Anne Zaki is assistant professor of preaching and practical theology at the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo. Raised in a Presbyterian home in Cairo, at age 16 she left the Middle East to travel alone to a progressive boarding school on Vancouver Island, Canada. In 2000, she married a Syrian-Canadian pastor, and as a mother of four, she completed her master of divinity degree from Calvin Theological Seminary in 2009. Zaki was always confident she would return to Cairo, and the family relocated there nine months into the chaos of Egypt’s 2011 revolution. CT spoke with Zaki about the transformative power of Scripture in her own life and in the Egyptian church.
How did Scripture shape your early faith?
I grew up in an environment that was saturated with Scripture. My father was a pastor. My grandfather was a pastor. After retirement, my grandfather came to live with us. I would wake up every morning to hymns and Scripture being read out loud. His prayers were incredible, almost as if he was echoing God’s words back to him.
Eight months before going to Canada, I had an experience of personal encounter with Jesus. I knew I was different. Even my family noticed the change.
But in my new school, for the first time I was being exposed to religions other than Christianity and Islam. And it wasn’t just exposure. It was a school that was set up to appreciate and promote diversity. I had my first big spiritual crisis. I had to ask myself: Why do I believe what I believe? Is it just because I grew up in it?
I sort of made a deal with God. I told him, If you really are who I have known you to be, who they told me that you are, then prove it to me through your Word without the influence of anyone else. So for me that meant no church, no youth group–not even Christian music. And during that period of six months, God’s Word was sufficient to reveal himself, to prove himself, to be his witness.
How did you sense God revealing himself to you through his Word? Can you explain further?
Every day, I would read a certain portion of Scripture, meditate on it, and pray it back to God. The things that didn’t make sense I would throw back at him, and we’d have a debate about them. Usually within a few days, I would get the answer to my questions.
God accommodated my young faith beautifully during those six months. Looking back, I believe that my longing to find him was really a gift from him, and my persistence to pursue truth was also his gift. In that time, I developed a hunger and thirst–I really could not get enough of the Word. I soaked myself in Scripture, and the more I got, the more I wanted to share his Word with others.
Each day, I knew that tomorrow there would be something new. God’s Word became the manna that doesn’t stop coming down from heaven. And I knew I didn’t need to hoard it for myself.
What does it look like to share the manna of Scripture?
Within the church, faithful preaching creates a safe place for the Holy Spirit to do this transformation. The pastor prepares the ground on which the manna falls, from which people are nourished and fed. And this manna expands from preacher to audience, and from the audience outward in whatever circles they touch.
Being in an Islamic context, we are not allowed to openly evangelize. Our call is unique: to live out the Word of God and display it in our lives. While it is prohibited to openly share, it is okay to answer questions about the faith.
For women, as Egypt has become more conservative, we are distinguished in our dress by not wearing a head covering. People can tell we are Christians from the cross around our neck or, for Orthodox women, by the tattoo on their wrist. We’re in the spotlight all the time. So sharing the Word is not only in preaching. It is in how we treat the lady who sells vegetables in the market and how we refrain from paying bribes in government offices. Here, it is often not so much proclaiming the Word out loud but living the Word out loud.
When you live under these constraints, how do you go about sharing the Scriptures with others?
When people ask us about our faith or about Jesus or the Bible, we follow Peter’s command to be ready to give an answer. In our evangelism classes, it is not about the Four Spiritual Laws. The best evangelism method we use is to be filled with Scripture, then to live in such a way that makes people ask about your faith, and to have the Scripture pour out of you so naturally, as if it is your daily speech.
Tell me more about what it looks like for you to be filled with Scripture. How are you being informed by and shaped by the Bible on a regular basis?
I need my time with God every day. Sometimes it is just me and Scripture. Sometimes I use devotionals. Sometimes I focus on memorizing passages. Christian music helps me a lot–Western or Arabic music–all genres open up my spirit to receive God’s Word.
I also learn as I teach. Knowing I have to share both deeply and simply makes me study the Word much more seriously, in order to not get it wrong.
I am a better version of myself when I am in the Word daily. I make better decisions, I am more patient with people, and I am less sarcastic and cynical about life in general. On days when I go without that manna, I know I am not a good representative of Christ–not to my neighbors, my family, or myself.
Why is memorizing Scripture important?
Our context requires this spiritual discipline. On a personal level, it is such a comfort that I can recall verses, passages, and whole chapters from my memory and chew on them like the cow chews the cud. It makes God’s presence real to me when I internalize his words.
On a national level, we have gone through many times of persecution. In the 1980s and ’90s, the fundamentalist Islamic movement was so strong in Upper Egypt, people were afraid their churches would be closed and their Bibles taken away. Their response was to create schedules and divide up Scripture passages, so that a local church would memorize the whole Bible between them. As a child when this was happening, I thought, Come on, I don’t really believe this. I couldn’t comprehend or understand that degree of Bible memorization.
But in 2013, when the Muslim Brotherhood controlled Egypt’s presidency, I got to see what I couldn’t believe as a child. I went to villages, and I saw kids from age 8 to adults of age 80 memorizing Scripture and coming together every week to recite their portions.
After living away from Egypt, what led you back–especially during a time of revolution?
It was my love for Egypt and my love for the church. I could not stand the thought that the disintegration suffered in Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq, or North Africa would also happen to the church in Egypt. Christian leaders who were once pillars in the church were leaving, making life decisions out of desperation and fear, not out of an attentiveness to God’s Spirit. I would ask them, “Do you know this is from God?” They said that desperate circumstances demand desperate measures. I understand. But shouldn’t it be different for us who bear the name of Christ?
Egypt will not move forward without a strong church. There’s no chance. If the church is the hope of the world, then the Egyptian church is the hope of Egypt–but not without strong leaders to replace the ones who left. That’s why I was so grateful to be offered my post at the seminary two years after arriving in Egypt. It was completely unexpected because never before had the seminary hired an Egyptian woman professor to join their full-time faculty.
So how did these two loves–for Egypt and for the church–come together for you?
In addition to the seminary, I joined teams of Arabic Christian media, helping bring the Word of God simply and clearly into people’s living rooms. On YouTube, I addressed women’s issues, such as self-confidence and the balance of responsibilities between work and home. And on SAT-7, a Christian satellite TV station, I wrote and presented a daily devotional in a program similar to Good Morning America, where I would plant a Scripture seed that could stay with viewers the rest of the day.
During the time of the revolution, the church was already starting to step outside of its walls, to engage the general culture. It became more courageous in its outreach. Our pulpits began preaching more boldly about our role as salt and light in engaging our local communities. The Bible Society also did an incredible job relating the story of Nehemiah rebuilding the wall to our effort at rebuilding our nation. One of the revolution’s demands was social justice. This is a central theme in the Old Testament, and we had ready applications for the revolutionaries. In Scripture, the Prophets say: I want you to be kind and just to the orphan, to the widow, to the stranger.
In some parts of the Middle East, Christians face persecution. In Egypt, there is discrimination and a lack of equal citizenship. What is the Bible’s message of freedom and justice for the church?
For us, freedom and justice seem like nearly impossible goals. But they are possible, if achieved through forgiveness. We are following in the path of Christ that we see in Scripture. If we pursue freedom and justice directly, as ends in themselves, we may end up being unjust to someone else, or limiting their freedom. But the power of biblical forgiveness says, I will take away from my freedom, and give up some of my rights, so someone else can be free and treated justly. It is this self-sacrifice that empowers forgiveness.
Will it work?
Has the Cross worked? In South Africa after apartheid, freedom and justice came as the fruit of a process of truth, forgiveness, and reconciliation. As minorities in the Middle East, we must follow the same path. Scripture reminds us that grace begets love and love begets forgiveness. And when Christians initiate Christ’s way of relating to “the other,” it transforms lives.
This article is part of “Why Women Love the Bible,” CT’s special issue spotlighting women’s voices on the topic of Scripture engagement. You can download a free pdf of the issue or order print copies for yourself at MoreCT.com/special-issue.
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