How the LDS Church gained and clings to its foothold in Egypt — a place embedded in its theology

Amid the mummies, tombs and pyramids lives a land with deep religious roots for Muslims, Jews and Christians, including Latter-day Saints.

(Michael Stack | Special to The Tribune) The Sphinx and Giza Pyramid complex on the outskirts of Cairo, April 2022.

Cairo • Egypt, with its pharaohs and pyramids, miracles and magic, mummies and tombs, sweltering heat and legendary river, may seem foreign, exotic and a tad unsettling to many Western tourists.

But the Islamic nation should feel familiar to Christians and Jews as well as Muslims. After all, it played a major role in the sacred history of the three monotheistic Abrahamic faiths — and not just as a footnote in Israelite history.

Think Moses, who was rescued from the bulrushes and raised by pharaoh’s daughter, Joseph who saved the populace from a devastating drought, and the Holy Family’s sojourn with baby Jesus.

Mormonism carries even more connections to the ancient desert kingdom than those in other Judeo-Christian traditions.

(Michael Stack | Special to The Tribune) A mosaic depiction of Jesus Christ and family traveling through Egypt at the Coptic Hanging Church.

The gold plates from which the Book of Mormon sprang reportedly were inscribed in “reformed Egyptian,” (“which,” the volume declares, “consists of the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians”). Then there is the faith’s Book of Abraham, which purportedly was translated from Egyptian papyri and features events that took place in the arid climate, along with statements about the first pharaoh being a “righteous” leader.

While most members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints refer primarily to Israel/Palestine as “the Holy Land,” there is no question that Egypt should be included under the designation.

That is even more significant in a year like 2022, when members across the globe are studying biblical stories about parting the Red Sea and wandering the Sinai.

“Living in Egypt helps you appreciate how difficult things were for them,” says James Toronto, a Brigham Young University professor who worked in Cairo for three years in the 1970s, later took students on study abroad programs for a decade, and served with his wife as humanitarian representatives there for the church. “As you read the scriptures, you can visualize distances and topographical features.”

(Michael Stack | Special to The Tribune) A boat sails up the Nile River near Luxor, Egypt.

Toronto’s time in Egypt was an “immersive and expansive experience,” he says, that “deepened my appreciation for sacred history and faith.”

On the other hand, it has been nearly impossible for the Utah-based church to get a foothold in the Islamic country, where proselytizing is practically forbidden and Muslim conversions can be subject to severe punishments.

“It is tricky,” says David Risley of Springfield, Ill., who served as president of a small Latter-day Saint congregation, or branch, in Cairo from 2012 to 2015. “But you don’t want to be overly paranoid or under-concerned.”

When Latter-day Saints arrived in Egypt

On his epic trip to the Holy Land in 1841, Latter-day Saint apostle Orson Hyde stopped briefly in Egypt near the Nile to see the sites on his way to Jerusalem. He may have preached there, says historian Ardis Parshall, but he did not set up a branch.

Through the following century, some American and European Latter-day Saints did live in Egypt but there were no established congregations until the 1970s.

Dilworth Parkinson first arrived in Egypt in 1974 for a year abroad as a BYU senior majoring in ancient Greek. His interest quickly changed to Arabic studies, so he applied to the University of Michigan’s graduate program in that field.

At the end of that summer, he and his Latter-day Saint roommate, with a few other couples, created the first branch in Cairo, meeting in their room.

When Parkinson, his wife, Laura Beth, and one child returned to the burgeoning, traffic-clogged city on the Nile in 1978 to do his research on Arabic linguistics, there was a “thriving branch” of more than 100 with a few families and some singles, including American women who were married to Egyptians.

It was a time of “opening” toward the United States, he says in an interview, when the U.S. Embassy expanded dramatically and its staffers included a number of Latter-day Saints.

(Michael Stack | Special to The Tribune) The Khan el-Khalili bazaar in the historic center of Cairo.

The small group gathered in a member’s villa in the upscale Maadi suburb south of Cairo, when U.S dollars went a long way.

The size of the congregation ebbed and flowed with the status of Egyptian and American relations.

No matter the group’s size, members were always careful to impress upon newcomers the church’s agreement not to proselytize, Parkinson says. “There’s a history there — once in the past some members had tried to preach the gospel and the government shut the church’s meetings down — and they didn’t want to repeat it.”

These days, Parkinson is retired but is working on a new translation of the Arabic Book of Mormon.

“I helped with the earlier one, too. We basically hired professors to do it. It’s lovely and elegant but very academic,” he says. “Now we have members who have been involved in branches. Not all members are sophisticated readers of Arabic. We are not simplifying it, just taking every step to make it readable.”

Riding out two revolutions

(Michael Stack | Special to The Tribune) A villa where Latter-day Saints meet in the Cairo suburbs.

Risley, the future branch president in Cairo who brought his wife, Eileen, stepped onto Egyptian soil as the Department of Justice attache for the U.S. Embassy in September 2010. By the following January, the country rose up to depose President Hosni Mubarak.

Almost immediately, the embassy started to remove its personnel, shrinking the church’s Cairo Branch. As conditions calmed, however, Latter-day Saints returned, and their numbers swelled again to their previous average attendance of about 90.

“We had a large Primary as most of the members were expats who had children with them (the State Department is very family friendly),” Risley says. “There were also expat teachers.”

(Michael Stack | Special to The Tribune) Primary in the English-speaking Latter-day Saint Cairo Branch.

When the second “revolution” happened in 2013, which toppled President Mohamed Morsi, the church again emptied out.

At the height of that unrest, Risley says, only three attended the weekly Sabbath services held on Friday — himself, the elders quorum president, and a woman married to an Egyptian.

“It was a dangerous time,” he says. “We let out before noon prayers because in the aftermath of Morsi being removed from office, there were violent protests and clashes between his supporters and opponents.”

At the height of the protests, one member “got caught in a fight between the rioters and police on a bridge,” Risley recalls. “He was stuck in the taxi until the police cleared the area, and the driver could get him home.”

Still, it was, the Latter-day Saint leader says, “a harrowing experience for him.”

Egyptian opposition?

(Michael Stack | Special to The Tribune) Latter-day Saints talk outside the Cairo Branch.

By and large, the biggest opponents to the U.S.-born faith were not Muslims, Risley says, but Christians, particularly some evangelical ministers.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not recognized by the government, partly, he says, because it does not have strong canon laws, which govern matters of marriage, divorce and inheritance.

When there are conflicts between couples or families, the cases are turned over to religious courts, he says. “Our church doesn’t do that.”

One of the best avenues for Mormonism to make inroads with local communities, he says, has been through the work of Latter-day Saint Charities, the church’s humanitarian arm.

In 2014, Risley arranged a meeting between a couple of Latter-day Saint service volunteers and the president of an evangelical charitable organization.

After strong prompting by the evangelical leader, Risley described Latter-day Saint doctrines and practices.

In the end, the branch president recalls the evangelical declared emphatically, “You are only allowed to meet because you are a community of expats. If you ever have trouble, call me.”

The best way for the church “to avoid suspicion,” Risley says, “was to be transparent.”

His job was “to protect the flock and to protect the church,” he says. “We didn’t want even the appearance that we would be proselytizing.”

He had to caution Latter-day Saint tour groups against talking about “building Zion,” putting up temples across the region, singing on their buses the hymn “Israel, Israel, God Is Calling” or otherwise offending their Egyptian hosts.

That strict policy continued: The church would not baptize any Egyptian, whether Muslim or Christian. Or any Muslims from any country.

And that seems to still be working.

A new hope in an old land

(Michael Stack | Special to The Tribune) A sign for the Young Women classroom in English and Arabic.

Mark and Jamie Perry and their seven children spent two stints in Egypt: first from 2009 to 2011 and then from 2018 until this month.

During the second stay, Mark Perry oversaw the Cairo Branch and Jamie served as district president for the women’s Relief Society.

As the Egyptian capital has expanded its overpasses and high-rises to attract more businesses and workers, the Perrys have enjoyed the multinational community of Latter-day Saints who have gathered in a different Maadi villa, where even the next-door neighbors along the tree-canopied streets would not recognize it as a place of worship.

Only a peek through the front window — showing a framed copy of the family proclamation — helps visiting Latter-day Saints know they’re in the right place.

Inside, the villa has a homey, Latter-day Saint feel, with members trickling in from across the sprawling city on foot or by bus, bicycle, Uber or taxi to partake of the communal spirit.

“When we lived in Cairo the first time, we had expats from many different countries who were a part of our branch,” the Perrys write in a joint email. “Today, there are not so many countries represented in our expat congregation, but a big shift in the kinds of members. Cairo has always had an English-speaking expat branch, but now it also has an Arabic-speaking Nile River Branch, primarily composed of South Sudanese refugees. This has been wonderful to witness and something that would never have been possible when we lived here 13 years ago.”

(Michael Stack | Special to The Tribune) Modern Cairo on the banks of the River Nile, April 2022.

Christian refugees are considered expats, and so they are welcome to attend and join, including family and friends of current South Sudanese members.

“It has been fascinating to interact with these Latter-day Saint refugees,” says Erica Eastley, who lived in Egypt for four years with her husband, David Merrell.

“When most Americans think about refugees, they’re thinking about helping someone who was resettled in the U.S. and they’re not Mormon,” she says. “Refugees have joined the church in Turkey and Europe, but there are very few, if any, refugees who are members in the rest of the Middle East and North Africa. Refugees deal with unique challenges and getting church leaders and members who aren’t refugees to understand that has been both frustrating and worthwhile.”

Eastley welcomed the chance to serve her Latter-day Saint community in unexpected ways.

“I often have a rough time with the church, but Egypt overall has been a very good place for me because this branch has allowed me to be me,” Eastley says. “I was the Relief Society president for a year before the branches were divided. This is probably the only place in the world that would ever let me be a Relief Society president, but it worked for that year. This branch often (but certainly not always — there have been huge failures, too) finds ways to let people serve in ways that work for them.”

(Michael Stack | Special to The Tribune) Salah Eliaba Bata. Bata serves in the branch presidency of the Nile River Branch, whose 20 or so members are mostly South Sudanese.

For Merrell, who worked as the human rights political officer at the U.S. Embassy from 2018 until last month, Egypt provided an opportunity for interfaith understanding.

“I was able to connect with faithful Muslims, Coptic Christians, and Jews,” Merrell writes in an email. “It strengthens my faith to see their faith and helps me better understand that we are all connected together as God’s children and that God loves everyone.”

He relished experiences helping “the very small Jewish community in Cairo (about 10 people) clean up the second oldest Jewish cemetery in the world,” Merrell says. “I worked with a devout Coptic Christian who observed Lent and the many other Orthodox fasts. I saw Muslims in the government and guarding our residential building observe the Ramadan fast. We attended a very nice fast-breaking meal (iftar) with two Uyghur Muslim families who clearly cared about us and showed us great hospitality.”

(Michael Stack | Special to The Tribune) Mayumi Ayer, 13, an American Latter-day Saint living with her family in Cairo.

Indeed, says 13-year-old Mayumi Ayer, a member of the English-speaking branch who has lived with her expat family in Cairo since she was 8 and is fluent in Arabic.

She loves her Latter-day Saint branch family, she says, but “most of my friends are Muslim.”

Egypt’s place in LDS teachings

(Michael Stack | Special to The Tribune) The well where Jesus and his family purportedly drank from, now covered by the Church of Abu Serga, one of the oldest Coptic churches in Cairo.

Latter-day Saints and other Christians flock to Cairo for sites beyond the pyramids, the astonishing royal tombs perched on the edge of the city. They want to visit the places where tradition holds the Holy Family stopped — the well where they quenched their thirst, the cave where they rested, a rock with baby Jesus’ footprint, and so on.

Teaching scripture study to high school-age seminary students and to adults in Sunday school has given Eastley a richer appreciation for the background of Holy Writ.

“I don’t think that the Bible is history, but since it’s set in an actual historical context, learning about that context is helpful for me,” she says. “I really wish I could have taken the seminary students to Sinai, but the logistics just aren’t possible right now.”

There are, however, other sacred sites.

“One of my favorite mosques is at a traditional site where Abraham didn’t have to sacrifice Ismail/Ishmael. Cairo’s best-known synagogue is where Moses was supposed to have met with pharaoh. Noah’s Ark was supposed to have landed in the hills east of Cairo,” Eastley says. “None of this is historical, but the fact that these stories are still remembered today by Muslims, Jews and Christians is meaningful to me.”

Many archaeologists question the veracity of stories about Moses, pointing to a lack of evidence outside the Bible in the historical record that the larger-than-life figure existed or that thousands of slaves left servitude in Egypt and wandered in the desert.

Absence from historical sources, some counter, is not conclusive proof.

(Michael Stack | Special to The Tribune) A statue of Ramses II at the temple complex in Luxor, Egypt.

“The Egyptians referred to all of their West-Semitic slaves simply as ‘Asiatics,’ with no distinction among groups,” according to a Jewish website. “...There is a limit to what we can expect from the written record of ancient Egypt. Ninety-nine percent of the papyri produced there during the period in question have been lost, and none whatsoever has survived from the eastern Nile delta, the region where the Torah claims the children of Israel resided. Instead, we have to rely on monumental inscriptions, which, being mainly reports to the gods about royal achievements, are far from complete or reliable as historical records. They are more akin to modern-day résumés, and just as conspicuous for their failure to note setbacks of any kind.”

Some researchers “have likened Moses to Akhenaten, a fascinating Egyptian pharaoh forgotten for thousands of years until his tomb was discovered in the 19th century,” according to a 2014 Washington Post article. “Unlike the kings who ruled before and after him, Akhenaten was a monotheist, and he banned worship of all divinities except Aten, an all-encompassing god represented by a sun-disc.”

Latter-day Saints, though, tend to be biblical literalists.

According to Genesis, Abraham’s great-grandson, Joseph, was sold into Egypt as a slave. Eventually, Joseph became a leader and close to pharaoh and married the daughter of an Egyptian, who gave him two sons: Ephraim and Manasseh.

Through their patriarchal blessings, Latter-day Saints are told they descend from — or have been adopted into — the tribe of Ephraim, which the church says has “primary responsibility to lead the latter-day work of the Lord.”

Thus, Egypt is embedded in Mormon theology and practice — and its relevance persists to this day.

Shared beliefs in life and the afterlife

(Michael Stack | Special to The Tribune) Well-preserved hieroglyphs in the tomb of Ramses III at the Valley of the Kings in Luxor, Egypt.

For his part, Mark Perry notes that the ancient Egyptians “had a great desire to worship God, as evidenced in the many incredible temples and tombs found throughout Egypt.”

The iconic pyramids — sitting on the edge of Cairo, where tourists can barely get a photo on a camel that doesn’t have dilapidated dwellings in the frame — speak to the Egyptian obsession with and devotion to immortality and the afterlife.

For the ancients who built these massive memorials, this life was but a preview of the next, where all human aspects they loved would resurrect with them.

Not so different from Latter-day Saint belief.

“It is very easy to find commonalities in our religions, and many Egyptians, whether Coptic or Muslim, immediately have a special reverence for my beliefs,” says Jamie Perry. “They get excited to find that I abstain from certain foods just as they do. …They are thrilled that we are all fasting to become closer to God.”

All Muslims hope to make the pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia’s Mecca, Islam’s holiest place, once in their lifetime.

To Jamie, “this feels a lot like our goal to enter the Lord’s house to be endowed in his temple, our most holy place,” she says. “When I visit the ancient temples of Egypt, I am amazed at their worship and see the same desires to become clean and pure to return back to God.”

The optimistic Relief Society president has seen “progression in the church here in the last few years,” she says. “I can see the hand of the Lord helping in that.”

Though David Risley has been gone from Egypt for seven years, it continues to beckon him.

“Once you drink from the Nile,” he says, quoting a well-known saying, “you will always come back.”

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(Michael Stack | Special to The Tribune) The Pyramid of Menkaure on the edge of Cairo, April 2022.