A window into the remarkable leadership and ministry of the Al-Dubara Evangelical Church in downtown Cairo, Egypt, was opened when the Arab Spring blew across Tahrir Square right into the palace of President Mubarak.
Over the coming months, the media trained their cameras on a city church surprising the world. The Al-Dubara Evangelical Church was turned into a field hospital for the injured, welcomed young revolutionaries and offered counsel and encouragement amid chaos.
To radical Islamists, the church's pastor Dr. Sameh Maurice spoke wise words, and to the bereaved, he spoke words of comfort. Maurice, an evangelical pastor in Cairo, sat down with Brian Stiller, the global ambassador of the World Evangelical Alliance and a senior editorial advisor to The Christian Post, in late January in a conference center outside of Cairo, for a conversation about his church's active role in the recent revolution in Egypt, the improved relationship between the Coptic Church and evangelicals since the revolution, and the respect Muslims now have for the Church.
The following is an edited transcript of the conversation.
Stiller: Dr. Maurice, how did you come into pastoral ministry?
Maurice: As a Christian, my early life was much involved in our church. In 1974 I led our youth group. At the time we were without a minister. I studied medicine, but in 1985 I was challenged to give my life to full-time church service. I had finished my master studies as a surgeon and planned for a career in medicine.
At the time we experienced a real spiritual awakening among our young people. The university student group became the largest group within the church. We started a drug rehabilitation program because in one of our camps we discovered we had 5 drug addicts in our group. We prayed much for them and in time, they completely withdrew, without any withdrawal symptoms. As a result we found ourselves in the middle of the ministry.
One of our members was studying psychiatry, and decided to take this on. In fact, God pushed us into this ministry
It took 2 years for my wife and I to decide. We eventually felt it was His calling. I finished theological study and in 1993 was ordained. The presbytery was reluctant to ordain me. They held off for three years because they thought I was charismatic and felt I was too dangerous for the Presbyterian church. The senior pastor played a major role. He was my spiritual father. A great pastor, Menis Abdel Moor, wrote 60 books on apologetics. Because of him the church saw its role in teaching people about Christ.
After I came to the church one-and-a-half years later, he became a pastor and built the church around a team. Today we have ten preachers and we take our turns in preaching. Many are now famous speakers. The church grew and grew from 1,000 to 7,000 in seven years, since then we have been involved nationally.
Stiller: You have a number of parts to the church. We are sitting in a 130 acre conference center an hour northwest of Cairo. How did this come about? What was the vision that moved you to do ministry beyond your church located on the edge of Tahrir Square?
Maurice: It started when a woman gave us a piece of land and we needed a place to work with drug addicts. We had to do reclamation of the land and build the first center for drug rehabilitation in the Arab world. Then the idea of a sports center, recreational center, a multi conference center came about. It was an old dream but now with a piece of land. We bought more land from 60 acres to 130 acres, This center houses sports camps, conference centers, prayer centers and training centers. Now we built a stadium to hold the big evangelical events, such as the national prayer conference and evangelistic campaign.
Last year we had 45,000 attend over four days with 30,000 making outward confessions of faith. During evangelistic festivals, each day brings people from all over. There are 12 different stages of performance, cinema, play/drama, illusionist, playing of games and sports events, music teams and singers, famous artists. At the end of the day we come together to the sports center for an evangelistic meeting which is broadcast all over the Arab speaking world.
Stiller: How many would be Muslim?
Maurice: We don't know. People buy tickets and come and we don't know. This is the 6th year and each year we have them, and they're called "Count it right." Think about your life; make a good calculation; you may win everything and lose yourself; is it a good winning equation? A very Arabic slogan.
Last year 27,000 attended with 10,000 commitments to Christ. So you can see the growth factor. It's held in the autumn time when it is vacation time.
The place has become famous. It is really the only facility for sports camps in the Arab world. We do sports camps for Christians and Muslims.
Stiller: What else is part of your church's vision?
Maurice: We have a hospital in downtown Cairo, and medical mission teams throughout Egypt. As well we have "Love Outreach." We go into slums to distribute trousers, foods, do activities with people, music and fellowship. That's why it is called love outreach, with a child sponsorship called Healing Grace with 750 children.
Stiller: Your church was put on the map in the revolution in 2011. How did that happen?
Maurice: One reason was that we were praying for Egypt for 10 years. The year before we had a clear message: "this year something unique would happen which will change the land." We put up a banner: "What I'm going to do for you is awesome." So when the revolution came we weren't shocked.
Because we expected this from God, we weren't shocked because we were looking for something special to happen that very year; it made us ready to react properly.
As well we had been very much involved in human rights. We set up an NGO as part of our church ministry to deal with human rights, plus our geographic location. We are in the square where the revolution happened. We had two options: close the doors and say we aren't here or open the doors and say we are here. Every Friday we were invited to go into the square and pray and worship the Lord as Muslims did. We were invited.
Stiller: How did you build your relationships with Muslim people and their leaders?
Maurice:They knew and trusted us as our human rights work linked them to us. As well, the core revolutionary group – young people – one of them was a doctor lady, a member of our church. She wasn't that active at the time and we didn't know her well. Plus many of our young people were involved in the revolution – they were in the streets. In the first days, four from our church. So we found ourselves in the revolution.
Then the church reacted, led by God, to say what should be said, to do what should be done, and in the small things we did, we were thanked and praised by anyone. After the resignation of Mubarak, we held the first celebration. We invited the core people of the revolution: media, families of the martyrs, Muslim leaders, to thank them and honor them, to give them gifts. We did it spontaneously, but we believe we were led by the Spirit. We were the first to do so. So the media publicized this and since then we became close friends of the famous names of the revolution. We were the first to bring them together over coffee to discuss their future. And since we weren't into politics, we could get them to cooperate. We did it innocently but whatever we could do we did it. We brought them together to get them to know each other. We did small things.
With the second wave of the revolution, which was the fall of 2011, it started against the SCMF. People said you are deceiving the people and came to demonstrate. They attacked the revolution. Earlier that had not been the case, but in the second wave they were very harsh.
This is the time we opened the church as a field hospital. Again the spot light came on us. We did it out of love and patriotism, God made something of it. It was known and appreciated by everyone.
Stiller: What did that do to you and your ministry?
Maurice: I realized we were a voice and became a bridge; a voice to be heard. So we had to be careful what we said. We became like a bridge builder between the Christian and Muslim community. Working and helping each other, all on a Christian basis.
We also became a prophetic voice of the church. The church became proud of what we were doing so they expected us to lead them in what to say and do. They trusted our agenda, even the Orthodox (Coptic) Church.
Stiller: How did the Orthodox, the dominant Christian community, feel about you, a small minority becoming the center of attention?
Maurice: By the grace of God, what we did, saved the face of Christianity, in front of Christians and Muslims. In the beginning the official Orthodox stand was supporting the government, Mubarak against the revolution. To have someone else supporting the flags of the revolution, saved our face (Christianity) to the Muslim world, especially after the success of the revolution. Otherwise we would have been discredited. The Orthodox realized that and thanked us. To my surprise I thought they would resent us, but we found favor in their eyes.
Also we were praying for unity among Christians for some many years, so what happened in the revolution alongside a daily television program we ran called School of Christ, helping Christians. It became very popular. A systematic theology, providing a logical presentation of apologetics, helping Christians understand what to believe and how to practice their faith. For the first time Christian were hearing what to believe, how to answer, how to live faith and apply it to everyday life. This program plus the revolution gave the church a catalyst for unity among Christians. In major events with Roman Catholic, The Coptic Church, we represented evangelicals. It was a miracle, and since then a new unity has resulted among these three families. Today everywhere I go I'm welcomed by bishops, monks, priests, all kinds of spiritual leaders, asking me to speak, welcoming me in unbelievable ways.
Stiller: How has the face of the gospel changed? How has the witness of Christians changed in Egypt?
Maurice: We are in a new day. As evangelicals we were the nobody person. For the first time we are seen and heard by the whole community. The church started to be seen by Muslims in a very different way. Muslims used to hate, disrespect and ignore the church. Now many of them respect the church because they can now compare between the church and what the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists (Islamists) do. They see the difference. As you read tweets you can see that. "The Muslim Brotherhood is killing us and the church is healing us." Despised, hated, neglected, some of them, about 30% see us in a different way. There has been increased number of conversions to Christ in a big way.
Stiller: What will this do to the political decision and the writing of the constitution?
Maurice: The church was invited to be at the committee. By the end they had to withdraw because the Muslim Brotherhood and Salfists decide to write the constitution according to their Islamic beliefs, not according the civil way of thinking. So the church had to withdraw with the liberals. We said what you are doing is against personal freedom, dignity and social justice. And these were the three flags of the revolution. The final draft was against these three. I was happy the church left. We said we didn't withdraw became of our rights. We withdrew because it was against democracy, not because of our rights as Christians.
The new pope, Pope Tawadros II, is wise and spiritual. He is a man of God. Unity is on his heart. Very knowledgeable, wise and humble, I was thrilled.
Christians today are acting in a Christian way, demonstrating Christian faith. Now many Christians are involved as individuals and many are very respected. Up to the revolution Christians were not in the political arena. Mubarak succeeded to deal with the people and the representative of Christians. He dealt with the church as a political group. It was a very big mistake. So Christians are in the political arena, not as an institution. The church is protecting the rights of the people, representing the values of the community but not involved in politics. So now we are involved in the right mode.
Stiller: So what is the next stage for your ministry? What is it moving you to over the next five years.
Maurice: This will depend on the situation. There are two possible scenarios.
First Islamists will take over. Freedom will be suppressed, persecution will come. Many Christians in the rural area today are being persecuted. Homes and fields and shop are being taken from them. In cities because of the population it is not that bad. Islamists take away land and shops by violence and guns and the government is not protecting Christians.
So if the Islamists take over we expect persecution and we expect the economy will collapse, people will starve.
Second scenario: liberals will win, meaning civil views, rejecting theocratic rule, as the Islamists want, and advocating instead democracy and freedom, not associating religion with political dominance.
If this side wins (and we believe they are the majority) the battle, we will have more freedom, economy will improve.
But if the first comes, the church will go underground and be oppressed. If the second comes, then we will be more seen and be able to bring truth and love to the people of Egypt. We are working to prepare ourselves for either scenario.