Bible Society

Usually when a mission partner is commissioned, they are presented with a Bible in the language of the country/ region where they are going to serve. In my case, I was told to pick one up locally, so it gave me a good opportunity to visit the Bible Society of Egypt. It is situated in a modern five storey building, which has a superb bookshop on the Ground Floor. The First floor is devoted to Bible World, which seeks to introduce children and young people to the way in which the Bible has come to us, progressing through a series of five rooms, which deal with things like original languages, manuscripts, translations and the printing press. All very interactive, and the children I met were certainly very enthusiastic about it. They had to translate a biblical verse from Greek into Arabic using a simple key, print a page of the Bible and take part in a computer quiz at the end. Good fun, but also very educative. Another floor is given over to publishing. Printing and distributing the Bible is the Society’s raison d’être, and it is the largest publisher of the Arabic Bible in the world, but the Bible Society is always seeking to discover new ways of presenting its message, both in print and also in other forms of media. Given the high illiteracy rate in the country (over 25% in 2014), the production of DVDs is important. I found their work incredibly creative, and one book on the Sermon on the Mount uses Arabic calligraphy to good effect in putting across the phrases from Matthew. One example is ’You are the light of the world’ pictured below, where these words in Arabic  are formed into a flame.

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Another picture uses the graffiti common to the Arab Spring to illustrate ‘Let your Yes be Yes, and your No be No.

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With a full time staff of 220, the Bible Society has 14 bookshops around the country, and it is the one place where people from all the different denominations can meet on ‘neutral territory’. Certainly during my visit I met a Coptic Orthodox priest and his wife from Paris, as well as a member of the large Egyptian Diaspora in the States. The Society has been headed for the last 25+ years by Ramez Atallah, whose energy and enthusiasm for his work suggests he will go on for another 25!

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Meet the students: Joseph Louis Shafirk

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Joseph graduated in May this year. He is 26 and comes from Ayoub in Upper Egypt. He studied English at the local College of Arts, but one day, while trying to catch the train, he was involved in an accident, which resulted in his leg being amputated above the knee. This was obviously a traumatic time, and Joseph had to undergo 4 operations. He now uses a prosthetic leg (which he bought on Ebay!!) and is well able to walk around. Remarkably he continued with his studies and, even more remarkable, he felt his call to the ministry strengthened by what he had suffered. His family has had a very strong connection with the Synod of the Nile, with his father being an elder and two cousins pastors. His disability did not hinder him from taking up a place at the Seminary, and in fact during his studies for his M.Div. he wrote a research paper on the difficulties (indeed, abuse) suffered by those who are disabled within the Church in Egypt. Joseph has a very open and positive personality, and he has made the most of his time at the College, grateful for the relationships he has made with both staff and students, but also for the exposure to new ideas. In summer 2016 he will become the pastor of the congregation of Jarf Sarhan-Dairut in Upper Egypt, where he did his summer placement in 2015. This will be a challenge, as although built in 1922, the church has never had a pastor and does not even have any elders. However, 40-50 attend worship with 100+ children. Joseph is certainly well up to the challenge, but would very much value our prayers.

Meet the students: Dina Sobhi

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Despite studying architecture, Dina felt that her interest and talents lay more in music, and so she became a music teacher, and I am sure her enthusiasm has inspired how many of the children. However, the idea of studying theology at the Seminary was one which kept coming back to her. She had worked with the youth at her church, who often asked complicated questions about God and their relationship with God. She thought that a theology degree may give her the answers! Four years on, she realises she has  even more questions, but has also discovered far more about herself, about God and about other people. She is grateful for the experience of being at the seminary and touched by the genuineness and faithfulness of the people she has encountered here. Because of her job, she has taken classes in the evening, which is an option at the Seminary, and to her delight, she graduated at the end of May 2016 with a Master of Arts in Theology degree (M.A.T.). Not only that, but she did so well that she was encouraged to apply for a scholarship to Princeton in the States. She was successful in her application and will study Christian Education, in the hope of using what she learns to good effect in Egypt. Her scholarship to the States is slightly complicated by the fact that she has become engaged to Amir, who also graduated this year with an M.Div. (their picture was on my last post) and who will be a pastor in a big congregation in Alexandria. However, they will get married once she returns from Princeton, and she will become a pastor’s wife in Alexandria. However, on my short acquaintance with Dina, I can see that she is an incredibly gifted person who will make a real impact wherever she will find herself.

I asked Dina about the challenges faced by women in the church. None of the main denominations in Egypt, including the Synod of the Nile, ordain women as ministers, but it has been an issue in the church for some years now. While the rural areas remain deeply conservative, it is a different story in the cities, where women can lead worship and preach and offer pastoral care, and it is widely accepted. So, the ordination of women … it will happen, but the only question is when.

Meet the students: Tharwat Musa Mary Zakhary

Ramadan has just begun. For the next month our Moslem friends will fast during daylight hours, and even for Christians it will be difficult to eat or drink in public, lest we cause offence. The fast ends with the setting of the sun, and suddenly Cairo becomes alive again.  Meanwhile the muezzin has been kept busy, calling the faithful to prayer, which he seemed to do at regular intervals through the night. At one point, to my bewilderment, he seemed to go into English, but it was BBC World from my television, which for some unfathomable reason had decided to switch itself on at 03.00 in the morning!

The Seminary is quiet, and almost all the students have left for their summer placements – or, for those who just graduated, have now gone to their new congregations. There they are on probation for 9 months- 1 year, after which they will be ordained, but then continue in the same congregation for the foreseeable future after that. Over the graduation period I managed to interview some of the students and thought I would introduce you to them to illustrate the calibre of our students.

Tharwat Musa Mary Zakhary

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At Graduation, one of the graduates is chosen to give an address on behalf of their fellow students, and this year Tharwat was given this honour. Tharwat is 26 (going on 27!) and an extremely engaging, personable young man. He grew up in the village of Khuzam (a ‘village’ of 30,000 inhabitants), near Mallawi in Minya Province, and his family were active in the local Evangelical Presbyterian congregation. The Pastor encouraged Tharwat and singled him out for leadership roles, especially among the youth, and even when he was studying Archeology at College, Tharwat was already feeling called to the ministry, and he successfully applied to study at the seminary.

When asked what he would remember most from his seminary days, he mentioned the relationships with both his fellow students and staff and commented on the small Pastoral groups which meet weekly to offer support and prayer. He also mentioned his summer internships: in Luxor at the end of 1st Year, a time which coincided with a time of upheaval in Egypt (when the army moved to replace President Morsi), when he had to make a hair-raising 20 hour journey home to Minya to check on his family. After his 2nd year he spent the summer with CEOSS (Coptic Evangelical Organisation for Social Services), which gave him a better understanding of social care and which indeed inspired his ministry. ‘I don’t want the church to be exclusive, always looking inwards’ he says, ‘The church needs to reach out to the community with all its needs’. His internship after 3rd Year was at the congregation of Ezbat Ayoub in Upper Egypt, and indeed after graduation, he will become the pastor of that same congregation.

Tharwat married Mervat a year ago, and they are expecting their first child. He faces new challenges as a new pastor and a new father, but hopes to make a real impact on the lives of both the congregation and the community. Impressively he confides the importance for him of a servant ministry, touching the hearts of all around him.