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Praying for Christians in Egypt (and elsewhere)

It was just a simple email between friends--but now a Canadian congregation prays for Christians in Egypt. Your church can just as easily make congregational prayers more global. A feature story exploring the inclusion of Global concerns in our congregational prayers.

When Pastor Ken Gehrels emailed his friend Emily Brink on a routine matter, he didn’t realize the church music expert was, once again, meeting with Christians in another country.

Brink’s swift reply included a bit of what she was learning in Egypt, beginning with “Imagine if in North America every church was a mosque, and every mosque a church, Sunday was a work day, and Fridays were off.

“On top of that, if you finally did get government permission to build another church, at least one mosque, more likely two, would go up right next door to your church, with loudspeakers blaring all the calls to prayer and sermons in Arabic, interrupting your service...”

Gehrels read that email just before Sunday worship, so before the intercessory prayer, he shared Brink’s message with his congregation. He asked God’s blessing on Christians in Egypt and thanked God for the “amazing freedoms that we have here at Calvin Christian Reformed Church.”

The congregation in Ottawa, Ontario, has since talked about Egyptian Christians in a consistory meeting, prayed for them on Persecuted Church Sunday, and remembered them in the church bulletin.

“From time to time we mention the church in the world, but, quite frankly, not as often or as creatively as we could,” Gehrels says, adding that the happenstance email was “a blessing, a real eye opener.”

Your congregation can begin praying more globally just as quickly as Calvin CRC did. As you read about Christians in Egypt, you’ll likely think of questions and issues to explore with people in or connected to your congregation. You’ll also see that worship tensions exist everywhere—but take different forms in different places.

Take time to understand the context

As children, Egyptian Christians learn that their country is where Israelites slaved and Moses grew up, where Joseph and Mary fled with baby Jesus, where the Apostle Mark started the church in Alexandria.

“We’re so rooted in the gospel story and early church history,” says Anne Zaki, who grew up in Cairo.

Her father, Emile Zaki, is a pastor and general secretary of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Egypt, a.k.a. Synod of the Nile. The denomination has about 250 congregations plus 150 worshiping groups without their own building. The Synod of the Nile is the nation’s oldest and largest Protestant denomination. It runs hospitals, clinics, social service and employment agencies, retreat centers, day schools, and a seminary.

These Christians operate in a context far different from North America. About 90 percent of Egyptians are Muslim. Of the one-tenth who are Christian, about 90 percent are Coptic Orthodox. The single percent of non-Orthodox Christians includes Catholics (0.03 percent) and several Protestant groups (0.07 percent).

The government prohibits open evangelism and Christians often experience discrimination. These difficulties deepen devotion. “Pastors and wives have many duties and carry them out faithfully. It also struck me how devoted the elders are to the churches and how many came to our lectures,” says Harry Boonstra, an author now retired from teaching and the ministry.

He and Emily Brink spoke on Reformed worship—and its relation to preaching and pastoral care—at the Synod of the Nile’s seminary in Cairo and to 750 people at the 105th annual prayer festival in Alexandria. Anne Zaki translated their lectures.

Notice distinctive worship features

Because Sunday is a workday and school day in this Muslim country, more people come to the evening service than to the morning one. Non-working women, retired people, and those wealthy enough to miss work are the only ones at Sunday morning worship.

Sunday services in most Synod of the Nile churches include translated songs from a hymnal introduced 150 years ago by Presbyterian missionaries from the United States. During the rest of the week, however, worshipers sing indigenous music, often accompanied by an accordion.

“Their rich musical tradition is fascinating. The melodies remind me of that modal blending of Spanish and Moorish influence—scales with lowered seconds, all in a kind of minor, and very attractive.

“People here really sing! Many use arm motions, as if they were conducting themselves,” Brink says.

Christian families in Egypt center their lives around church. Zaki says that across the nation, her denomination has Monday prayer meetings, Tuesday women’s fellowship, Wednesday Bible study, Thursday youth group, and Friday worship split by age group.

“Our minority status sharpens our urgency to spread the good news. Each member of the church is expected to minister in some capacity. This is clearly communicated to children by the time they reach middle school. High schoolers often volunteer with younger children,” Zaki says.

Look for what you have in common

Harry Boonstra wondered how he and Emily Brink could address “issues of worship in a church and culture so different from ours. But our lectures were well-received and generated animated discussions in rapid-fire Arabic.”

The pastors, church leaders, and seminarians wanted to talk about many of the same things that occupy North American churches. How do we keep youth interested in church and worship? What are the best hymns? How often do we celebrate the Lord’s Supper? What makes worship distinctively Reformed?

Brink, Boonstra, and Zaki worshiped in several cities. At Kasr El-Dobarah Presbyterian Church, the pastor’s phone has been tapped because the church is overtly evangelical. The order of worship was very familiar to the North Americans and the sermon was exegetical and practical. The service they attended at Heliopolis Community Church, an international congregation in Cairo, included a PowerPoint kickoff of Rick Warren’s 40 Days of Purpose program.

Brink noticed several similarities between the Synod of the Nile and the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) in North America. She wonders how much the CRC would have grown without the advantage of gaining new members through immigration from the Netherlands and openly evangelistic church planting.

Pray with understanding

Christians in Egypt need prayers for many issues.

Courage amid discrimination. Zaki says Egyptians can tell who’s Christian and who’s Muslim by their surnames. Given names make it even clearer. Christians have Western or saint names or Arabic names such as Fadi or Fadia, which mean “savior.” Every person’s religion is noted on their official identity card. Egyptian Christians face more subtle discrimination than outright persecution. Many report being deliberately failed in exams for professional advancement or getting the runaround when trying to buy property or land.

Protection against persecution. With the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the last ten years, worse things sometimes happen to Christians. Churches burned and Christians were attacked during recent riots in Alexandria over a video CD of a Christian play that traces a young man’s journey from Coptic Orthodoxy to Islam and back to his faith.

Wisdom to retain youth. The Arabic Bible uses high classic Arabic, not the colloquial form that most people speak—so Scripture doesn’t always seem relevant to youth. Zaki says that Christians “who do well do very well, but most Christians are middle or lower class.” Muslim missionaries target financially frustrated young Christian men, offering better jobs and money for a car and apartment to those willing to convert.

Blessings on new ways to reach youth. Based on Brink and Boonstra’s lectures, the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo has redesigned a worship course. Dr. Fawzy Gergis translated Sunday Morning Live into Arabic and it will soon be part of the denomination’s curriculum for middle and high school students.

Stamina for pastors, elders, and church leaders. Running so many weekly meetings and Christian organizations takes skill and energy.

Money and building permits for churches without a home. The Synod of the Nile has 150 unregistered groups that don’t have buildings. A single evangelist often scrambles to serve three or four groups.

Clear witness through Christian organizations. To peacefully co-exist with Muslim neighbors and maintain civil rest, the Presbyterian Church doesn't include the name "Christian" in its hospitals, schools, homes for the disabled, or any other charity. These Christian schools and agencies also hire Muslim staff, which can be an excellent way to build relationships in which Christ's love shines through. Schools such as Ramses College for Girls enroll Christian and Muslim students, who learn together—except in separate religion classes.

Blessings on permitted outreaches. Campus ministries are for Christians, but it's okay to hand out event invitations to anyone, even invitations that are subtly "tract like." Christian bookstores make home deliveries of Bibles, the Jesus Film, and other items. SAT-7 cable TV beams the gospel throughout the Middle East and Africa. 

Learn More

Listen to Indian Christian music in Hindi and Malayalam. Read these fascinating presentations by Indian scholars on the body in worship and indigenizing worship.

Check out Calvin Institute of Christian Worship worship handbook for visiting churches abroad. 

Read about Martha Roy, an Egyptian resident and expert on Coptic Orthodox liturgy. Listen to Coptic music sung during Holy Week.

The Bible Society of Egypt uses home delivery for 80 percent of its sales to non-Christians—because Muslims don’t feel safe being seen in a Christian store.

Use prayer suggestions from SAT-7, a cable TV station that beams the gospel to homes throughout Africa and the Middle East.

Operation World exists to help Christians pray for their brothers and sisters in other countries. Check out its prayer guides for Egypt and India. Use Operation World’s books and CD-ROMs to project information about a country before your intercessory prayer or to lead adult education classes.

The World Factbook is public domain information, so is a great source for posters, brochures, or multimedia presentations about a country your church wants to pray for.

Download Bibles in many languages. Read reports and books about worship worldwide, including Christian Worship in Reformed Churches Past and Present, edited by Lukas Vischer, and The Sunday Service of the Methodists: Twentieth-Century Worship in Worldwide Methodism, edited by Karen B. Westerfield Tucker.

Browse related stories on ethnic churches in North America, global worship, Reformed worship worldwide, and Christians from Filipino, Korean-American, and Mexican cultures. 

Start a Discussion

  • What would your church gain from praying more regularly for churches in other countries? What first step could you take to make this a reality?
  • Which connections does your congregation have with Christians in other countries? List immigrants, refugees, international students, missionaries, frequent travelers, and others in or connected to your congregation who could help you pray more intentionally for churches abroad.
  • Anne Zaki says their minority status gives Egyptian Christian a sharper urgency for evangelism. In what ways does your congregation feel in the mainstream or minority of your nation’s culture?
  • Christians in India wrestle with which cultural elements to include in worship. Do you have similar struggles in your congregation or tradition? Do you pray together about these tensions—or simply grouse with those who agree with you? 

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you’ve found to make congregational prayers more global?

  • Did you assign a small group or church education class to interview missionaries about their prayer needs and then creatively communicate those needs to the church? Will you share your process with us?
  • Have you found a way to seek out a church abroad that is willing to pray for your congregation? If so, please say what’s worked well (or not) in staying abreast of each other’s prayer requests and answered prayers.
  • Let us know if you’ve found effective ways to make global prayer a more regular and specific element of congregational (and individual) worship.