For the Word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account. (Hebrews 4:12–13)
It’s because of our confidence in the power of God’s Word that we at the Bible Society of Egypt are trying to spread God’s Word and encourage people to engage in it. If we didn’t have that confidence, if we didn’t believe that God could use his Word to penetrate into the deepest recesses of people’s hearts and souls and minds, we would get very discouraged.
It’s the work of the Holy Spirit to do all that. Our job is to make it available and accessible and affordable, but the work is done by the Holy Spirit. But it’s our confidence in the power of the Word that keeps us going.
Our challenge is to present God’s Word within the legal, religious and political restrictions that we have in Egypt. When I joined the Bible Society, I was given a long list of things we couldn’t do: we couldn’t open a bank account, we couldn’t collect donations… We couldn’t, we couldn’t, we couldn’t.
But when Egyptians see a closed door, they look for a window through which to jump, and fortunately we found many windows! So, for every item on that long list of things we couldn’t do, we found another way to do it, and with God’s help have turned obstacles into opportunities.
We’re not allowed to proselytize. That’s an obstacle. So we positioned ourselves as a free market enterprise, which has given us the opportunity to advertise. And so everything that Pizza Hut is doing, we imitate. We even offer home delivery!
People would tell me, you’re not supposed to advertise. Sometimes I go to an advertising agency and they say, ‘You’re not allowed to put up billboards.’ I say, ‘Your competitor put up three billboards!’ ‘Really? Then we’ll do it!’ Because we’re selling a product that is approved (we get licences for it), people let us do it.
The billboards do more than simply advertise a product. They make the Bible more accessible. They encourage Christians who feel marginalized and under pressure. They say that Christianity is not something to be ashamed of. They remind people that there is freedom to proclaim your identity with pride… in public!
No free Bibles
I was told by the people in government that we couldn’t give out free Scriptures. People would come from overseas to the Cairo International Book Fair with a stack of New Testaments or Bibles and begin giving them out. By the second day they’d be arrested, the material would be confiscated, they’d be sent back home, and they’d say, ‘There’s persecution in Egypt. We can’t give out Bibles in Egypt.’
So we in the Bible Society prayed and we figured out a very ingenious way to overcome this seemingly unovercomeable obstacle. We’re restricted in giving out free Scriptures — so we sell them!
At the Book Fair, people give out five or six bibles and get the rest confiscated. But during the same two weeks, we sell seven thousand New Testaments at about 10p each. And nobody complains! So why not work within that restriction? And if someone pays, maybe they’re going to look at the Bible a bit more than if I just give it out for free.
Outside the Book Fair, selling Bibles was still a problem. We were only allowed to sell Bibles from ‘Christian outlets’, and in the early part of the millennium, there were only about seven or eight Christian bookshops in Cairo, and in the rest of Egypt there were very few. So it seemed very restrictive.
It was an obstacle, but it was also an opportunity to multiply outlets all over the country. We found out that if we rented a book table in a fair — any kind of fair — and put a sign saying ‘Bible Society’, then it became a ‘Christian outlet’, so we can sell Bibles from it.
So we go anywhere where they will let us. One of our most successful places was a booth in the petrol station between Cairo and Alexandria. As people were filling up with petrol, there was a booth where they could buy the Scriptures.
21 Egyptian martyrs
In 2015, 21 Egyptian Christians were decapitated in Libya. ISIS released a high definition video of their martyrdom. I don’t think in the history of the church we’ve ever had a martyrdom filmed, and this was very, very powerful. As they were being executed, cries of ‘O Jesus’ could be heard in the background. When the king of Saudi Arabia had died, we had three days of mourning. But for these men, who are probably illiterate, menial labourers, the president of Egypt came on national television and declared seven days of mourning for, he said, ‘my sons’. So this martyrdom shook the nation.
We decided we had to do something. We met the next morning. We were all very depressed, very solemn. It was an awful thing. But a young woman was very excited. She said, ‘I’ve been brought up in a church that talks about dying for Jesus and the sacrifices people have made. But I firmly believed that nobody in the 21st century, if given the choice between death and denying Jesus, would choose death. Then I saw these young men looking up to heaven praying to Jesus, knowing they could have just said that they believe in Muhammed and Islam, and they would have been saved. And I realized that the story I had been taught since I was a young child was true, that the Gospel is true.’
So that morning we developed a tract based around a poem. In the video, the martyrs were in a row dressed in orange jumpsuits, and behind them were the men from ISIS dressed in black. So we called the tract Two rows by the sea. It’s about the contrast between the row in orange and the row in black. Inside, it contains a collection of Scripture passages about faith in adversity and God’s enduring love.
The video was released on Sunday. On Monday we designed the tract. On Tuesday we sent it to a printer. By Wednesday night we had had a million copies printed. By Thursday, the beginning of the Egyptian weekend, we had distributed them all over the nation. It had a massive impact.
I once met a Scottish man who had a card in his wallet with the name of one of the men in Libya who was killed. He said he prays for his assassin and there is a group praying for the assassins of each of the men who were killed. So like Paul, who was standing there when Stephen was killed, may they all come to faith. Please pray for Egypt, pray for the church in Egypt, and pray for the impact that simple people just dying for Jesus has had on the whole nation.