Now you can meet somebody in the subway and he or she wants to know the truth.”
*(Name changed)

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

After Osama's death: violence or mercy?

Flying into Cairo on the afternoon of Sept. 11, 2001, we heard something terrible was happening in New York and in Washington, D.C., the city we had departed approximately 15 hours earlier.

A photographer and I had come to gather material for a profile of the great Egyptian city. But as we watched the planes fly into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on our hotel-room TVs — and learned who was behind the attacks — we wondered if and when we would be able to leave the hotel, much less the country. How would a couple of nervous Americans fare on the “Arab street” in that moment?

The next morning, we decided to find out.

No sooner did we emerge from a taxi in a Cairo neighborhood than we were surrounded by a crowd of Egyptian Muslims — not to be taunted or threatened, but to be comforted. They led us by the arm to a nearby coffee shop and surrounded our table, offering the passionate expressions of friendship and condolence for which Arabs are famous.

They didn’t want to believe Muslims had participated in the airborne attacks on thousands of innocents. They begged us to convey their grief and deepest sympathies to the victims’ families and to all Americans when we went home.

“We would never do this,” one man urgently repeated, tears in his eyes, as he gripped my hand. And he meant it.

But Osama bin Laden would do it.

A veteran terrorist determined to exact revenge for his many grievances against America and the West, bin Laden was quite willing to plan the attacks, carry them out through his al-Qaida terror network — and proudly claim responsibility for them. And it was only the beginning, he promised. Many more assaults would come and many more innocent people would die until the terrorists’ aims were accomplished.

So began the attacks and counterattacks, the violence and retaliation, the skirmishes and full-scale wars that continue to this day across multiple borders. But Osama bin Laden is dead, shot down May 1 in a U.S. operation after a nearly decade-long manhunt that began in the days following 9/11. Few war-weary people — not just in the West but also in the Muslim-majority nations most affected by his bloody ideology — will mourn him.

Will he become a martyr? An enduring symbol of radical Islamic defiance of the decadent West? An inspiration to new waves of terrorist true believers? Perhaps. Even if al-Qaida has suffered a mortal blow, others will take up its radical cause. The United States and other nations will take the actions they see as necessary to defend themselves and their interests. The cycle of attack and counterattack might continue.

However, the “Arab Spring” now under way in many parts of the Middle East and North Africa suggests an alternative future. Millions of young adults are bravely — and nonviolently — pushing for change and freedom, even in the face of violent repression in some countries. Their aspirations, openly expressed on the streets and through the potent tools of social media, suggest that history might (emphasis on might) have rendered the bin Ladens of the world irrelevant.

These peaceful revolutions will be hijacked by extremists or crushed by dictators in some places, but in others they will take root.

In another generation, young Muslims might even reject radical Islamism altogether. Naïve? Who would have believed that the Soviet empire would collapse in the space of a few years? The pace of change in our era is unprecedented in human history.

Whatever happens in the political realm in the days to come, however, an unseen kingdom is silently spreading across the region: the kingdom of God. It is a kingdom of justice and mercy, and its power comes from divine love, not weapons of war. It is beholden to no earthly nation; it transcends all cultures.

Muslims, like all other people, hunger for God. Millions of Muslims are seeking Him. More and more are finding Him through His Son, Jesus Christ. Persecution of Christians and churches in the Muslim world has increased, along with the exodus of many traditional Christians targeted by extremists. Yet reports of Muslims deciding to follow Christ, regardless of the consequences, continue to emerge from across the world. They continue to tell of dreams and visions of Jesus, of their desire for a close relationship with a God of mercy, of indescribable joy when they meet Him.

As we walked the streets of Cairo that sad day after 9/11, a Muslim man approached us near Al-Azhar University, the intellectual center of Sunni Islam for more than a millennium. Every night for years, he said, when he closed his eyes to sleep, he had seen a bright cross. “What does this mean?” he asked. We told him of the Lord who extends mercy and salvation to all who seek Him.

Don’t be afraid to tell the person who may ask you. The love of Christ is a far more powerful force than hatred, fear, war or vengeance.