Grace From A Coptic

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9 June 2017

This post was written by James Algeo, Open Doors Marketing Manager.

This is the story of how I discovered grace from an Orthodox priest.

Snipers On Rooftops

We arrived in Egypt in May 2014, on the first day of the 2014 elections.

Image: In the heart of Cairo on the first day of elections 2014, a mixture of hope and tension in the air. 

The Muslim brotherhood had recently been thrown out of power, sparking violence and over 60 churches being burnt down. We walked into streets full of army tanks, barricades, snipers on rooftops and an overall atmosphere of tension and hope.

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Image: Members of Bishop Moussa Coptic Church assess the damage to the church from attacks by pro-Morsi mobs in August 2013. David Degner, Getty Images

I sat in the largest evangelical church in the Middle East in Cairo. I listened as they prayed not for more freedom or less persecution, but simply for God to grow His church across Egypt and the Middle East. On a day that would determine their political future and position as Christians, they were more concerned for the gospel than their own human rights. The translator speaking through my headset broke down and cried as we sang, she was so overcome by the worship.

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Image: The largest evangelical church in the Middle East, praying for their nation on the first night of elections 2014. 

Egypt Under Increasing Persecution

The Egyptian church has been under increasing pressure over the last few years. In February 2015, eight months after my trip, 21 Christian Egyptians were kidnapped by the Islamic State and taken to a beach in Libya where they were killed for their faith. A bomb went off in a church in Cairo just before Christmas last year, and before Easter this year two churches were bombed during Sunday services. Last month 26 Christians were shot in a bus on the way to a church service to celebrate Jesus’ ascension. Persecution is increasing for Egyptian Christians.

On A Scale Of 1-10

In the middle of all of this, our team were meeting each morning to pray and gather around God’s Word.

Egypt Soccer

Image: Some of the team playing with children at an Open Doors partner program with youth. 

One morning I was asked by one to the guys on our team, ‘On a scale of 1-10, how sure are you that you are going to heaven?’

There were different answers in the group. I knew the easy answer, but realised in my heart I was a 6 out of 10.

I knew Jesus was my judge, and I didn’t want to assume my ticket into heaven. I didn’t want to take away His glory by doing his job.

If God Wills It

As we learnt about Egypt and visited local churches and mosques, we understood the Muslim philosophy of “Inshallah” - “If Allah wills it.” It’s common phrase used culturally across many things, but it also applies to the Muslim view of salvation. The understanding is that you live a good life, be obedient to God, and if He wills it, you will be let into heaven.

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Image: Visiting a mosque in Egypt.

But I realised the fundamental difference here between Islam and Christianity is a lack of certainty of salvation. No concrete hope in what will happen after death. For them, it relies on the scale of your works which we are weighed on judgement day.

I knew my belief had to change if I believed in Jesus.

An Abrupt Answer

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Image: Gridlock traffic, and election excitement.

One day on our trip we met with an Coptic Orthodox priest inside his church. As I walked through the church I saw images of Mary, robes and prayer beads, and questioned whether this man shared my faith or not. Our theology seemed worlds apart.

When we sat down to talk with the priest, my friend (who had asked me the initial question) asked me if we should ask the priest on a scale of 1-10 how much he thought he was going to heaven!

But my friend boldly explained our morning devotions, and how we’d been wrestling with this question. He asked the priest if he thought he was going to heaven.

The priest interrupted before he could finish the final question.

This is what he said:

“Yes I am going to heaven, because it is the journey I am on. To say that I am not is to say that I have no been reconciled with Christ and that his death is not sufficient for me.”

In one simple sentence, in the heart of persecution, in a church I had judged, God spoke his grace with gut wrenching clarity.

I realised I had thought I was taking God’s glory by claiming my salvation, now I realise that to say I did not have salvation is take the glory of Jesus.

Never again will I claim that his death is not sufficient to cover my sins.

Those 60 churches that were burnt down, were Coptic Orthodox. The churches bombed were Coptic Orthodox. Those 26 people killed in that bus were Coptic Orthodox. Those 21 men killed on a beach by the Islamic State, singing his praises in their final moments were Coptic Orthodox.

This priest’s faith at first glance seemed so foreign to me. But when he spoke of Jesus and his grace, I saw the faith he had in the Cross, that these believers were ready to face persecution and death for.

A living God who offers salvation freely, with clarity of our eternity, who gave his life so that we can live.

Salvation through Christ alone, through grace alone.

I returned to Australia and was baptised in my local church to affirm the new clarity of my faith.

My heart breaks for Egypt and the persecution their church is facing. I pray for my brothers and sisters in Christ and long for the day we can celebrate together in paradise.

This post was written by James Algeo, Open Doors Marketing Manager.
James is the editor of Frontline Faith Magazine and the filmmaker behind our Christian Persecution Film Series.

Sticks & Stones

I learnt in Egypt the church is bigger and more united than I could have ever imagined.

In 2015, our CEO Mike and I travelled to Iraq. Off the back of this trip to the frontline of the Islamic State, Mike and I decided to tell the story of a united church. You can check out this in our latest video - Sticks and Stones.

Sticks & Stones

Open Doors Australia