From Ashes to Beauty

17b30f59-54e4-45b6-9286-85981f97c35f[1] 96a40fb9-12b1-431f-8048-34521c8b9ebe[1] e126fb03-f181-4cde-94bf-1104f5e3a79e[1]July 9, 2014 was a remarkable evening in the Christian history of Egypt. Assuit, the largest city south of Cairo, was once a bastion of Christianity. While the percentage of Christians has radically decreased, a very strong Christian presence in the city yet remains. The occasion was the re-opening of the Bible Society Bookshop in downtown Assuit which had been viciously destroyed by Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers on August 14, 2013 in response to the dispersion of the Muslim Brotherhood sit-ins in Cairo.

The celebration of the re-opening of the Bookshop was a significant event for Christians in Assuit who felt humiliated and threatened by the destruction of dozens of churches, Christian institutions and many privately owned Christian properties. The re-opening of the Bookshop in a main street in downtown Assuit is a symbol of the continuation of Christian presence in Egypt. What was remarkable about this particular event was the presence of Christian leaders from all denominations in Assuit. Bishops, priests, pastors, Christian leaders, businessmen and others attended the joyful celebration and many spoke about the significant impact of the Bible Society bookshop on the life of the Church in Assuit. No other event could have united the Christians in Assuit in such a way.

It made me realize once again that the Bible is the most uniting common factor among Christians in Egypt. The presence of this Bookshop in such a strategic location is certainly an indication that Christianity continues strong in the city. This has been a real encouragement to the Christians, as this re-opening boldly states that “We are here to stay!” A week earlier we had a soft opening of the bookshop and the staff shared story after story about passers-by who were delighted to find the bookshop open and spontaneously bought bouquets of flowers and presented them to the staff. The staff could not close the bookshop before midnight, and sometimes stayed up till 2 am just to welcome the well-wishers who came excitedly to congratulate them.

On the opening night I also met the young girl who had filmed the attack on the Bookshop from her eighth floor balcony in the building opposite the Bible Society.

The young girl said how terrified she was when she saw the people coming to try to break through the heavy metal door protecting the Bookshop. She said that she did not believe God would allow them to do this and was expecting divine intervention at any moment. After they broke the door and then destroyed the glass she still expected someone to come to stop the raging crowds. When no one came and the destruction continued, her sister standing beside her fainted and her mother kept screaming for help. The presence of three women in the balcony of this house was evident and they received threatening looks and signs from those destroying the shop. I told her that her courageous act of filming helped thousands world-wide to see and experience what really happened on that fateful day.

A Muslim neighbor rejoiced with us at the re-opening and said it felt like he was congratulating a newlywed son on his new home!

Despite the horrible upheaval of 2013, we thank God for the testimony of His faithfulness. The love and support that was showered upon us, both from within Egypt and abroad has been an amazing experience! We have been enabled to provide all of our regular programs and quickly rebuild the destroyed Bookshops, reflecting our commitment and determination to serve the Egyptian Church. Not only are the Scriptures made easily accessible in the Egyptian marketplace, but this network of 15 Bible Bookshops is unique in providing a common meeting point for the Christians of Egypt.

How can I thank God for the privilege of being involved in making God’s Word available in Egypt.

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30 year old fruit

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More than thirty years ago I had the privilege of meeting Bishop Moussa, the newly appointed Coptic Bishop for youth in Egypt.

At the time he asked me if I could help with training of Coptic Orthodox youth leaders in inductive Bible study at his office.  What started as a small group of 18 youth leaders developed eventually into the St Timothy Center for Inductive Bible Study which continues until today.

On Saturday I attended a “Day on the Bible” organized by a small church in an inner-city district in Cairo.  The ambitious priest of that church, Father Marcos, has a vision for helping young people interact with the Bible and had planned that day as a way of encouraging people to interact with the Bible creatively.  I was amazed by what I saw!  By the time I got there at 10:30 in the morning about one thousand young people had already arrived and during the day many more joined them.  They had rented a school for the event and had set up about thirty different booths, each focusing on the theme of the day which was the parables and proverbs in the Bible.

One of the booths showed how many of the proverbs in the Bible are related to popular proverbs in Society.

Another presented the parable of the Sower in a creative way by pouring water into four different cups each having a white powder at the bottom and the first two gave no reaction, the second lots of fizz which fizzled away quickly and the forth lots of fizz that overflowed and continued to overflow from the cup! The young youth leader using this visual manner explained the parable of the Sower and its message!  Many other booths had creative titles and creative ways of presenting the different parables and proverbs in the Scriptures.

I was amazed by the enthusiasm, the creativity and the commitment of these Coptic Orthodox young people who obviously love God’s Word and want to help others to interact with it.

When I arrived Bishop Moussa was addressing the crowd and when he saw me asked me to join him on the platform and say a word to them.  As he introduced me he talked graciously about the ministry of the Bible Society in Egypt and its role in helping provide the Scriptures in attractive and creative formats for all ages.  I told those present that without this kind of vision and drive to get the Scriptures out to young people, we as a Bible Society would not succeed as a publisher.  Yes we do produce the Scriptures in as creative formats as we can but without church leaders and volunteers who will distribute and communicate these Scriptures our nice publications would simply sit on the shelves of our bookshops.

How I thank God for the vision of a person like Bishop Moussa who for thirty years has been encouraging young people to engage with the Scriptures and someone like Father Marcos who organized this day and worked so hard to get God’s Word out.  It is exciting to serve the Lord alongside great men and women of God in the church in Egypt.

Preaching at my “Local” Church

Last Sunday I preached at my “local Church”.  The Roman Catholic Basilica is actually less than five minutes’ walk from my home.  Each year, for the past 22 years I have preached at that Basilica on the occasion of the annual Bible Society Sunday.  I usually preach at both their Arabic and French service but today there was a visiting Bishop and I only spoke at the French service though I attended both.

Worshipping at the Basilica is a very wonderful experience.  That enormous building was built in 1905 by the founder of the modern city of Heliopolis, Baron Empain, (he is buried in a crypt under the altar). As a young child I would often ride my bicycle by that Church and was amazed by its architecture.  In my wildest dreams it would never have occurred to me – as a young teenager destined to be the heir of my grandfather’s industrial empire – that I would one day be preaching at the Basilica. In my autograph book, my grandfather wrote the following: “we called you Ramez and look forward to see what you will represent” (“Ramez” in Arabic means symbol of or representative).  It would never have occurred to my grandfather nor to my parents that I would someday be involved in representing the Bible to the churches in Egypt.  This is clearly my identity today and is what I am most known for.

As I walked home from the Basilica I realized that I take too much for granted the great privilege it is to speak and preach at so many different churches in Egypt. I am probably the only non-Catholic who has ever preached at one of their services and certainly feel welcomed and loved each time I do so.  To God be the Praise!