Praying for peace in Egypt, bracing for political clashes
Egypt prepares for fateful referendum
At the heart of Heliopolis, which has abruptly turned from a calm suburb of Cairo to a zone of bloody political clashes, the Evangelical Church of Egypt has been peacefully standing since 1905.
Originally built for a considerable Evangelical community that has almost fully immigrated through the past few decades, this church is now frequented by an average of 500 people a week on Sunday masses and for other cultural and social activities.
On New Year’s Eve (31 December) and Christmas Eve (6 January) there are close to 3,000 worshipers who join in prayer for peace and love to prevail in Egypt.
On the eve of an imminently dividing referendum to vote on a controversial draft constitution, scheduled for Cairo along with other 9 governorates on Saturday, the Evangelical Church of Heliopolis prayed for peace and stability.
The church community planned to establish a make-shift hospital to provide medical aid for possible victims of clashes that were widely feared to reoccur between supporters and opponents of the constitution, following reoccurring clashes during the past two weeks.
For Shady Mazhar, a member of the board of elders of the Evangelical Church of Heliopolis, providing help for the wounded “irrespective of which side they are taking” is something to which the church is committed despite of the threats that have been made against it.
Last week, the church received threats of being burned down for allegedly opening its doors to the opponents of the president and who wish to disobey the rule of Islam.
The Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood to which President Mohamed Morsi belongs, promptly rejected allegations for its association with the threats and called on a "concerned security body" to protect all private and public buildings.
“At any event it is not at all true that we provided help only for those demonstrating against President Morsi, even if it is true that our position is against the recent presidential decisions,” said Mazhar.
On Wednesday, 5 December, when heavy and ultimately lethal clashes occurred between supporters and opponents of President Morsi, the wounded who received emergency medical care from the church included members of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi groups, parties that arrived to express support of the president.
“Actually, I have to say that the Muslim Brotherhood member who was brought here to receive medical aid was very kind to everybody and expressed appreciation to those who helped him,” Mazhar said. As for the injured Salafi, he added, “he was feeling awkward apparently to be in a church; yet, he was reserved and ultimately grateful."
For Mazhar, one reason that he thinks this Salafi might have felt awkward is that “he had probably never been into a church in his entire life, not even for a wedding or funeral; this is a result of the segregation that has hit society during the past few decades,” he said.
For Mazhar, whose paternal grandfather was a priest of this very same church, "The decision to provide medical aid to all was prompted by our wish to end the segregation between Christians and Muslims in this country that we live in together."
He added that the decision was initially proposed by the church youth and was supported by the marvellous experience of the Evangelical Church of Kasr El Dobara last year in other political clashes that occurred during Egypt's transitional phase.
Having been the only Evangelical pupil at an otherwise fully Coptic class of religion at a private Heliopolis school during the 1980s, Mazhar learned by trial and error how to co-exist with people who broadly shared the same religion, but whose different churches induced different acts of worship.
“It is not impossible to put aside the differences relating to our faith or the way in which we worship; it is not impossible for us to reach out for one another,” Mazhar said.
There is no clear count of the actual number of followers of the Evangelical Church in Egypt, but they are certainly below 250,000 of Egyptians. This number makes them a minority, maybe the smallest minority, within a wider Christian minority that remains predominantly comprised of Coptic Orthodox Christians.
“Evangelicals have always been a smaller community within the Christian community, but it is the wide and recurrent waves of immigration that has reduced dramatically our numbers in Egypt. However, we are still here and our call is one of love and it is our obligation to carry this call through," said Mazhar.
"I am sure that the call of love lies at the heart of every faith. If we all follow this call, then we will be able to work out our differences,” Mazhar said.
The proof of the call to overcome discrepancies that Mazhar provided for this argument was “exactly there on the day that our differences opened the door for confrontation that led to the blood that was left and the souls that were laid to rest."
On Wednesday, as the injured were brought to the Evangelical Church of Egypt, aid was provided to buy supplies from all residents of the neighbourhood, including Muslims, Copts, Evangelicals and Catholics.
“And the majority of doctors who came to help were Muslim, with some coming from the evening prayers at a nearby mosque. When we received cases that we could not provide help for we took them to a nearby Coptic medical centre. This is the true Egypt; it was here on Cleopatra Street and not around the presidential palace,” he stressed.
It is “this Egypt” that Mazhar is committed to live in and raise his children one day. Having turned down endless opportunities to immigrate before and after the 25 January revolution, Mazhar is convinced that Christians do not have to leave their country, despite the challenges that he is not undermining.
“We can stay here and insist that this is our country just as much as it is everybody else’s country; if we are firm and determined we can make a difference and always through love,” Mazhar said.
He added that the decision of the Evangelical Church of Heliopolis to open its doors last week to provide first aid to the wounded has already prompted a positive attitude from some neighbours who might not have otherwise cared very much for this small church and its small community.
“When you reach out with love, you eventually make it through; this was the message of Jesus and this is the message that we should be carrying still today and forever."