United Methodists caught in Egypt protests

2/3/2011

6:00 P.M. EST February 1, 2011

The Rev. Vicki Brendler, pastor of Bridgewater (N.J.) United Methodist Church, and her husband, Larry, visit the Sea of Galilee as part of a Holy Land tour before traveling to Egypt. A UMNS photo by Cathi Reckenbeli.
The Rev. Vicki Brendler, pastor of Bridgewater (N.J.) United Methodist Church, and her husband, Larry, visit the Sea of Galilee as part of a Holy Land tour before traveling to Egypt. A UMNS photo by Cathi Reckenbeli.
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The weeklong street demonstrations in Egypt provided some tense moments for New Jersey United Methodists who, like many other foreign visitors, were forced to escape the unsettled political situation there.

But with the help of their Egyptian tour hosts, U.S. travel planner and the congregation back home, the 18-member tour group from the Bridgewater United Methodist Church found seats on a Jan. 31 flight to Rome, where they are resting and sightseeing before returning to the United States on Feb. 3.

“We’re very thankful for all of the prayers we felt surrounding us at the time,” the Rev. Vicki Miller Brendler, lead pastor, told United Methodist News Service in a telephone interview from her hotel in Rome.

Constant protests calling for an end to the 30-year rule of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak continued on Feb. 1 with a massive demonstration in Cairo’s Tahrir Square that was largely peaceful, according to news reports.

But the future of the Middle East nation is anything but certain at this point, and Christians around the world have expressed both hope and concern about the situation.

The Rev. Stephen J. Sidorak Jr., top executive of the United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns, noted that it is difficult to conclude whether the events in Egypt are part of a political or Islamic revolution. “I don’t see telltale signs of Islamic extremism at work at this moment,” he said. “It certainly warrants ongoing watchfulness.”

The situation in Egypt reminds Thomas Kemper, who leads the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, of the peaceful revolution in East Germany. Despite Egypt’s former position as a stable presence in the Middle East, “to have peace built on injustice is never a lasting peace,” he said.

On its website, the World Council of Churches offered prayers for Egypt “for the safety of citizens, for wisdom and compassion on the part of the authorities and for a non-violent and just resolution of conflicts and grievances.”

Protestors take to the streets in Cairo, Egypt, calling for President Hosni Mubarak to step down. Photo by Sarah Carr, Creative Commons.
Protesters take to the streets in Cairo, Egypt, calling for President Hosni Mubarak to step down. Photo by Sarah Carr, Creative Commons.

The council called “for peaceful dialogue and joint efforts at every level of society” to secure a future that benefits all Egyptians. “We pray to God for mercy and protection for the Egyptian people and for all religious communities, and we are standing together with the churches in these challenging times,” the council’s statement said.

Arriving in Egypt

Political instability in Egypt was not on the minds of the 36 Bridgewater church members who arrived in the Middle East on Jan. 18 for a Holy Land tour. Afterwards, the 18 group members who had signed on for the extension trip decided it was safe enough to proceed.

But when they arrived in Cairo on the afternoon of Jan. 28 and headed toward their hotel, with a tour guide and guard aboard the bus, some protests had turned violent. “As we came in, we kept getting turned back because of police lines,” Brendler recalled. “Different parts of the city were cordoned off.”

Someone from a crowd of young people tossed a bottle at the tour bus, shattering the window where David and Shirley Wu, retired staff of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, were seated. Brendler said the Wus only suffered minor cuts from the broken glass. “The tour guide and the guard were shocked,” she said. “They really did not expect this kind of violence.”

The group was hustled into a nearby hotel, the Swiss Inn, where they spent the night in the banquet room. One person had an international cell phone, which allowed them to keep in touch with Educational Opportunities, their U.S. tour operator. “Through the curtains, we could see the movement in the street,” Brendler added. “That was a little frightening and disconcerting. We really didn’t know what was going on.”

Still, the group felt God was with them. “We prayed and had a devotional time and talked together,” she said. “We prayed for the Egyptian people at that point, too.”

Egyptian protesters are calling for an end to President Hosni Mubarak's 30-year rule. Photo by Muhammad Ghafari, Creative Commons.
Egyptian protesters are calling for an end to President Hosni Mubarak's 30-year rule. Photo by Muhammad Ghafari, Creative Commons.

Back in central New Jersey, the Rev. Christina Zito -- associate pastor for Bridgewater, a congregation of about 950 -- had confidence the group would find a way home and that Brendler would keep their spirits up. “She has a very calming presence about her,” she explained. “I fully expect she had them surrounded in prayer. We were trying to do the same here.”

The New Jersey delegation also felt comforted by their tour guide, who “watched over us like a mother hen,” Brendler reported.  At 5:30 a.m. the next day, he got them back on the bus and over to the Pyramids Plaza Hotel, their original hotel.

But there was no chance of catching anything more than a glance of the famous pyramids because the Army had closed the tourist site down and surrounded it with tanks. Instead, they remained inside the hotel. “There were gunshots through the night and we could hear tanks moving through the highway near the hotel,” she said.

Cancelled flights

On Jan. 31, after delays caused by two cancelled flights, the group and a few others touring Egypt, including the Rev. Bob and Alita Phelps of the denomination’s Yellowstone Annual (regional) Conference, were finally given seats on an Egyptair flight to Rome. Brendler credited their tour guide and another Egyptian travel official with helping them make that flight. “If it weren’t for them, we would still be in the Cairo airport,” she said.

In the United States, United Methodists are among the member communions of the National Council of Churches who have joined the Coptic Christian Church in North America in a three-day period of prayer and fasting, Jan. 31-Feb. 2, for peace and safety in Egypt.

The Rev. Michael Kinnamon, the NCC’s top executive, said his organization also supported the world council’s call for peaceful dialogue. “We pray to God for mercy and protection for the Egyptian people and for all religious communities, and we are standing together with the churches in these challenging times," he added.

Jim Winkler, top executive of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, echoed the prayers for peace and noted that similar demonstrations have occurred in other countries. “Any time a people experiences oppression for so long…they’re bound to eventually rise up and demand justice,” he said.

Brendler hopes to return to Egypt someday. But, for now, she said, “Our hearts and prayers are still with the (Egyptian) people, who have a long journey ahead of them.”

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter based in New York. Follow her at http://twitter.com/umcscribe.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org.