by Robert L. Niklaus
Reports from around the world.
EGYPT: Secular Godsend
The secular state is generally viewed by Christians in the Western world as inimical to their interests. But in the Middle East, state secularism is a godsend to the church.
Egypt’s existing body of legislation is largely inspired by the Napoleonic Code which, among other things, prohibits any political party founded exclusively on religion. However, pressure is building to change the basic secular character of the government by introducing the shariah, the Islamic law of God.
Hussein Amin, director of the Diplomatic Academy at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, worries that "in a year or two Muslim extremists will be in power in Egypt."
A politician and members of the Coptic Church agrees: "The shadow of a Khomeini in uniform looms heavily over the country."
Eric Rouleau writes in "Le Monde": "The challenge of preserving a secular Egyptian state will be an awesome one, and the hour is not far off. Eight commissions, charged under the Sadat regime with amending the legal codes to make them compatible with shariah, finished their work in December, 1983, with a series of bills to be considered by the legislature.
"Will the National Democratic Party, which has an absolute majority of seats in Parliament, deny the child of its own policy?" asks Rouleau.
The appeal of Islamic extremists lies in their offer of an Islamic state as a panacea for Egypt’s troubles. More than a refuge, Rouleau observes, Islam is perceived as a life-buoy in a society adrift.
Socially and economically Egypt is certainly adrift. The gap between richest and poorest constantly widens. Nearly one in four Egyptians lives below the poverty level. The nation depends on other countries for nearly 60 percent of its basic necessities, spending half its revenue on food imports, while debt repayments absorb another 25 percent.
Legalized emigration has meant that four million out of 46 million citizens have settled abroad. Many are the country’s best professional people who can earn seven to 16 times higher salaries in Arab oil countries.
As a result, Islamic associations are proliferating, legal or not. Through their numerous philanthropic organizations, fundamentalists provide for needy citizens.
Rouleau reports that extremists "have been elected to posts in labor unions and business and socio-cultural associations, and are trying to establish cells in the armed forces. Recruitment and formation of cells independent of each other, and conducted in the greatest secrecy, often make them invulnerable."
With these storm clouds gathering, Christians in Egypt will need all the support they can find. Although the Protestant community is the largest in the Middle East-somewhere between six and 10 million-it constitutes a small minority in the country. Some of the churches have conciliar ties, but most of the Protestants are believed to be evangelicals.
The churches were given a big boost in November, 1983, when the Evangelical Fellowship of Egypt (EFE) became a member of the World Evangelical Fellowship (WEF), which has members in some 50 countries, EFE is the first association of evangelicals to become affiliated from a Middle Eastern country.
More recently, WEF General Secretary David M. Howard and a team of associates participated in "Cairo ’84," a four-day study conference designed as a local follow up of "Wheaton ’83."
Assessing the religious scene, Howard reports, "The Egyptian church faces special restrictions. It is against the law to seek to make converts from the majority religious community. All Protestants are held accountable to the government through the Council of Protestant Churches of Egypt, to which all must belong. Church services are routinely monitored by the secret police, as were the conference sessions in which we spoke."
The Coptic Church of Egypt, the largest entity in the Christian community, has suffered under an especially difficult restriction. Pope Shenouda III, patriarch of the Coptic Church, was banished to a desert monastery in 1981 by the late President Anwar Sadat, primarily to match the repression against Islamic associations, most of which have been disbanded. He was freed on New Year’s Day by President Hosni Mubarak after 40 months’ exile.
Howard does see encouraging signs of renewal in Egypt’s Protestant churches. An increasing number of professional men and women, some with good government positions, have opted for full-time Christian service. Signs of renewal have likewise been evidenced in several Coptic churches.
The current struggle between state secularists and Muslim fundamentalists will largely decide how much freedom the churches will continue to have in Egypt. For once, Christians are praying that God will help the secularists.
IRAN: Irony of Success
The crumpled ranks of Iranian youth, mown down in a suicide attack on the Iraqui front. . . The bombed-out shell of the Marine barracks in Beirut. . . The mobs of Tehran wave their fists in cadence with the chant, "Death to America". . . .
These are marks of success in the Ayatollah Khomeini’s campaign to radicalize Iran as a warrior nation, the fruits of his jihad to rid the Middle East of every infidel-and every moderate Muslim leader who does not follow Allah according to the dictates of Khomeini.
Yet his campaign of violence and terror has unexpected twists, such as the support of Iraq by both Eastern and Western bloc nations. Another surprising effect of the warfare among Arab states is an unprecedented openness of Muslims to the gospel.
"Because of the increasing pressures of Westernism upon Islamic countries, and because of the social and political instability found in the Islamic world, the Muslim people are more ready for the gospel of Jesus Christ than they ever have been," observes Bob Sjogren of Frontiers, a mission to Muslims.
The greatest of ironies is that this openness is clearly evident in Ayatollah’s own Fortress Islam, Iran.
"Now that Khomeini has destroyed the false god of America and its doctrine of secularism and materialism, the country is faced with a choice," writes Bryan Bishop in ‘World Christian." "Many of Iran’s 40 million people have developed a distaste for Khomeini and the religion he represents. There is a great desire for something else."
Iran itself, says Bishop, best exemplifies this new openness: "When the pastor of an Armenian church in Tehran looks over his congregation, he sees a remarkable sight. The place is packed like it’s never been before. The reason is that about a quarter of the crowd is Muslim. Seven out of 10 baptisms in his church are Muslims-a previously unheard-of figure.
"Muslims who are tired of all the bloodshed since Khomeini’s rise to power are turning to Jesus in a way that has never before happened in their country."
Hunger for the Word of God explains why bookshelves in Bible bookstores are bare. Many wait impatiently for a shipment of 400,000 Bibles the American Bible Society is trying to get into the country.
An Iranian couple now in the United States confided in an American who befriended them that they were deeply disturbed by all the executions that took place after the revolution. "If all this fighting and killing that Khomeini has stirred up is what Islam is like," they remarked, "then we don’t want it."
Western missionaries may not be able to capitalize on this new openness in Iran, but China has proven that the indigenous church can do plenty by itself.
CHINA: Breathing Room
Arrests and harassment of Christians seem to have eased in recent months, giving what John F. Burns, correspondent for "The New York Times," calls "some breathing room" to the religious community.
The lessening of tension made for a good Christmas among churchgoers on the mainland.
The Christmas Eve midnight mass in Peking’s Nan-tang Cathedral drew a capacity congregation well before the service began. The New China News Agency reported 8,000 in attendance.
A nearby Protestant church filled to capacity for a Christmas Day service. The pastor told visiting Burns that Christians have had no happier period since the Communists came to power. "Never in 35 years has there been a better time," he said.
But Burns also noted during his visit to the cathedral, "the midnight mass yielded plenty of signs that it is the Patriotic Catholic Association, set up in the mid-1950s to control the church after its forced break with the Vatican, that really controls matters."
In similar fashion the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) has gradually consolidated control over Protestant groups. Over all, the Religious Affairs Bureau in Peking tightened its grip on all religious activities in China.
It may well be that the reduced pressure is related to the government’s confidence that the official church agencies now have matters in hand. During the "golden days" of 1979 and 1980 the Christians seemed to flourish and multiply at an alarming rate. To see some 20 to 25 million believers suddenly appear from nowhere must have been shocking to a regime that had assumed Christianity to be dead.
The easing of restrictions applies to the Tibetan Buddhists as well. Two hundred tons of relics seized from monasteries during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution were returned to Tibet. The government has renovated and reopened 75 temples in a show of religious tolerance. Prior to the Cultural Revolution Tibet had some 3,000 monasteries and temples.
Although church leaders express appreciation for the recent lessening of tension, they are making no predictions for the future. Burns noted in his conversations that "there is an edge of wariness about their exchanges with visitors, as though nobody is quite sure how long it will last."
The street-wise house churches are making their own comment on the future: they have begun meeting in smaller groups and at irregular intervals.
COLOMBIA: "Flashpoint of Growth?"
The media have given Colombia a bad name and partially, at least, it is deserved. Almost all the cocaine sold on American streets is trafficked out of this country. Some of the bloodiest political battles have been waged in its streets and towns. Fifteen years in the 1940s and 1950s devastated the evangelical church.
But Dwight Smith, writing in "Global Church Growth," says that all this bad is now being turned to good. Years of violence and instability have created an unprecedented receptivity to the gospel among Colombians.
He reports on three cities in Colombia that indicate there are no obstacles to growth.
In a Bogota suburb stands a five-story building that looks like a warehouse or factory. But in reality it is a church, one of Colombia’s largest. Each Sunday over 2,000 people fill its central hall with song and worship. Called The Christian Crusade of Colombia, the movement has grown from one church in Bogota to more than 120 churches all over the country in 12 short years.
The pastor and prime mover of this movement, Marcos Diaz, does not believe the growth of the mother congregation has peaked. He is currently expanding the main auditorium to seat another 1,000 and plans to add a large patio area that will give the church a total capacity for 8,000 people.
A second pace-setting church in Colombia thrives in Medellin, the cocaine capital of South America. The Pan American Church began 14 years ago, and spent most of that time floundering. But today it has a thriving fellowship of 1,400 members and has planted six other churches ranging from 60 to 300 members.
Modesto Castaneda, co-pastor of the church, believes that thousands more of his fellow Colombians can be won to Christ. The church’s building program includes a sanctuary that will seat over 4,000 by the end of 1986. Their aim is to see each new daughter church develop a membership of at least 1,000.
The Central Foursquare Church of Barranquilla has about 1,000 active members and has planted 17 other churches, with a total membership of more than 3,500.
All three of these remarkable churches in Colombia share some common factors of growth, according to Smith:
(1) The leaders, Diaz, Castaneda and Silva, do not merely believe in growth-they expect it. Their thoughts, prayer life and every aspect of ministry are geared to this goal.
(2) They have realized they need help and have built up around them’ a ministry that motivates, equips, and mobilizes their people to exercise their spiritual gifts.
(3) Even though some of these movements have mother congregations which are very large, they have all sought to decentralize ministry-nurturing the flock and manifesting the life of Christ must take place in the barrio.
(4) The leaders realize that a few super churches are not enough. The visible, identifiable presence of local churches must saturate Colombia’s towns and cities.
Significantly, this increase is taking place in cities through the application of growth factors that can be applied universally. Around one billion people now live in Third World cities-a number that will double by the turn of the century. Learning from these Colombian churches might clear away obstacles to growth in other population centers of the world.
ROMANIA: Church Smashing
The Romanian government’s attitude toward human rights is simple and straightforward: you name it, we’re against it. Proud of their hardline policy, the authorities have taken to church smashing in recent years.
The 500-member Baptist church in Bisprita had no idea it was to be the 13th victim in four years when it sought a building permit to expand its meeting place. Permission had been denied repeatedly, but the church’s real problems began when the permit was finally granted.
After the approved expansion was completed on the building, certain members of the city government sent a construction crew to rip off the roof. No advance warning was given to the legally registered church. When worshipers came to church the following Sunday last November, the roof was gone.
That did not deter 700 people from meeting to worship that Sunday. Before they could meet the following week, the walls were torn down and the foundation destroyed.
The congregation was then served official notice of a building code violation. Pastor Nicu Minzat was fined the equivalent of six months’ salary.
The next site on the hit list is the largest Baptist church in Europe, the Second Baptist Church of Oradea. Government authorities issued a notice in September that the building would be demolished in four weeks. They gave no assurance that an alternate meeting place would be granted the congregation.
According to EP News Service, the church has an average attendance of 2,000 people in Sunday services. A series of evangelistic meetings last May resulted in the conversion and baptism of 93 persons. Another 100 are now awaiting baptism.
WORLD: Megacity Strategies
The problems facing Third World megacities cannot be ignored by developed countries," warns a United Nations report on population increase. "We cannot look to the past for solutions; there is no precedent for such growth. We are in uncharted, challenging waters."
The problem of world population has been dramatized numerous times and ways in these pages, but the rising level of alarm in a wide variety of publications warrants another report about what is happening and what Christian missions are doing about it.
World population, which has had its most dramatic rise in this century, will not stop until the year 2100, when births worldwide will do no more than replace deaths. At that time, over 10 billion people will live on the planet, more than double the present figure.
These masses of people are stampeding to urban centers. In 1950, according to Robert W. Fox in a "National Geographic" article, seven urban centers held more than five million residents. Today 34 cities have that distinction. By the year 2025, there will be 93, and 80 of these will be in the emerging nations.
Controlled growth is impossible, and resources simply inadequate, Fox reports. "Sprawling slums, massive traffic jams, chronic unemployment, regular failure of electric and water services, strained educational and recreational facilities, and skyrocketing food and fuel costs are the stuff of daily existence."
Fox singles out Mexico City as a prime example, calling it an "alarming giant." Studies project that by the year 2000 the city will have over 30 million people.
Leslie K. Tarr writes in a World Evangelization Information Service feature that in Mexico City "there are more young people under age 15 than there are people in Los Angeles’."
He points out that while 23 percent of the people in developed nations are under 15 years of age, a staggering 40 percent in less developed countries are that young. "These masses of young people, restless in a crowded, resource-depleted world with widespread unemployment, could form a seething cauldron of social unrest."
Evangelizing these massive urban centers stood high on the agenda of the Consultation on World Evangelization in Pattaya, Thailand, in 1980. Raymond J. Bakke accepted the responsibility of Lausanne Associate for Large Cities to coordinate and service a program of consultations on urban ministry.
Reporting in the "International Bulletin of Missionary Research," Bakke indicates that thus far over 85 cities have hosted consultations on urban evangelism strategies. Of these, 35 were conducted overseas. In some instances the Lausanne-sponsored events included numerous church bodies that never before sat down with each other.
The overall purpose of these consultations has been to encourage, equip and empower "the whole church to take the whole gospel to the whole city."
This emphasis on the whole church became even more significant as study groups in various cities listed the 10 most significant barriers to the evangelization of their cities. A study group in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, reported that almost all 10 barriers related to the internal life and structure of the church.
Bakke observes, "This is typical of other cities where seven or eight of every 10 mentioned are barriers created by church politics, policies, or personalities-not the big bad city itself."
The United Nations considers itself in "uncharted, challenging waters" as it faces the human problems of megacities. The implications for Christian witness are even more staggering.
Copyright © 1985 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.