See below for a report from John Oakes on his recent teaching trip to Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Dubai and Tblisi, Georgia
Report Middle East Teaching Trip
June 26-July 15, 2013
Cairo June 26-28
I fly first to the city of Cairo. I am picked up at the airport by the church leader here (note: for security reasons I have been asked to not use names in this report). He was converted in San Diego in 1982 at San Diego State. He is Jordanian and is the one who single-handedly planted the Amman Church. He and his family have been in Cairo for four years, leading the church here. The church has 120 members. There are two separate groups that meet weekly because the city is very large. There is also a small church of 15 in Alexandria. The Cairo church helps to support five churches in Sudan—four in South Sudan and a very small church in Khartoum.
Cairo is a massive city—the largest in Africa, with somewhere around 18 million inhabitants. It is a bustling city, with major traffic issues and a lot of horns blowing all the time. As I come into the city there are gas lines of more than three hours as there is a fuel shortage, probably due to the expected political unrest this weekend. Egypt has had a lot of political turmoil since the Arab Spring in 2011. Today we go to the Cairo Museum on Tahrir Square, which has been the center of the unrest. We saw a very large government building which was burned during rioting at the time of unrest. The conservative President Morsy from the Muslim Brotherhood is in charge here. He was freely elected one year ago, but he is very unpopular. There are plans this weekend for a massive demonstration on the anniversary of Morsy’s election and people are very tense. The church is not unaffected by the political unrest at least partly because it has hurt the economy so much. The sense of insecurity has affected the church.
I visit the Cairo Museum. It is crammed full of the most amazing pieces of antiquity. There are statues and hieroglyphics from as early as the third dynasty, around 2700 BC. I travel to the museum with one of the region leaders for the church here. I am blessed to see the items from the famous tomb of Tutankhamen (King Tut) as well as items from the city of El Amarna which was built by Akhenaten. This museum is a “must see.”
Tonight I am teaching for the church on raising teens. They have a group of about 15 teens and are just beginning to see conversions. Fifteen parents were at the meeting. There was a 90 minute question and answer afterward. It was a very encouraging meeting.
The church here is holding its own in very tough times. It is a fairly mature church, with close ties to Jordan and Beirut. They are very grateful for support from the Los Angeles Church of Christ and the San Diego Church of Christ. I teach a lesson on Daniel Friday AM to the whole church, with the very appropriate theme: God is in control. The service is early because of the expected demonstrations today. The church here is made of 100% opponents of Morsy, as he represents hard line Islamic politics in Egypt. Interestingly, some of the members plan to be out on the streets with the protesters today. One unusual thing about the church here in Cairo is that the group I am meeting with does not have a service on Sunday. Sunday is normally a work day in Egypt. They have their family/communion service on Wednesday evening and their devotional and outreach service on Friday evening. Friday is the Muslim equivalent of the Sabbath and is the day that most people have off from work. The class on Daniel has about 90 in attendance, which is fairly good because of the short notice and because many people are afraid to go out at all today because of the expected unrest. After the service, I am raced off to the airport. We stop for a quick lunch and see on television monitors that tens of thousands are on the streets in Tahrir Square, Nasser Square and other points throughout Cairo. The locals tell me that this is very likely the beginning of the second revolution in Egypt. Demonstrators both for and against Morsy are on the streets. I feel that I must apply the truth of the lesson I taught this morning which is to remind myself that God is in control.
Beirut, Lebanon June 28-July 2
I take a rather short flight across the Nile delta and the Mediterranean Sea to Beirut. There I am met by Moufid Thome who leads the church I am meeting with here in Beirut, Lebanon. Despite all the destruction of the civil war and the more recent mini wars with Israel in 2006 and against Islamic militants just two years ago, Beirut is a beautiful city. It is tucked into hills right on the coast. It is wet here and they even have skiing in the mountains in winter. Lebanon is the home of the famous Lebanon cedars which were used to build Solomon’s temple as well as the ships of the Phoenicians. There is an amazing amount of history in this tiny country of just four million with its capital of one million souls. Lebanon has been controlled by the Phoenicians, Egypt, Assyria and Babylon. The conquest of Tyre by Alexander the Great is one of the great events in history. Later they were controlled by Rome and still later by the Byzantines, the Muslim Caliph, the Christian Crusaders, the Seljuk and Ottoman Turks, the French and, finally by the Lebanese themselves. This is an amazingly diverse country, with a strong Christian heritage, especially from the Maronite Catholics, as well as the Syrian Orthodox, and both Sunni and Shia Muslims. Muslims make up a majority of the people, but Christians are a very strong minority. Unlike Egypt, Lebanon looks toward Europe and has a strong educational tradition. Sunday is the chief day of rest, so the church here has the traditional Sunday worship.
I teach on Friday evening for the church here on the Holy Spirit. What a busy day, teaching in Cairo in the morning and in Beirut in the evening. The church here has 45 members. I am immediately impressed that there are so many young people, with the campus making up perhaps one third of the church. This church has been growing rapidly recently and they are very optimistic about becoming an influential group here in Beirut. I meet at least three young disciples who are interested in being Christian teachers. This would be a perfect church for a campus student from one of our churches to take the one year challenge. I am surprised to learn that the majority of the church speak English. Translation into the local Arabic is required for perhaps one third of the group.
On Saturday I travel with Moufid to Byblos to see the ancient port city. It has well preserved ruins of what seems to be mainly Crusader and Muslim city and its fortifications. In the evening I taught for the church on God and Science. There were 90-100 at the event, which is impressive, given that the church has 45 members. We toured the downtown at night. The city is a study in contrast. Much of it is very modern and wonderfully beautiful architecture which would rival any city in the world. Nestled in among the beautiful modern architecture are ruins of Roman and other eras, as well as very old churches and mosques. Add to that a scattering of bombed-out buildings which are primarily from the 20 year civil war (1975-1995 approx.). The famous Beirut Hilton is half reconstructed hotel and half a towering bombed out shell. This is where most of the reporters stayed during the civil war. The night life in Beirut is very active. We see traffic jams at 11:00 at night. An interesting characteristic of the Lebanese is that they have had so many wars and military skirmishes that there can be violent clashes in Sidon, as there were this week, while the people in the capital act as if all is normal. This is because this is normal here.
I spent some time with the most recent convert in the church. She is from the Druze religious background. The Druze make up about 10% of the Lebanese population. This is a strange religion, born in Egypt in the Middle Ages which uses the Qur’an, but believes in Jesus and expects the return of their own particular kind of Messiah. They also believe in reincarnation. What an odd religion.
Sunday included a sermon on From Shadow to Reality. There are about 65 in attendance, including quite a number of the guests from Saturday night. The church is really encouraged by this lesson. After this, Moufid, Jessy and I go way up in the mountains, where there are many Lebanese cedars for a wonderful lunch. Lebanese food is simple but excellent. Staples are pita bread, hummus, cheese and olives. We had a great discussion about the church in Beirut, including the future of the teaching ministry and the need for shepherding here. Then a quick rest before dinner with Georges and his family. This is the number two couple in the church here. We do what all Lebanese do, which is discuss politics and religion. Because of the unrest in Syria, there are now an estimated 1.2 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, with a population of only 4 million native Lebanese. That would be equivalent to adding one hundred million refugees to the United States within a two year time span. Can anyone imagine the impact of this influx? This is what Lebanon is dealing with now. The people are amazingly accommodating to this press of new people.
On Monday we travel with Moufid and his children Abi and Andrew to visit Sidon (Sida in Arabic) and Tyre (Tyr). We see the castle at the port of Sidon and tour the extensive ruins of the Romans city of Tyre. This is the same Tyre that Jesus walked, and is the capital of the Phoenecian Empire whose king Hiram traded with Solomon the Lebanese cedar used to build the temple. Ezekiel prophesied its destruction, which was begun by Nebuchadnezzar and completed by Alexander. We are now in the territory of the Shiite Hezballah, which feels a bit insecure. It is in Sidon that more than thirty were killed in clashes between the army and Shiite militants just last week. While in Tyre we hear Jessy Thome on the radio! She has a weekly program on a Christian station on marriage and parenting which is very popular. We hear many calling in to talk about spiritual matters with her. In the evening I teach on Golden Rule Membership for many of the leaders in the church here in Beirut.
Amman, Jordan July 2-3
On Tuesday I flew from Beirut to Amman, Jordan. Because of the unrest in Syria and because Israel and Lebanon are intractable enemies, the flight has to go west, out over the Mediterranean, then south, and later east, over the Sinai. I see Mt. Sinai before turning back to the north for Amman. Amman is in the hills east of the Dead Sea. It is relatively cool here and there is a fair amount of rain from December through March. The rest of the year it is very dry. Amman is a city of two million in a country of seven million. Unlike its neighbors, Jordan has been fairly stable and peaceful. The people either like or at least tolerate having limited democracy under their king. The country is only 2.5% Christian, with nearly all the rest being Muslim, principally Sunni. The relative lack of diversity has contributed to the political stability here. Christianity is not supported, but neither is it extremely persecuted.
The church I am visiting here has 75 members. The leader is Sami Sakakini and his wife Fadia. Also leading here are Maher and Samar Hinn, who help to oversee the Middle Eastern churches. The church has a good sized singles group as well as fifteen campus which, for a small church, is very encouraging. They have been growing lately and there is a healthy feel to the church here. It is surprising to me that the church gets quite a few visitors from outside Jordan. They feel encouraged by all the fellowship with international disciples.
I am met by Maher Hinn. We spend the day together visiting Madaba, a city with a long Christian tradition. We visit a Greek church which dates back to the 600s AD. There is a famous mosaic in the floor of the church which is the oldest known map of the Middle East. It is truly remarkable. From there, we visit Mt. Nebo, the site of the death of Moses, from where he was able to look out across the Jordan Valley and see most of the Promised Land. From here we can see the Dead Sea, the hills of Jerusalem, the entire Jordan Valley and, of course, Jericho, which is thought to be perhaps the oldest occupied city in the world. After a brief visit to the monasteries on Nebo from as early as the fifth century, we drive down to Bethany across the Jordan, which is the general area where John the Baptist baptized Jesus. It is moving to put one’s feet in the Jordan River at this storied location. From there we pay a brief visit to the Dead Sea. The water is so salty here that when one tastes it, the tongue burns.
We return to Amman where I teach a lesson on From Shadow to Reality for the teens and campus. The whole church is invited and there is a good turnout of about 50. This church is really hungry for deeper teaching in the Bible and are very enthusiastic.
Today I spend time with Maher Hinn. We spend time visiting the citadel of Amman. Here there are remains from Moabite, Ammonite, Roman and Umayyad times. The Roman temple is very large. There is also a Roman theatre which seats 6,000. At the museum there are artifacts from Jordan all the way back to 6500 BC. There is a lot of history here. We then tour the center of the city. It is hard to describe how exotic old Amman is, with its narrow, winding streets, perched on very steep hillsides and its amazing variety of native dress and bustling businesses. Right now, Jordan is the most stable country in the whole area, so many come here from other Arab countries. We have local food for lunch. The lamb stew with yoghurt is really great.
In the evening I teach on Science and God for the church. There are about 85 in attendance, including a lot of visitors. The singing, led by Sami, is very lively, and in the Arab style, which is very different for me. When we go out for fellowship and food, the announcement is made that Morsy has been kicked out by a coup in Egypt. The entire city seems to break out in celebration, with cars honking and fireworks going off. There is no doubt that the great majority of Jordanians support the coup, despite the fact that it overthrows a democratically elected government.
Dubai, UAE July 4-7
I arrive in Dubai after a three hour flight from Amman. When I get off the plane, it feels a bit like an oven. I have experienced 110 degrees before, but not 110 degrees and humid, like here in Dubai. Even at night it stays about 95 degrees and humid. Dubai is an amazing city. It is the capital of one of the seven mini kingdoms in the United Arab Emirates. The city has 1.2 million of the 8.1 million inhabitants of the emirates. This is an officially Muslim nation, but in Dubai, only 18% of the inhabitants are native Arabs. Ironically, Muslims are a minority in this Muslim country. The people are about 60% from India, a bit over 5% Philipino, many Westerners as well as many other nationalities. Christianity and Hinduism are understated here, but they are tolerated. This is a very unusual city. The “old” part of the city was built in the 1990s. Thirty years ago, this was a tiny seaside town. The city is something like a giant shopping mall. There are stores literally everywhere. It is the shopping capital of the entire Middle East.
All this affects the church here. The group I am visiting has 170 members. Many of them are Philippino, as well as many Indians. This is the most diverse church I have ever seen. It is also a very happy church. There is no full time leadership, so the church is run by committee. It seems to work rather well. The leaders from Quatar are here for the teaching. Their church has grown from 8 to 30 in the last two years. They now have legal status. Also attending church here is the entire group from one of the Emirates nearby—about 30. There are smaller churches in Kuwait, in other emirates and even a new planting somewhere in Saudi Arabia.
In the evening I walk the streets, through the computer store district. There are hundreds of computer stores here. It is something else. At random, I end up in a Nepalese restaurant, which had very interesting food, as well as native Nepalese music and dancing. How interesting. Later, I have coffee with three of the leaders in the singles ministry.
Church here is on Friday rather than Sunday, as this is the official day off in this Muslim country. This is very unusual to me. I teach to about 170, with standing room only, on From Shadow to Reality. After this there is a new Christians luncheon, at which about 14 new Christians in Dubai and several from other emirates are welcomed to the church. The group is definitely growing. The singles group is very active, but there is not a campus ministry, as this is not a university city. In the evening, I teach for three hours on Daniel to about 100. This group is really hungry for deep teaching, as evidence by their long attention span. I have dinner with the leaders from the Quatar church, as well as one starting a group somewhere in Saudi Arabia.
On Saturday I tour the city. We see the tallest building in the world. It is over 150 stories tall and 803 meters, counting the radio tower. There are several business districts, each with impressive and completely modern buildings. We travel to the Palm, which is an artificial island in the shape of a massive palm. This feature is easily visible from space. We pass a 7+ star hotel and travel on highways as much as six lanes across in perfect shape. The moment something breaks here, it is fixed. There are no taxes. It seems like a paradise, but of course there are the many foreigners who work for low wages to maintain this façade. Nevertheless, this is a wonderful tour.
In the evening I teach the marrieds on parenting of teens. The group has a few teens, but many preteens, so this lesson is helpful. There are about 60 in attendance. The next day I find myself with a cough and congested lungs. On Sunday evening I teach a lesson Freedom in Christ/Using Our Gifts for God for the singles. There are about 30 in attendance. I find myself getting quite sick.
July 8-14 Tblisi, Georgia
Today I fly through Doha, Qatar and Baku, Azerbaijan to Tblisi, Georgia. Tblisi is charming city on the Mtkvari river. The population of the entire country of Georgia is about 3.8 million, with close to 1.5 million in Tblisi. They are an amazing people, with a continuous history of well over two thousand years. The Georgians have a language similar to that of the Azeris (the Muslim country of Azerbaijan to the east), but they have their own unique alphabet. Since breaking free from the Soviet Union, they have had two border wars over the regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. They won the first war, but lost the recent one to Russia, which was a humiliating thing for the Georgians. The country is dominated religiously by the Georgian Orthodox Church. This is an ancient church with hundreds of beautiful churches all over Georgia (hundreds more were destroyed by the Soviets). Like other Orthodox churches, worship using icons is very prevalent. I see a surprisingly large number of priests, some of whom are young. The church here is apparently thriving in its way. The country of Georgia is very mountainous. The Caucusus chain is in the north. It is the third or fourth highest mountain chain in the world, with peaks up to 18,000 feet. The countryside is really beautiful here. They get plenty of rain and everything is green. The food here is simple but delicious.
As I arrive in Tblisi, I am very sick. I end up in a hospital for a few hours and conclude, very sadly, that my travel to Baku, Azerbaijan is cancelled for me to recover here in Tblisi. I have pneumonia and a 102 degree temperature, which is not something to mess with. After two days of recovering, I feel a bit better and decide to try to take the train to Baku—an overnight train of 15 hours. I miss the train by five minutes. God is in control. I am too sick to go anyway! Wednesday is midweek service for the Tblisi church, so we go to the service. There are perhaps 45-50 at midweek and Ucha Nanuashvili teaches. They celebrate three baptisms last week. For a church of 50 this is remarkable. The church here does a good job of reaching out and has been growing steadily.
On Thursday I travel with Misha Matitaishvili and his wife Eka for a tour. Misha is the church leader and is now back from a leader’s conference in St. Petersburg. We go to a very old church/monastery at the top of a mountain. Here a cross was put up in about 320 AD when Christianity was brought to Georgia. In the 590s a large basilica in the Georgian style was built. It is remarkably well preserved today. Then we go down to Mtshketa, which is the old capital of Georgia. Here there is a very large basilica, surrounded by a high wall. The church has been reconstructed many times, but parts of the original from the 6th century are still part of the church. What a wonderful visit. From here we go back to Tblisi and ride the funicular/tram to the top of a high ridge where we get a wonderful view of Tblisi. I drive through the old Tblisi. There are so many wonderful old buildings here. Fortunately, Tblisi has not been destroyed in war, at least for a couple of hundred years. We go through the Jewish section of the city.
On Friday I teach on church history for the church. The class lasts for almost two hours, followed by a break and almost two more hours of questions and answers. The church here gets almost no teaching, so the questions could have gone on for hours and hours. There are only two in the church here who speak English, and neither can translate, so they ask a wonderful young woman from a Baptist church who very graciously agrees to interpret. We become friends very quickly. There were about 35 in attendance. There are five groups in our fellowship in the Caucusus. In Tblisi 53, in Baku 40, in Yerevan (Armenia) about 10 and in Kochi (spelling?) in a Georgian section of Azerbaijan there is a group of about 20 but they are very isolated. The church is faithful and doing what they can, but they really need help here. If an experienced couple with shepherding experience could spend a month or a few months, they would really help, and have a good time doing it.
Sunday I teach on From Shadow to Reality to a packed church, with standing room only, with more than 50 in attendance. There is a positive feeling in the church and I am so warmly welcomed. After church, I travel with Ucha north, through Mtskheta into the mountains. We travel through a very quaint area of farms up high into the mountains. Then we emerge in an scene with a ski area and a massive valley with waterfalls, rivers and a generally beautiful scene. I am in the Caucusus. We are above tree line and I can see show off in the distance. We are at 2300 meters (a little over 7500 feet). Ucha tells me that the road to Russia goes much higher, and the mountains to 5000 meters (16000 feet). Georgia is a beautiful country.
On Monday, I travel home, tired but encouraged to have visited so many of our sister churches in the Middle East and the Caucasus.
John Oakes 7/16/2013