Excavating common ground in Egyptian Christianity

A postgraduate profile for Medhat Fayez

Note: The Christian-Muslim Studies Network aims to advance academic scholarship and improve public engagement with the scriptural, theological, political, and sociological aspects of Christian-Muslim relations. This post is one of a series that illustrates how postgraduate students are engaging with Christian-Muslim Studies and related fields in Edinburgh. 

Medhat Fayez has left a seminary in Cairo for the School of Divinity in Edinburgh, where he searches for common ground not just between Middle East Christians and Muslims, but also among Arab churches in Egypt.

Mr Fayez is a pastor in the Evangelical Coptic Church of Egypt, but his research for a MSc in Theology and History seeks to illuminate the lessons and identity of Egyptian Christianity.

Uncovering the Identity of Egyptian Christianity

Protestant missionaries first visited Egypt in large numbers during the nineteenth century, when mission movements became especially prominent in Europe. Their original purpose was to convert Egyptian Muslims to Christianity, but their more enduring success was among Coptic Christians, among whom Evangelical Protestant churches, seminaries, and other institutions were established.

Although the Evangelical Protestant churches have continued to grow as part of Egypt’s community, tension among the churches remains. Mr Fayez has established his current research interests with this tension in mind. He is exploring the political motivations and contributions of the famous fourth-century Church Father from Egypt, Athanasius.

‘It will give us common ground between the Coptic Church and Presbyterian Church’, he said. ‘Most Presbyterians focus on post-Reformation history, but really, it is all our history’.

Most Evangelical Egyptians who undertake advanced study in theology focus on the history of the church since the Reformation, an understandable preference, but one that can make theological understanding and dialogue with the Coptic Orthodox Church a challenge. Mr Fayez is exploring instead a history that leads much further into the past, with the work of Athanasius. In so doing, he not only excavates the sometimes-forgotten Egyptian and African identity of the pan-Christian leader, but he also illuminates the political side of Egypt’s Christian heritage.

His work has precedents in the Cairo seminary’s Center for Arabic Christianity, with research focused on Christian history under early Islamic rule. Such resources lay the foundation for Christian-Muslim dialogue, an important endeavor in a diverse society such as Egypt. Developing a new understanding of Athanasius as a Coptic Church Father shared by all of Egypt’s Christians can assist the community with engagement with Coptic Orthodox and Catholic churches.

‘In the early centuries of Christianity, Christians were a persecuted minority, and they had to deal with their identity as a minority. Even 100 years before Islam, there was a separation between Egyptian Christianity and other parts of the church, due to the Council of Chalcedon. They had to answer the questions – Should we focus on teaching, or philosophical engagement, or dialogue?’

Mr Fayez believes that Egyptian Christians can learn a great deal about who they are from a study of the past.

‘A big question for my PhD is the identity of the Coptic church – what defines us as the Egyptian church?’ he said. ‘It’s still important, and it’s always been the same question – how should the church engage politically, then and now?’

Life in Edinburgh

Coming from the crowded markets of Cairo to the cobbled streets of Edinburgh has had its charms. Mr Fayez and his wife have enjoyed spending time in and around Edinburgh. They have enjoyed shorter commutes than they experienced in Cairo, and summer has brought the opportunity for walks in the many parks of Edinburgh, such as Calton Hill or Arthur’s Seat.

Their feelings about the weather – coming from the dry heat of Cairo – are a little less warm. Like many who come to Scotland from southern climes, he and his wife were unenthusiastic about the short winter days, when darkness falls before 5 pm.

Now that summer has brought longer days, he remains eager to strengthen the growing bond between the School of Divinity in Edinburgh and the church in Cairo.

Opportunities and Challenges for Students from Africa

Mr Fayez graduated from the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo in 2016 and was ordained as a youth pastor. Knowing he wanted a masters degree in church history, the choice to come to Edinburgh became one of personal relationships. His professor, Darren Kennedy, as well as his wife, had both received doctoral degrees in Edinburgh and recommended the School of Divinity, although most seminarians in Cairo go to the United States for doctoral study. He was also persuaded by the support of Dr Joshua Ralston throughout the application process.

Mr Fayez has benefited from the Desmond Tutu Church of Scotland scholarship for students from the continent of Africa, and he encourages others to apply, especially from his native Egypt, because the programme provides the opportunity to study from any field.

The main challenge, he said, is that the English requirements are often higher at the University of Edinburgh than elsewhere, even compared to American universities. He says the English requirement is the biggest barrier for students who wish to take the same path he did. For his part, Mr Fayez had extensive experience reading and listening to English from his studies at the seminary, but he was surprised that the taught masters at the School of Divinity involved so much discussion and writing, rather than exams and traditional lectures.

‘But I found that attending a lecture and doing small-group presentations and discussions really is the best practice for language’, he said. ‘It’s very practical’.

Mr Fayez will return to the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo in September 2019 to teach church history, including Egyptian church history. After several years, he plans to pursue a PhD and introduce a course in Patristics and early Church History at the seminary.

Those interested in applying for a degree program in any of these areas should see the website for the School of Divinity or contact Dr Ralston directly.