Church in perilous times in Egypt

Photo by Vicki Harris

Photo by Vicki Harris

The news out of Egypt this week concerning Muslim-Christian relationships is not good. I have written previously about the difficulties suffered by adherents in Coptic Orthodox Church, an ancient church tracing its lineage to the earliest Christians. At 10 percent of the Egyptian population, this group is large enough to be visible and vocal but small enough to hold little power, particularly since most of the Copts come from the poorer segment of Egyptian society.

Violence between this Christian minority and the Muslim majority has a long history in Egypt, although that violence was kept in check by the recently deposed heavy-handed dictator Hosni Mubarak.

Egypt is in transition and it remains to be seen whether the army or a newly emerging civilian state will prevail or whether if a civilian state emerges it will be a fundamentalist Muslim theocracy or a moderate Islamic democracy. Either way, these are perilous times for the church in Egypt, where violence this week resulted in the brutal killing of over two dozen Christians and the injury to over 300 others.

One cannot help but think about the parallels in Iraq where the overthrow of the ruthless Saddam Hussein opened the door for a civil war in which the most innocent and helpless victims were the Iraqi Christians who, once a visible though tiny minority, have now practically disappeared from Iraq altogether.

This Egyptian narrative is not the only Muslim-Christian story emerging from Africa; the other story is far more promising and hopeful. The Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to three women this week, two of whom are from Liberia, where civil war had destroyed that nation for 14 years until determined Christian and Muslim women nation refused to endure any more rape, killing and violence.

This week I watched “Pray the Devil Back to Hell,” the incredibly inspiring, award-winning documentary of their efforts (available on Netflix). When Liberian Christian women decided to hold a public prayer vigil until the violence ended, some of them realized their witness would be far more powerful if the two major religions could unite, so Christians reached out to their Muslim sisters.

Some of the church women were loathe to include Muslims in their demonstrations, fearing it would water down their own faith. But realizing that a bullet does not know the difference between a Muslim and a Christian, they banded together because all women and children were suffering.

Remaining steadfast in their determination to bring the warring factions to the peace table, these Muslim and Christian women prevailed against all odds. Peace broke out in Liberia where citizens democratically elected the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as the first woman president in all of Africa. Sirleaf and Leymah Gbowee received the Nobel Prize for bringing peace to Liberia through a grassroots movement of Christian and Muslim women.

There is more than one narrative in Africa about Muslim-Christian relationships. I hope the second model prevails.

Contact the Rev. Creede Hinshaw at Wesley Monumental United Methodist Church in Savannah at creede@wesleymonumental.org.