Egyptian church works to build understanding among faith groups

Egypt’s record on human rights and sectarian violence has been under fire recently, in the wake of an Amnesty International report on forced disappearances in the country and several incidents of violence toward Christians.

Rev Refat Fathy Gergis
Rev Refat Fathy Gergis, General Secretary of the Synod of the Nile.

Yet the bigger picture also offers cause for optimism, says Rev Refat Fathy Gergis, General Secretary of the Synod of the Nile.

“For the first time we have Christians elected to parliament,” he said. “We have 40 elected members who are Christian including four church elders. That is progress.

“The government has also now allocated land in every new city where we can build a new church. We have three years to use the land and we have also bought land in other cities. The Synod of the Nile has about 400 local churches at the moment and our goal is to establish 30 new churches in the next three years.”

Mr Gergis said he is encouraged by the growth of Egypt’s ecumenical movement and improved relationships among faith leaders.

“Our relationships with other churches and with Muslim leaders have also made progress,” he said.

“During 2012-13 we issued invitations to leaders from all the religious groups. We invited the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafis, Bahais, Orthodox Christians and Catholics, and I think we had some very good discussions. After that, all the Christian groups came together to create a new council called the Egyptian Council of Churches.

“So for the first time in Egypt, Orthodox Christians, Protestants, Catholics and Anglicans—all the Christians in Egypt—came together. I think this is a very good step on the road for Egypt and I hope the Council of Churches will be an effective organisation in Egypt.

“Our church also has good relationships with all the Muslim leaders, so now I think we are getting to a better situation for Christians in Egypt. We live in an Islamic society and as churches together we can arrange many forums for dialogue with Muslims.”

Egypt’s 88.5 million people are mostly Sunni Muslims, but around 10 percent of Egyptians are Christians. Of the country’s 2 million Protestants, between 750,000 and 1 million are affiliated with the Synod of the Nile.

Mr Gergis said the Synod of the Nile treasures its relationship with the Church of Scotland, because its first church was founded in 1854 by the Scottish missionary, Rev John Hogg.

“We consider John Hogg as the father of the Synod of the Nile,” he says. “Our first church was used as a school in the morning, a clinic in the afternoon and a church at night. His vision was to serve all of society and that vision continues today.

“We have 24 schools and the Synod of the Nile owns two large hospitals, but there are many others that belong to local churches.”

Very Rev Dr Angus Morrison visited Egypt in January during his term as Moderator and Mr Gergis attended this year’s General Assembly. Mr Gergis said he hopes to see the present warm relationships with the Church of Scotland, which he sees as the Synod’s ‘mother church,’ develop further.

He is planning to have some of John Knox’s writings translated into Arabic and to arrange more cultural exchanges where ministers spend time in one another’s countries.

“I think it would be good for both churches,” he says.

Rev Iain Cunningham, Convener of the World Mission Council agrees and welcomes the new links with the Synod, especially the recent appointment of Rev Colin Johnstone to work with the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo, and opportunities to twin Scottish and Egyptian congregations.

The Synod is also planning a series of events next year to celebrate the 500-year anniversary of the Reformation. Mr Gergis says this too will be an opportunity to build relationships with people of other faiths.

“We have invited the Prime Minister of Egypt to our October 2017 celebration and we hope he will attend,” he says.

Egypt still has a long way to go to heal its legacy of sectarian conflict, he admits, but he feels hopeful for a better future.

“I think the situation is improving,” he says. “We just need more time to become a truly democratic country.”