Freedom: A double-edged sword

Bible Society director sees challenges ahead as culture shifts

Cairo — Amid post-revolution hope in Egypt comes a concern: that newfound freedoms will exact a spiritual price.

If that sounds counterintuitive, meet Ramez Atallah, general director of the Bible Society of Egypt for the past 24 years. Atallah, 68, lived 18 years in Canada and has bridged Middle Eastern and Western culture most of his life. He’s not trying to douse Christians’ fervor about a huge revival in Egypt, but he does temper those sentiments with reality as he knows it.

Ramez Atallah

Ramez Atallah

“The main thing the 25th of January (2011) revolution did was, it broke a very long – maybe 60-year – fear among Egyptians of rebelling against authority,” Atallah says. “Within the Egyptian culture, built into the political scene, was a very ingrained fear of rebelling against authority of all kinds, and it made people unwillingly but resignedly submit to authorities.”

Whatever remained of that fear evaporated in June 2013 when millions of Egyptians again took to the streets to demand the ouster of elected president Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood party, which had won 2012 elections but whose rule was disastrous. Little progress occurred in regaining governmental services, while consolidation of power threatened to move the country away from its newfound freedom and toward an Islamic state.

Most in Egypt – Atallah included – agree Morsi’s removal by the army was best for the country (not to mention its 10 percent Christian population). What Atallah worries about, though, is a resulting cultural shift. Successful fights against government repression and censorship, while positive, also lead to a mindset of “Nobody can tell me what to do,” he says. He saw it in 1960s America.

“My fear is that this freedom we are experiencing now and people are all excited about will result in less fear of God, less desire to please God, and therefore in the long range, a smaller rather than larger harvest,” he says. “I don’t think the freedom you have in the West necessarily makes people come to the Lord more easily.”

Since the revolution, the number of professed atheists in Egypt has risen, by some estimates to almost 6 percent of the country’s 84 million people.

The Bible Society, a fixture in Egypt for 125 years, sells about a quarter-million Bibles every year, and almost a half-million New Testaments along with tracts and other materials. Since 2011, it’s also focused on tying Christian principles to the country’s revolution. One tract, for instance, shows how themes like freedom, equality and justice are found among Jesus’ teachings in Luke 12.

“What people don’t realize is, without God you can’t uphold these values,” Atallah says.

A 2012 Pew Foundation study showed that 99 percent of Egyptians said religion is either “very important” or “somewhat important” in their lives. Atallah wonders if that percentage will drop in the next decade among secularized Muslims and nominal Christians.

“Sharing the gospel in a God-fearing society is very much easier,” he says. “I do not necessarily think that increased freedom will make it easier. I’m using the word ‘easier’ – the Lord can do it if he wants. But it is easier for us to share the gospel with committed people who believe in God and want to please him than with people who either don’t believe in him or don’t care about pleasing him.”

Historically, Christianity tends to flourish in places where it’s officially restricted – partially, Atallah says, because of the energy and spiritual discipline those cultures necessitate among Christians.

For example, he remembers when the first Christian billboard went up in Egypt.

“It was an event. People would stop their cars by the billboard and have a look. They were very excited. If you put up a billboard in Madison, Wisconsin, that says ‘Jesus loves you,’ nobody’s going to get excited about you. Nobody’s going to feel proud – you just had some money to do it. But to do it in Egypt – put an ad on the front page of the government newspaper – this was an achievement. It energized our staff. It energized Christians.

“I’m not for a moment condoning a repressive religious system,” he adds. “But I’m saying that in a system where people are brought up to believe in certain moral rights and to believe in the presence of God, I think it’s fertile ground for the gospel. But if you take that off, then you’ll be facing the challenges you face in the West, of evangelizing a nonreligious society, which I think is very much harder.”

All of which leaves Atallah reflective.

“I believe God is doing miracles in Egypt,” he says. “And I believe this is an exciting time to be. But I think the challenges for our Christian message in the future are going to be harder, not easier.”

Atallah knows that’s not what most Egyptian Christians want to hear, after uncertainty and insecurity during the Morsi year. He’d be happy to be proved wrong, but sees difficult work ahead.

“I think presenting the gospel in an open and free society is much harder than presenting it in a more structured religious society,” he says. “I don’t envy the mission of those who are coming after me. I think we’re out of the honeymoon period and into the really hard work.”

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The Bible World interactive exhibit occupies much of the first floor inside the Bible Society of Egypt's Cairo offices.

The Bible World interactive exhibit occupies much of the first floor inside the Bible Society of Egypt’s Cairo offices.bsoe_web-6706

About the Bible Society of Egypt

The Bible Society of Egypt’s mission is “to bring the Word of God to everyone, in a language they can understand and at a price they can afford.” Formats include print, CD, DVD and digital downloads. The Society operates 15 bookstores across Egypt. The Cairo center includes “Bible World,” a multi-room, interactive exhibit for kids.

Distribution of audio versions of Scripture has evolved with technology, from cassettes and CDs to digital downloads through a partnership with YouVersion. The latter represents a big challenge, because of limited broadband and the high cost of downloading through cellular networks. The Society is looking for an effective way for people to upload audio versions of Scripture to their phones, without having to stream them.

To learn more, or to donate to the Bible Society of Egypt, see: http://bibles4egypt.com/

 

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