CAIRO, Egypt --To feel Cairo's immense age, loneliness and longing, go to the desert on the city's edge at dusk -- and listen.
At first you hear only the countless shouts and car horns that float from the vast city. Then, like a dirge, comes the mournful call to evening prayer from a choir of Muslim "muezzins" -- for Cairo is the city of a thousand minarets. Their voices rise to a crescendo, fading upward into the falling night.
At such a moment, you sense the city's 5,000-year struggle between darkness and light, death and life, bondage and freedom.
Already ancient when it fell to invaders the first time, the city was dominated by foreigners for more than 2,000 years until the Egyptian revolution ended British rule in the 1950s. Before the British, there were the French, the Turks, the Arabs, the Byzantines, the Romans, the Greeks and the Persians.
Yet Cairo the conquered has become conqueror once again. Today it is the great gate of the Arab world -- and the soul of Islam.
"Cairo is the gateway for Egypt," says an Egyptian pastor. "Egypt is the gateway for the Arab world. The Arab world is the gateway for all Muslims."
Cairo, home to 20 million or more people, is not only the largest city in Egypt, the Middle East and the African continent; it is the vital center of the Arab world. Most Arabs understand their mother tongue as spoken by Egyptians, watch Egyptian movies, read Egyptian books and newspapers.
On a still wider scale, Cairo influences the world's more than 1 billion Muslims. If Mecca is Islam's spiritual center, Cairo is its cultural heart -- its brain and voice.
The great al-Azhar Mosque and University in Cairo, the oldest continuously functioning university in the world, attracts -- and sends out -- thousands of aspiring Muslim imams and missionaries. They come from Sudan, Afghanistan, Indonesia and many other countries to study Islamic theology and evangelism.
Al-Azhar ("the Splendid") was first built in A.D. 972, specifically to spread Islam worldwide. Sunni Muslim individuals -- and governments -- also heed the religious rulings that emerge from al-Azhar's grand imams.
TWO MILLENNIA OF CHRIST
Besides 7,000 years of Egyptian civilization and 1,400 years of Islamic rule, Cairo also is home to a 2,000-year-old Christian tradition. According to Scripture and historical tradition, Jesus himself found refuge in this vicinity when His family fled Herod.
The apostle Mark is said to have brought the gospel back to Egypt sometime after A.D. 40. The church has existed here ever since -- as a powerful presence or oppressed minority. It endured early persecution and thrived, producing some of the faith's greatest saints, monks, hermits and martyrs.
But the age of Egypt as a Christian nation ended nearly 14 centuries ago, when the Arabs -- bearing a brand-new faith called Islam -- established a military and governmental center on the site of modern Cairo.
Will the city ever bow to Christ again? "We are going to see it -- in our generation," promises an Egyptian Christian believer.
Such a claim seems absurd. Yet this believer is not the only one making it. A young former Muslim in Cairo who recently embraced Jesus as Lord claims: "Many Muslims want to know God. I think change is coming. I think it can happen quickly."
Consider a recent incident that occurred in a cafe within sight of Cairo's prestigious al-Hussein Mosque during Friday prayers:
A middle-aged Muslim approached a small group of Christians. "I have wanted to talk to a true Christian for a long time," he said, remarking that he had even visited Bethlehem in search of truth. "I have a strange feeling in my heart about Jesus." He pressed a hand to his chest as his eyes watered. "I feel that I love Him."
His search began 15 years ago. Every night since, "whenever I lie down and close my eyes, I see the cross."
In Egypt, as in many places, the Lord seems to be revealing himself to Muslims through dreams and visions, followed by personal contact with Christians.
In Cairo, some of those Muslims are choosing to follow Christ as Lord. Not in large numbers, to be sure, but "the trickle is becoming a small stream," says a long-time Christian resident of the city. "It's an exciting indication of what can lie ahead: a major turning to the Lord."
This stirring among Muslims appears to be a result of the intensive prayer focused on Egypt -- particularly on Cairo -- in recent years by Christians in many places. The prayer movement also has begun to transform the Egyptian church itself.
"When we first got to Egypt a few years ago," recalls a worker, "the (Egyptian) Christians told us, 'Don't tell any Muslim about Jesus, even if they ask you. A Muslim can never become a Christian.' Now, a lot of the same people are coming up and asking, 'How can we share with Muslims? What do we do?' I think it's the beginning of something big."
Only the beginning, however. Egypt has the largest national Christian minority in the Arab world, yet it totals only about 10 percent of Egypt's nearly 70 million people. Christian leaders estimate perhaps a tenth of that tenth take the idea of evangelizing all Egyptians seriously.
A spiritual revival reportedly has begun among Orthodox Copts. But institutionalism still dominates the church within, and Islamic extremists have unleashed a new wave of persecution in recent years.
Among evangelicals, a new generation of Christian leaders shows increasing boldness in spreading the gospel, church planting and discipling.
Their task, however, is staggering. Take college students. You can find a million or more of them in Cairo alone. Most are as eager as young people anywhere to talk pop culture, sports and fashion. But step beyond a certain invisible line -- and the gate comes down.
"The depth of blindness, the bondage to Islam is huge," says a student worker. "They're drilled from birth not to think outside the box, and the cost is so great if you do that you just don't do it. There's such a sense of hopelessness here. You would think that would lead to spiritual hunger, but it doesn't."
When someone does hunger, however, the results can be revolutionary. And it's beginning to happen, one seeker at a time. The current priorities for Christian workers: Help believers grow -- and build a network of leaders who will spearhead a church-planting movement.
If Christ's invisible church in Egypt -- of whatever cultural or religious background -- unites around the vision of a land restored by the Lord, the stream now quietly flowing could become a river, a spiritual Nile flowing the length of the land -- and far beyond.
"If Cairo turns to the Lord, you will have shock waves sweeping across the whole Arab world, the whole Muslim world," predicts one observer.
Will it happen? Only with an ever-growing cascade of prayer within and beyond Egypt's borders that breaks through the spiritual strongholds of millennia. Without that, says another worker, "we don't stand a chance."
Twenty-seven centuries ago, Isaiah spoke of the Egyptians when he prophesied: "... for they will cry to the Lord because of oppressors, and He will send them a Savior and a Champion, and He will deliver them. Thus the Lord will make himself known to Egypt, and the Egyptians will know the Lord in that day ..." (Isa. 19:20-21, NASB).
Cairo belongs to the Lord. One day, He will restore the great city. In that day, it once again will be the City Victorious.
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