Reporter’s Notes: Three years ago, I went on a one-week media trip to Cairo, Egypt. The hotel we stayed at during our time there was only a few blocks away from Tahrir Square. I could hear gun shot volleys coming from the square every night around the same time. Halfway between our hotel and the site that can be described as Occupy Wall Street Middle East style, was an evangelical church with its courtyard set up with 12 hospital beds and serving as an emergency room triage. The church-hosted triage had both Christian and Muslim doctors and nurses working together, taking in patients every night we were there. I wrote a 3-part series about my experience in Cairo for The Christian Post (Feb. 12, 2012) upon returning back to the U.S. Below is an edited version of the series put together in its entirety. In light of recent events in that part of the world, I thought it was worth re-posting.
Reporter’s View From Cairo: Maybe Our Prayers Were Not Enough
You know things are about to get interesting when during the last leg of your flight, while watching a breaking news summary on the cabin screen, you see images of your destination city in what appears to be full, violent anarchy.
I asked my media trip comrades if they happen to notice that the news report on Cairo makes it look like a city engulfed in fire, but they didn’t seem to share my concern. Journalists’ bravado was beginning to wear thin.
I wonder if maybe our prayers were not enough.
Egypt had planned three days of national mourning shortly after the 74 deaths at the conclusion of a football (soccer) match in Port Said last Wednesday. We were arriving on Feb. 4 and it appears the grieving process for some included clashing with military police.
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) said Egypt was passing through “the most dangerous and most important phase in Egypt’s history.”
Later, I look out the window as the plane continues to descend and see Cairo draped in a glorious sunset. Against the backdrop of the Nile River, the desert and the city I see three pyramids together amid the orange haze.
All of a sudden, I am struck by a sense of calm. I believe God just let me know that I am supposed to be here for such a time as this.
Inside the Cairo airport terminal, some of the limo and travel company drivers give long villainous stares as we walk by. I connect with the driver that’s about to take us to our hotel. I know he’s our driver because as he shakes my hand, he smiles warmly. Next to him, another driver, or at least I think he is a driver, looks at me as if he is ready to pounce on me for landing on his turf.
After picking up our luggage, our media group of three journalists from different news companies, our team leader from the sponsoring international Christian persecution ministry, and his wife, meet with the ministry’s man-on-the-ground for Egypt.
He welcomes us to Cairo with a big heartfelt smile, but he says there is sad news to tells us. Because of Egypt’s volatile situation with a new, Islamic-majority government and a youth revolution movement that continues to fan the flames of the revolt a year after the uprising, many Christians are leaving Egypt, scared and disillusioned about their country’s future.
Our host tells us that he has just heard from his longtime neighborhood friend that he is taking his family to the United States.
“This is not good,” he says. “This is not a good sign and this is what we must face now.”
Safely in our van, I see the desert sand and the many palm trees as the sun fades away and for a brief moment think of spring break vacations in Palm Springs from my past. The city seems harmless enough, but I quickly sober to the fact that our trip has little to do with carefree fun. Yet, as I look out – first, on the surrounding patches of sand, and then, the bustling metropolis mixed with old and new – I notice that people are still going about their lives on an early Saturday night in Cairo.
We hit the outbound airport traffic as darkness settles in. It feels like rush hour in any downtown city in the USA, only the honking from the slow-moving cars is incessant.
The more we drive, the more mosques we see – and churches. Within close proximity to seemingly each mosque is a Coptic Orthodox church – many of both religions’ structures are magnificently beautiful.
In this country, it seems like every experience is new for me, including checking into our hotel by first walking through a metal detector. There are more long stares – this time from a man inside the lobby. I look back and he is telling the doorman by the detector something. I try and banish all thoughts of conspiracy theories as quickly as possible, but I’m not doing a good job of it.
At 10:30 p.m. local Cairo time, we meet with a Coptic Orthodox priest (name cannot be disclosed for security reasons) who is on fire for Jesus. He talks about Egypt’s revolution, hope, and revival.
Egypt is in for even harder times, he says. However, hope is not found in the political leaders, but in the movement of God he explains.
Our meeting ends and we arrive back at the hotel past midnight. Tahrir Square is just a few blocks away.
From my room, I see the bright city lights and reflections off the Nile. The traffic on the busy street below continues… car horns blare into the early Sunday morning hours.
During my first night in Cairo, I hear a crowd roar from the distance… and what sounds like several volleys of gun shots.
Christian Revival in Egypt Includes Revolution Story
I can’t give the name of the ministry organization that provides support for persecuted Christians and believers put under pressure in Egypt in the text of this story – I’m not used to that.
Naming your sources is what you learn in Journalism 101. It’s ingrained in me.
However, on a media trip to Cairo, in the middle of an Egyptian revolution set against the backdrop of a newly elected Muslim Brotherhood majority government without a president, I begin to get accustomed to this “new normal” protocol… But it takes me a couple of days to adjust.
On the first night of our trip, a few hours after checking into the hotel, we hop into a van and head to a Christian broadcast station that is about a 15-minute drive away. We arrive and enter a fenced-in structure that has no outside signage that I can see. After checking in with a security guard we are let in through the doors.
Inside a basement staff lounge area we meet with a prominent Coptic Orthodox priest. He had just finished a TV show for broadcast and now has time to talk to us.
Our host and translator explains that we cannot use his name.
We begin the interview with a prayer led by the priest.
It is quite obvious from the start of the conversation that this man has given his life to Jesus – he is not about to lift up his own name or particular style of worship above God.
The Coptic Orthodox Church is the largest Christian denomination in Egypt, estimated to make up about 10 percent of the nation’s population of 81 million people.
Copts have endured sporadic persecution during the decades’ long reign of former President Hosni Mubarak. In some cases, since his overthrow, persecution of Christians has intensified as a Muslim Brotherhood and fundamentalist Muslim majority in government appears to be flexing its muscles.
While many have seen the success of Islamist parties in the Parliamentary elections as a sign of hard times ahead, others feel that it is still possible for a constitution to be crafted by the Egyptian government that would guarantee religious minority rights for the Copts and other groups.
“What is in your heart that you would like everyone to know about the Christians in Egypt?” I ask the priest first.
“I would like to say that there is a big revival happening in the Orthodox Church, not only in the Orthodox Church, but the Egyptian Church as well,” the priest says through the translator. “The Lord is using the people, the congregation more than the leaders of the Church in this revival.”
Dressed in traditional Coptic Orthodox priest attire, he is talking from his heart and his eyes are glowing with compassion.
Sporadic prayer marked the beginning of the revival five years ago. Those prayer sessions turned into regularly scheduled meetings by the end of 2010, he explains. “People from different churches gathered together to pray together.”
During the interview, we discover that the priest believes that the revival is tied in with the country’s revolution.
Nationwide protests, known as the “Day of Revolt,” against the government of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak began on Jan. 25, 2011. Tens of thousands of protesters held a mass demonstration in Cairo. Thousands of more people held protests in cities throughout Egypt.
“Just before the revolution, God was telling us that something awesome is going to happen in Egypt,” the priest said. “Although we are church leaders from different areas [of the country], even different denominations, the Lord was sending the same message to everybody.”
Catholic, Protestant, and Presbyterian (evangelical) church leaders were gathering unofficially for these prayer meetings, he said. They all felt something significant was going to happen in the next year.
“Twenty minutes into 2011, the bombing of the Alexandria church (The Saints Church) happened. [The church leaders] then began to believe even more in the prophecy that something great was going to happen. A short time later, Jan. 25, the revolution started,” the priest recalled.
“We saw these events happening, but we thought something bigger is going to happen – a big spiritual event,” he explained.
On Nov. 11, 2011, more than 50,000 (some estimates put the number at 70,000) people gathered together for 12 hours to pray at St. Simon Church in Cairo, also known as the “Cave Church.”
It was the largest Christian gathering in the modern history of Egypt. It brought together, for the first time, all Christian denominations: Coptic Orthodox, Catholics, and all branches of Protestant and evangelical Christians, Wafik Wahba, associate professor of Global Christianity, reported shortly after the event.
“This historic day of prayer took place at a momentous juncture considering the current situation in Egypt,” wrote Whaba. “Nine months to the date, on February 11, 2011 the former President of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, was forced out of office.”
The Coptic Orthodox priest said during our interview that the event was a movement of God.
“It was very strange to see this great number of people gather in one place although it was not safe to do so,” the priest said. “And this happened overnight, from six in the evening to six in the morning.”
The regularly scheduled meetings between Christian leaders continued after that day, he said.
I began to see a clearer picture of this juxtaposition between the revolution and the revival going on during Egypt’s transition after Mubarak.
Little did I know that this seemingly strange partnership would become even more apparent to me in the coming days in Cairo.
I did not need names to see it.
Tahrir Church Pastor: ‘Future of Egypt Is the Truth’
Walking the two blocks from our hotel to attend a Sunday night service at Kasr El Dobara Evangelical Church I see a glimpse of Cairo on edge.
The same street leading to the church takes you to Tahrir Square, just a block away, the site of Egypt’s revolution. The street also leads to the Parliament building entrance just a half block away. The surrounding area has been the scene of days of protests and clashes with military and police that began after the death of 74 people at a football (soccer) match in Port Said on Feb. 1.
Cars are double and triple parked in every direction. Graffiti laced with expletives mark fences and structures. Toward the square, the street branches to reveal at least a dozen ambulances parked side by side.
People are walking at a brisk pace, in a hurry to move to either one end of the street or the other. One direction leads to a busy downtown street that runs alongside the Nile river, the other direction leads to the government buildings and the square.
Our media group of three journalists from different news companies, the team leader from the sponsoring international Christian persecution ministry, and his wife, have no other choice but to stay close to our escort who along with everyone else is walking fast.
We arrive to the back entrance of Kasr El Dobara, a church built in the early 1950s that seats up to 1,500 people.
Ushers here have double duty. They must serve as security guards as well, making sure that everyone that enters the building is known to someone at the church.
Before we attend the service we talk to the volunteer coordinator of the church’s triage hospital located inside a courtyard located at the entrance. We learn that since last November, Kasr El Dobara has also been known as Tahrir [Square] Church, an officially recognized field hospital accepting anyone injured as the result of the violent protests that have been going on since November.
The volunteer coordinator is a remarkable woman who says she wears “many hats” while guiding 200 volunteers. Muslim and Christian doctors and nurses work side by side each night as the inevitable wounded are received as patients.
We hear stories of Muslims attending a volunteer appreciation service inside the church and being truly moved by God. When the church’s pastor, Sameh Maurice, asked those in attendance who among them were not members of the church, more than two-thirds of the people raised their hands.
The coordinator told us that Maurice has viewed the revolution as a ministry opportunity for the church. The ministry began with cleaning debris from Tahrir Square.
Shortly after the ministry started, there was something even deeper going on between church volunteers and the community. Kasr El Dobara was the first place in Cairo to offer grief counseling to families who had lost loved ones during the revolution.
“We have a very outgoing pastor who always thinks outside the [church] walls,” she said. “One of our main things as a team is to go out on ‘love outreaches’ mainly to Muslim people. We share the love of the Lord and try and take care of their physical needs.”
In a move that seems unfathomable, we learn that the church also opened up its courtyard for Muslims to come and wash before their traditional daily prayers. A nearby mosque could not handle the overflow from the crowds at Tahrir Square.
“Utopia,” as some had expected after the ousting of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on Jan. 25, 2011, has not come, said the volunteer leader. Because of this reality, the church is serving as a place of solace, she explained.
During a severe clash between protesters and the police and military last November, the church began its triage operation. Three days before the violence, Maurice and some church members were praying about how to outreach better into the community.
Now, the church’s courtyard has fully operational hospital equipment and supplies, and a dozen bed stations. After church service this night and the next evening’s prayer service, I witness injured youth being brought into the courtyard hospital.
The injuries are mostly to the eyes of young men in their teens and twenties as the result of thrown debris, and in at least one case, injuries to the back because of gunshot pellets.
I talk to a young Muslim nurse’s aide who said that it was her second night volunteering at the church. In near perfect English she said that she had “like a near nervous breakdown” from the stress of serving as a medical assistant inside Tahrir Square. She decided to help at the church instead.
I asked her how she was feeling now and she said, “I feel calmer now. Of course, I am in a place of God.”
During Monday’s prayer service Maurice gave a powerful message that we were able to hear translated through ear phones. He talked about Egypt’s ongoing violence and the political unrest. He talked about how a seemingly endless stream of political committees was forming on top of other committees and nothing was being resolved.
He echoed the sentiment of the other Christian leaders we met with during our visit. Egypt’s problems will not be solved by politicians. It will take a movement of God to make real progress.
He concluded by saying that “the future of Egypt is the truth.”
I agree. I see no other way.
And three years after reporting on this story, I’m expanding the thought a bit to say that I believe the future of the Middle East depends on His truth.