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What is the Christian church like in the Middle East today? How does it relate to Middle Eastern immigrant churches in North America? How can North American Christians partner with Christian brothers and sisters in the Middle East?

Questions like these were asked at Calvin Theological Seminary (CTS) in discussions with Rev. Emile Zaki, general secretary of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Egypt (Synod of the Nile), and Rev. Swailem Hennein, an Egyptian missionary teaching at the University of Chicago.

Zaki lectured on the history of Christianity in the Middle East and particularly in Egypt, from the end of the book of Acts to today.

With 78 million people, Egypt is the most populous country in the Middle East, but only 10 percent of the people are Christian. Zaki said that in Egypt Islam is becoming less tolerant due to imported Saudi ethics, values, and culture, which causes the Christian church to be more defensive. This is especially true of the Coptic Orthodox church, which comprises most of the Christian presence in Egypt.

Still, interfaith dialogue with the Al-Azhar University—the largest Islamic school for the past 1,000 years, and one of the oldest universities in the world—has continued since 1982. Muslim leaders attend major Christian holiday celebrations, and, in turn, local churches host evening meals during Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting.

Zaki and Hennein called for partnerships and the building of relationships between churches in America and in the Middle East. Both have taught at the Evangelical Theological Seminary of Cairo (ETSC), a seminary similar to CTS in age and size. Founded in 1863, it is the seminary of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Egypt, which celebrated its 150th anniversary just two years ago.

The focus on Middle Eastern Christianity and the churches and seminaries of Egypt began at the Assembly of World-Wide Partners held in Grand Rapids last summer in conjunction with the 150th anniversary of the Christian Reformed Church.

CTS graduate Wageeh Mikhail’s compelling speech about the need for Western Christians to connect with the Arabic-speaking church inspired a group of seminary staff, faculty, and trustees to begin conversations with Middle Eastern partners, including President Atef Gendy of ETSC, who visited CTS in November, and Dr. Kenneth Bailey, founder of the Center for Middle Eastern Christianity, who will speak at the Calvin Symposium on Worship in January 2008.

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