Words of persecuted Egyptian Baptists reminiscent of early leaders of Baptist movementcomment (0)
August 29, 2013
Anger. Killing. Blood.” These are words that currently describe Egypt, said Mounir Sobhy Yacoub Malaty, pastor of First Baptist Church, Cairo.
“Attacks have not stopped. Innocent people are being killed. Big numbers of protesters themselves are dying,” he lamented.
In a letter Malaty wrote Aug. 19, he included frightening images of burning sanctuaries, funeral processions, masked gunmen and terrified children sleeping on concrete in makeshift shelters.
“The people of Egypt have experienced the exposed, negative side of religious government,” he wrote in reference to ousted president Mohammed Morsi’s now-deposed Islamic government.
While the most overt violence has occurred since the military swept Morsi from power, Malaty said policies and decisions made under Islamic rule set the conditions for the attacks that followed.
“The cross has always been a problem for them,” he said.
And, Malaty said, things would be worse if Morsi had stayed in power. “If the religious regime had continued, the future of the Christians in Egypt would have been threatened more seriously.”
Such words are reminiscent of the tribulations endured by many Baptists at the hands of religiously motivated rulers in Europe and the American colonies, scholars have noted.
“These brief lines are in many ways classically Baptist in terms of their response to religious liberty issues,” said Bill Leonard, professor of Baptist studies and church history at Wake Forest University School of Divinity.
That includes seeing religious establishment as dangerous to pluralism and religious liberty, Leonard said.
Malaty reflects another core Baptist value when he describes the religious violence as opportunities for forgiveness and a Christian witness, Leonard said.
And all of it brings to mind various figures from Baptist history.
“In the U.S., Obadiah Holmes was arrested and jailed in 1651 by the New England Puritan establishment and beaten for his heretical non-conformist Baptist views,” Leonard said.
The letter also is a reminder that what’s happening in Egypt isn’t anything new.
“In many ways, Islam is experiencing now what Christianity experienced in the West from the 16th into the 20th centuries as struggles for religious liberty occurred,” Leonard said.
Malaty’s letter also serves to remind Americans of the importance of separation of church and state, another Baptist scholar said.
“The kind of public life we need is one where all people are free to exercise their faith,” said Curtis Freeman, research professor of theology and Baptist studies at Duke Divinity School and director of its Baptist House of Studies.
Roger Williams, who established America’s first Baptist church in 1638, embodied that ideal by supporting Quakers’ right to worship in his home state of Rhode Island — despite opposing their theology, Freeman said.
“Religion tends to thrive when you have secular governments, not religious ones — even Christian ones,” Freeman said.
He said he took from the letter another reminder: that Christians in America need to be praying for those in Egypt, Syria and other places where the Church is being persecuted.
It’s also important to realize that American foreign policy in some cases has contributed to the demise of Christianity in some parts of the world, including Iraq, where an unintended side effect of U.S. military intervention enabled Islamists to all but wipe out the church there.
“We may need to give serious thought to our own political views about things and support of things and go so far as to advocating for policies that will lead to the flourishing of Christianity” in the East, Freeman said.
Both in his letter and on his Facebook page, Malaty has been asking for prayers for the Christians in Egypt. He said those prayers are already being answered in some ways.
“Church buildings have always been of great importance to Egyptians,” he said. “It is good to hear how the believers are encouraging each other that the church is not a brick-and-sand building but a spiritual building of believers.”
By Aug. 17, more than 75 churches across the country had been attacked, looted, burned or destroyed. Among them were Minya Baptist Church, 150 miles south of Cairo in Minya, a city of 200,000, and Beni Mazar Baptist Church in the Egyptian governate (province) of Minya.
In addition, one of Egypt’s oldest churches, the fourth-century Virgin Mary Church, a historical landmark in Minya, was torched and destroyed.
Malaty called for Christians to respond to the crisis with forgiveness, as a witness to nonbelievers.
And Margie Harris, a Christian worker in Cairo, reflected on the impact that forgiveness makes on others.
‘You love one another’
“My close friend Fatima, a Muslim, has realized that people who follow the Son are a peaceful people,” Harris said. “One day she told me, ‘We like to fight, but you love one another.’”
Mike Turner, a senior missions strategist for North Africa, said, “From a geopolitical perspective, the current situation in Egypt is a mess, for sure. The images on TV and the Internet are disturbing, and one could easily become consumed by them and think there is absolutely no hope for the people of Egypt.”
Even though there has been unprecedented violence and loss of life, Turner said there is good news — Christians have unprecedented opportunity to be salt and light in a place that is experiencing darkness.
“As the country of Egypt trudges through this dark, desolate valley, the people of God should raise the banner on their behalf and stand in the gap for them like never before,” he said.
EDITOR’S NOTE — Some names have been changed for security reasons.