Church-state relations yet to change in Morsi's Egypt

Dina Samir , Sunday 18 Nov 2012

On the eve of the inauguration of Egypt's new Coptic Orthodox Pope, Ahram Online investigates the church-state relationship as its role is redefined in the post-revolutionary period

Egyptian Christians
Egyptian Christians march in Cairo (Photo: Reuters)

"Down with military rule!" chanted Copts, interrupting last January's Christmas mass at Saint Mark's Coptic Orthodox Cathedral. The protesters were reacting to Pope Shenouda’s decision to invite members of the then-ruling military council to attend the celebration, despite the role of state security forces in the Maspero massacre which led to the death of more than 25 Coptic demonstrators in October 2011.

"That moment indicated that the church no longer ‘politically’ represents Copts," said Beshoy Tamry, Coptic activist and member of the Maspero Youth Union.

The political separation of the Coptic Orthodox community from the church is an important factor that will affect the future of church-state relations, along with the appointment of  Bishop Tawadros on Sunday as the new Pope following Shenouda's death. Experts believe that church-state relations are now likely to be redefined.

Church-state relations: Historical perspective

Shedding light on church-state relations before Mubarak’s regime, Coptic scholar Hany Labib, in his book, 'The Egyptian Church, State and Religion' noted that under President Nasser, there was stability due to the solid bond between Nasser and Pope Kyrillos VI, and in light of the national project and political rhetoric which involved all Egyptians.

In his speech at the inauguration of St Mark's Cathedral, President Nasser stated that, as Egypt’s president, he was equally responsible for all Egyptians regardless of their religion.

However, Pope Shenouda and President Sadat had a thorny relationship according to Labib. During Sadat’s time, Copts also suffered from various planned attacks on churches by terrorist groups, and they felt threatened by the rise of Islamists.

President Sadat also felt challenged by Pope Shenouda when the later disallowed Copts from visiting Palestine after the 1979 Camp David accords, when Sadat was promoting normalisation with Israel.

The relationship then hit rock bottom in 1980 when Sadat said in his speech in parliament that Pope Shenouda wanted to build a state for Copts within Egypt and make Assiut its capital. "I am a Muslim president of a Muslim country," Sadat famously stated in that speech. At the end of his rule in 1981, Sadat ordered Pope Shenouda into exile at the Monastery of Saint Bishoy; he was released in 1985 by Mubarak.

Church-state relations during Mubarak’s regime

Sameh Fawzy, Coptic scholar, believes that church-state relations during Mubarak’s era were "sophisticated." On one hand, Mubarak chose to deal with the Copts as a monolithic group headed by Pope Shenouda. As such, Coptic intellectuals were marginalised while the church's role grew, which led to a false perception among Copts themselves that top clergymen were pro-regime, while Coptic problems persisted.

The regime, however, deliberately confined Copts within the boundaries of the church, a process that resulted in a real distance between Copts and Muslims, Fawzy explains. The regime was keen on creating dividing lines based on inter-religious conflicts so as to remain the only actor on the scene, sending contradictory messages to both Muslims and Christians.

Youssef Sidhom, editor-in-chief of the Coptic newspaper Watani, believes that the marginalisation and discrimination Copts have endured over the last few decades has caused them to isolate themselves within their church communities.

Sidhom went on to explain that the church has opened its arms to Copts to make up for the injustice they faced at the individual and church level. The church started to provide services that had nothing to do with its spiritual role, including sports teams, theatre groups, and small social clubs. Besides, "the church took it upon itself to provide for the Copts’ different needs, which all led to their gradual withdrawal from social, cultural and political life in Egypt."

However, "we cannot put all the blame on the Mubarak regime in confining Christians within their church communities," Sidhom said, arguing that Pope Shenouda also chose this path as he "mistakenly" believed that Copts would obtain their rights if the church kept direct ties with the state. "He, Pope Shenouda, could have exerted efforts towards integrating Christians into society instead of supporting their isolation."

The church and Copts: Political separation

"Copts have not spiritually rebelled against the church, but the church lost its political authority over Copts," Sidhom said, explaining that the Copts have politically separated from the church.

On one occasion in 2011, Pope Shenouda issued a statement urging Coptic protesters who were holding a sit-in outside the Maspero state television and radio building in Cairo to go home.

The protest was one of several Coptic demonstrations and sit-ins which took place in 2011, many located at the Maspero building, protesting sectarian attacks on churches and demanding prosecution of those involved.

"Pope Shenouda did not call for the demonstration only to ask now to end it. We are not moving until our demands are met," was the response of the demonstrators to the pope's statement.

Tamry also explained that the church asked Copts to cancel the march that was planned in November last year to commemorate the 40-day anniversary of the massacre at Maspero on 9 October 2011, when one of the peaceful Coptic demonstrations was met by violence. The church asked those commemorating the massacre to hold an event inside the Cathedral to avoid any possible clashes, but Coptic demonstrators rejected the church’s suggestion and marched from the Cathedral in the Abbasiya district of Cairo to Tahrir Square.

Tracing this political separation back, Tamry believes it happened before the revolution, due to the church’s continued failure to defend Copts’ rights, which was vividly shown by the Naga Hammadi massacre in 2010 when six Copts were murdered on the eve of Coptic Christmas.

"Although the Naga Hammadi bishop witnessed the massacre himself, he told the prosecutor that he did not see it; and although the bishop knows the instigator of the massacre [Abdel Rehim El-Ghoul, former member of parliament for Mubarak's National Democratic Party], he refused to confess," Tamry said.

Tamry recalled that Copts held a demonstration after the Naga Hammadi massacre in April 2010 inside St Mark's Cathedral to protest Pope Shenouda’s statement endorsing Gamal Mubarak for president. "Down with Mubarak and the National Democratic Party," Copts chanted.

After the Alexandria church bombing in 2011, Copts organised a protest in front of the Church of the Virgin Mary in El-Masarra. The priests of the church asked protestors to cancel the demonstration, but they refused, which indicates that Copts as "people" detached themselves from the church’s political orientation, Tamry said.

Time to rebuild church-state relations

Sidhom believes that the church has realised that it can no longer represent Copts politically, and the three final candidates for the papacy all agreed on this point. Furthermore, Pope Tawadros said that the church won’t politically mediate between Copts and the state but will instead encourage Copts to be politically and socially active citizens, along with their Muslim counterparts.

Fawzy does not expect to see radical changes happen in the relationship between the Muslim Brotherhood and the church. "Although the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic factions kept criticising Mubarak’s regime for making the church, and particularly Pope Shenouda, the only representative of the Copts, the new regime is likely to follow the same pattern."

In their literature, the Muslim Brotherhood also take Copts as a monolithic group, limited within the political and religious organisation of the church, Fawzy explained.

"It is very worrying that the Copts, under the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood, will be treated like a ‘sect’ according to the old Ottoman Empire’s definition of non-Muslims," he added.

Fawzy argues that Copts must be represented by the state apparatus as full-fledged citizens in modern society.

Yet, if state institutions continue to turn a deaf ear to Copts’ problems, they will be left with no other option than the church. Fawzy points to the recent case of 14-year-old Sara Isaac of Marsa Matrouh, who was forced to marry a Muslim man and convert to Islam.

According to the law, Isaac is a minor. Yet when her family turned to the police, general-prosecutor, the National Council for Women, and the President, they received no solution. "When Isaac’s family knocks on the door of the church, should we consider it an intervention from the church in state affairs?" Fawzy asks.

Tamry also believes that there has been no change in how the state deals with the Coptic community under the leadership of President Morsi. The state still treats Copts as a "colony" represented by the church.

Tamry points to the process of forming the current Constituent Assembly; the state asked the church to nominate Coptic representatives to the constitution-writing body. "The state does not want to realise that the church is not us, politically."

However, Tamry is optimistic that the church under the leadership of Pope Tawadros will take a different approach. Tracking glimpses of hope, Tamry referred to the former interim Pope Bakhomious’statement during the presidential election that the church is neutral towards all candidates and that priests who campaign for a certain candidate will be subject to punishment. Tamry affirmed that some priests who did not abide by that decision actually faced punishment.

Furthermore, Copts themselves have started to refuse church representation and interference in politics. Tamry recounted an experience during the presidential elections, when a man interrupted a priest who was talking about the elections in his sermon telling him not to discuss politics in church.

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