No such thing as conversions in Cairo

By on July 1, 1998

IN A LAND where conversion is as dangerous to the convert as it is for the evangelist, the Anglican Church has learned to minister by example.

So it is that Christian books at an Anglican school in Menouf about 60 kilometres west of the Egyptian capital are kept out of sight, under lock and key in an unused classroom.

Anglican Bible study groups at All Saints Cathedral in Cairo, when they are held at all, are sub rosa.

Things are better now for the church than they were under the Islamization policy of the Nasser era. Church properties confiscated by the state in those days are slowly being returned, although sometimes only after protracted and costly court battles. The same Anglican school in Menouf eyes a property next door that once belonged to the Anglican church and was taken away. Soon, they hope, it will be theirs again and available for the school to expand.

The tiny Anglican church in Egypt is active in a host of social projects, the ambition of which belies the number of adherents, but it does not actively try to attract new members.

It is, after all, one thing for a long-time Anglican to profess his or her faith and a completely different thing for someone born and raised to Islam to consider doing so. To convert to Christianity here is fraught with peril.

The real ministry of the church in Egypt is in social outreach or, as Bishop Ghais Malek who is also President Bishop of the Province of the Episcopal Church in Jerusalem and the Middle East puts it: “Since the law forbids us any form of proselytizing, the only means we have to show God’s love is through the work that we do.

“You see,” he explained, “if we were to convert a Muslim, not only would it be very dangerous for us, but the Muslim convert would have great problems from his family and from the law. His life might even be in danger.

“The concept of conversion simply does not exist in the Arab mind,” said Bishop Malek.

Indeed, in several days of travelling through Egypt with Ogé Beauvoir, regional mission co-ordinator for Africa and the Middle East, attempting to discern the work of the tiny Anglican Church here, there are many anecdotal examples of Muslims whose interests in Christianity have led to attempts on their very lives, all too often at the hands of family or friends. The Christian church must be sensitive to this situation.

“So we do not look for numbers here,” Bishop Malek said, explaining that he does not even have an accurate number of the Anglicans in his diocese. “Our role in this society is to show God’s love.”

God’s love is amply demonstrated in the church’s social works projects, the number and scope of which would put many much-larger churches to shame.

The church ministers to all who come to it, regardless of faith or denomination.

The projects include a school for deaf children in Cairo, a social centre on the Cathedral grounds where women, many of them refugees from the Sudan or Ethiopia, are taught practical skills such as sewing, an elaborate program for feeding and caring for elderly people in their own homes, a home for orphans and several schools.

But the pride and joy of the Egyptian Anglican Church is Harpur Memorial Hospital in Menouf, a couple of hours’ drive from Cairo. The hospital was founded about 90 years ago by Dr. Frank Harpur, an Irish member of the Church Mission Society.

Since 1979, it has been run by Dr. Mouneer Anis, a dynamo of a man who uses his position as chief of the hospital to sublimate an earnest desire to evangelize.

(Harpur Hospital may be the only institution of its kind in the country where the medical staff get together in a chapel every morning for prayers and meditation before starting the day’s work.)

“Like all medical men,” Dr. Anis said, “I started out with a great love for toys — for technology. But the more time I spent here the more that changed. Eventually I decided that I did not want a high-tech hospital that would serve the rich. I wanted a hospital that would serve all the people even if that meant working with used or donated equipment.”

Dr. Anis’ energy and enthusiasm has turned the country hospital into an institution with a reputation second to none in Egypt. And the hospital’s success has enabled it to initiate its own outreach, through a clinic in Sadat City 50 kilometres away.

It has not always been easy. For a while, the government took over part of the hospital and it became two institutions under one roof, one run by the government, the other by the church. Standards fell precipitously, Dr. Anis recalls. Eventually, in a bold gambit, he asked the government to either take over the whole institution or leave. They left.

“In those days we used to see about 2,000 patients a year,” Dr. Anis said. “Last year we saw 41,000.”

To Dr. Anis, the work he does is very much a ministry and the hospital he runs has, to him, become a kind of church.

“You know,” he said proudly, “there are more people who come to this hospital than there are who go to Christian churches. So witness is very important here.”

Echoing Bishop Malek, he added, “It is important to show Christ’s love through all the work that we do here at this hospital. This hospital should be a lighthouse for God’s love. Our hospital is a meeting place; our staff and our doctors share a Christian vision; so this hospital is a place of witness.”

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