Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Arab Christians try new ways to sustain spirit

CAIRO: Organizers billed it as one of the largest events of its kind in the Arab world.

On a November weekend, over 10,000 Arab Christians, mostly from Egypt, boarded hundreds of buses headed to a desert camp outside Cairo for three days of non-traditional worship.

Under the hot sun, participants helped each other scramble over climbing walls, danced at a live performance of Christian rap, and shared religious testimony at a BMX-biking show.

"We wanted to come over here and give some hope to what can be a dark world for Christians," said Catherine Swaffar, a 24-year old Texan, as she helped Egyptian teenagers climb a 10-metre (30-foot) rock wall set up on the desert sand.

She was one of a team of volunteers from around the world, many from the evangelical Luis Palau Association of Portland, Oregon, who journeyed to Cairo to help stage the same events that have drawn hundreds of thousands to festivals in the United States.

As members of a religious minority in the mostly Muslim Arab world, many Arab Christian groups are turning to evangelical styles of worship, often borrowed from America, to energize communities they say are threatened by emigration.

"We've never seen anything like this here in Egypt," said Karim Tadros, 22, after watching a team of visiting American skateboarders mix stunts with stories about religious conversions. "I like the environment here and how people treat each other. That is what God is all about."

Human rights and church groups say violence and insecurity have helped drive Christians out of some Middle East countries, such as Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. Egyptian Christian groups complain of harassment or arrest by police.

A sense that Islamist ideologies are spreading is also encouraging Christians, many of whom have family in Western countries, to emigrate, said Michel Nseir, Middle East program executive for the World Council of Churches.

"With the rise of fundamentalism, extremism and intolerance, Christians are easy targets of acts of violence, very often identified with occupying or oppressing powers," he said. "These acts are often exaggerated or amplified by the media, creating a general feeling of fear that pushes more Christians to leave."


At the desert festival, volunteers milled through the crowds, offering to talk about their faith, as music from Van Halen and the Chemical Brothers played over loudspeakers.

It was a way to reach Egyptians who might be bored or disillusioned with more traditional styles of worship practiced by the Coptic Orthodox Church which is dominant in the country, Organizers said.

"We want to reach people who've never been to a church, and if you invited them to a church they wouldn't be interested," said organizer Ramez Sami Barnaba. "Here they will participate in activities and have fun and hear the word of God at the same time."

Egypt's roughly 7 million Christians account for up to 10 percent of the population and belong mostly to the Coptic Orthodox church which gives allegiance to its own Pope in Egypt, Pope Shenouda III.

They have long complained that Egyptian law discriminates against Christians in matters of personal status and in the repair and building of churches. Some say they also face discrimination at work or in their professions.

A U.S. government report said in September Egypt had seen a marked decline in religious freedom and that while Egypt's constitution provided for freedom of belief, the government in practice restricted those rights.

"We have less freedom than before," said pastor Sameh Maurice Tawfik, 54, whose sermons each night at the festival drew nearly 1,000 people and were broadcast around the Arab world on a Christian satellite channel. "If you want to know why, you have to ask the police."

Egyptian police detained three members of a Christian rights group in November without cause, the group said. They detained two other members of the same group in August who had helped a man who converted from Islam to Christianity.

Emigration by Christians is challenging churches to come up with new ways to attract members, festival Organizers said.

LZ7, a Christian rap and fusion band from Manchester in Britain that works with the Palau Association, had a crowd of a few hundred waving their hands and dancing on chairs to songs such as "Cross I Carry".

"The Holy Spirit is really moving in there," said Nabil Shalaby, 24, after emerging from the concert tent.


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