Al-Ahram’s French weekly, Ahram Hebdo interviews leader of the Coptic Church, PTII to discuss Egyptian civil, political and religious life.
Ahram Hebdo: How do you see Egypt in 2015?
Pope Tawadros II: When you look at Egypt’s history, you find phases where Egypt dropped a little, but it never broke or died. What happened in the last few years is that our country was close to weakness in the economy, in education and in security. But since there are officials that are up to a level of seriousness, we trust that tomorrow will be morethan wonderful. I am very optimistic because this is the nature of Egyptians. Our weak point is neglecting history: knowing history gives the impression that tomorrow will be very good.
AH: In two years of papacy, Your Holiness visited ten states, what are the results of those visits?
PTII: The visits were for different reasons: Austria was for therapy, there was a visit to pay condolences to the Patriarch of the Syriac Church, and there was a visit that was an invitation from the Emirates state and another from the Norwegian Church, also another that was a pastoral visit to our sons in Canada. As for the most important visit, it was to the Vatican which was the first by a Coptic Orthodox leader in 40 years. Every visit has its own nature.
The world today is very small, and the relations of love, knowledge and humanitarian relations in general take priority.
Whether inside or outside of the country, I am a human who represents Egypt. Those visits are not personal, they are for The Church, the homeland and Egypt.
AH: How did you take the decision to participate in 3 July?
PTII: In the phase before 3 July, the country was in a state of ebullition that was worsening by the day because of the dissatisfaction with the regime that was in place, which all Egyptians did not like. Later, they formed a popular vision that was transformed to a popular unity which turned into a popular revolution. This revolution is from the people, the army defended it because it is the army of the people. So everyone revolted as one, and the whole people took to the streets to express their opinion. I wanted to express myself like all the Egyptians who took to the streets, and from here came my participation in July 3.
AH: Regarding the next phase and parliamentary elections, will The church support a particular list?
PTII: The Church will call for participation on two sides: candidates and voters. The Church encourages the patriotic role, the role of the people who can take responsibility by being a member of the parliament or the other responsibility of practicing their voting role. This is citizenship and this is what we encourage. All our sons, those who are running for elections, are our sons in the first and last place and I cannot support some and leave others. Hence, the Church does not support anyone in particular. There are many strong electoral lists, not one specific one. Every list has to have Muslims and Copts who are highly competent. When the voter chooses, they think and choose the list that comprises the elements that are the most competent, with the highest quality and the most patriotic.
AH: Some fear the return of the Muslim Brotherhood and the figures of the dissolved National Democratic Party in the next parliament. What does Your Holiness think?
PTII: I think it is possible of course, because not every person openly says what is inside them.
AH: Which phase are we in today regarding the personal status law?
PTII: A law exists on personal status which was prepared through all churches, and it was amended a few years ago. Now it is being discussed. The state submitted it once more to the churches for discussion, and some revisions are being made. The law has to conform to the new constitution, hence the matter needs revision. The churches amended around 90 percent of the law. However, there are some areas in which there are many points of view between the churches. After the agreement, this law will be transferred to the government to be studied, then it will go to parliament which will study and pass it.
AH: Are there new reasons for divorce that The Church will stipulate besides adultery?
PTII: This is the text and jurisdiction of the Bible and neither myself nor the Ecumenical council can modify anything in it. But there exists what we call void marriage: something wrong happened in this marriage, hence it is considered nonexistent. Here, divorce takes place by virtue of voiding the marriage. There are some reasons that were clarified, like addiction. If one of the partners discovers the other’s addiction a month or two after marriage, and torments the other one, it is clear that marriage in this form will not continue, and that this marriage was based on cheating. Here, The Church and the law ought to intervene.
AH: How does The Church see civil marriage in current times?
PTII: The Church does not recognise it, of course. Marriage is a church sacrament. Church marriage takes place with special specifications. It is called “holy sacrament of marriage.” It takes place by a legitimate priest with specific rituals managed by specific laws. The marriage’s legitimacy stems from practicing the sacrament of the marriage. The Church prayers with all their rituals represent the marriage, then it takes a legal cover through documentation, that is civil marriage, which cannot precede marriage and is not recognised.
AH: What is new regarding the houses of worship law?
PTII: Fifty percent of the so-called sectarian divide problem is related to the construction of houses of worship. In fact, building worship houses falls under the Humayun edict which dates back to the Ottoman state. This law contains 10 conditions that made it difficult to build a church, most challenging of which was waiting for 20 years to be for a request to build a church to be approved. This was problematic as many things could change in this timeframe: the population will increase, the area where The church will be built in will change, the specifications of The Church might change (specifications for 100 families are not like 1,000 families). Before, the law used to be subjected to many personal preferences. But regarding the new law, the churches discussed the draft and it was presented to the state, and the state discussed it with the churches, and it is being prepared for the new parliament. I am satisfied to a great extent with some amendments, unless something changes in it such as articles or other personal preferences.
AH: Does Your Holiness think that the marginalisation of the Copts has ended or is it postponed until the political battles end?
PTII: Let us wait… at the door of optimism.
AH: What is the role of the Coptic Church with Ethiopia?
PTII: It is a patriotic role. Strong relations with Ethiopia have a great deal of history, dating back to many centuries on the level of both the people and The Church. The Nile River ties us to Ethiopia with 85% of our water supply coming from there. When there was neglect between Egypt and the rest of Africa in general, particularly Ethiopia, relations went through a crisis, which affected the policies between the states. Then Ethiopia began construction on its Renaissance Dam, funded by many entities. Now we see governmental efforts through the irrigation ministry and the prime ministry, which aim to conduct dialogues that might lead to solving the crisis between the states. The Church’s role is patriotic, which is its usual role. It matters to us that Egypt does not get affected by any development projects, and the interest of the states involved needs to be taken into consideration, be it here or there.
AH: How do you see the increase in the number of atheists, and is it a phenomenon? How does The Church respond to this?
PTII: It is not a phenomenon. Social media and the internet are the reason why this contagion was transported from one place to another and from one person to another. In general, youth worldwide are in a state of rebellion, unacceptance, and the youth as a part of life is by default a stage of enthusiasm, vitality and refusal of the old. It consists of internal revolts, inside the self, as he refuses any form of power. “I want to govern myself. I refuse God.” The Church faces it through awareness with some books, with conferences. I think the cure to atheism is when the atheist find someone to love him sincerely, especially if he grows up on Egyptian soil, he loves religion.
AH: How do you evaluate the situation of Christians in the Middle East?
PTII: What happens in Syria, Iraq and some countries, and in Libya, is painful to us. Some countries lost their central powers, and hence the situation for Christians in many places was adversely affected. Of course the emergence of violence and terrorism had its impact on their existence, and there was a kind of hatred, even though they have monuments and heritage dating back to the first centuries. All these matters need to be taken into consideration. Emptying the Middle East from its Christians is not in the interest of the Middle East, and not in the interest of the whole world. The Middle East is the cradle of religions.
AH: How do you explain the increase in emigration?
PTII: Coptic emigration started 60 years ago, and continued in many phases: a wave in 1952, a wave with the nationalisation decisions in 1961, a wave in 1967 with the six-day war, a wave in 1973, a wave in 1981 (Sadat’s assassination), and a wave with the recent events of the revolution. The Egyptian, by nature, is attached to the soil and to the river. When the immigrant feels that Egypt is in a better state, he returns to his country.
AH: What about the decision of boycotting the Jerusalem visit?
PTII: We will not enter Jerusalem unless we are hand in hand with our Muslim brothers. The visit to Jerusalem has been discontinued since the days of Pope Kyrillos after the 1967 war and the aggression on Jerusalem, hence how can there be a visit to Jerusalem under any name? The Church has the same stance because the occupation of Palestine continues. The situation is also unsafe as there are daily aggressions on the sanctities there. We do not forget that we have a bishop and a Coptic people who reside in Jerusalem, even though their numbers are dwindling. We also have monasteries, monks, schools, and we do not coordinate with them. Travelling there is a violation of the obedience to a decision The Church made patriotically.
*This interview was first published by Ahram Hebdo.