The January Revolution that rocked the Coptic community

Mohamed Abul Ghar
Thursday 22 Sep 2016

After years of relative isolation, the January Revolution shook the Coptic community — particularly the youth — and opened a new era where full and open equal citizenship is a widely supported goal

During the liberal years that started in 1919, the civil Coptic Society used to strongly participate in the charitable construction of schools, hospitals and non-governmental organisations.

It was during these years that Salama Moussa and others participated actively, through the society of young Christians, in the work of civil society in general, and of course particularly in the Coptic community.

In this period it was Coptic politicians who used to represent Coptic affairs in any negotiations with the state.

In this period I felt no awkwardness whatsoever to join a group of friends at the school of medicine, both Muslims and Christians, to go light a candle for Saint Theresa at her church in Shubra in the pursuit of blessings.

Prior to that, in the 1940s, my mother herself had felt no awkwardness when I fell ill with typhoid to act upon the advice of her friend and neighbour, Tante Olga, who had proposed the visit and the benediction of her priest who prayed for my recovery.

With the advent of the totalitarian period, this whole concept receded as civil society was shrinking and as citizens, particularly more in the case of Copts than Muslims, declined to assume the role they had played before, even at the cultural level.

It was then that the Copts receded to the confinement of their church.

At the time, several bishops, including Father Moussa who later became the godfather of all cultural activities for thousands of Copts who were declined civil space outside the church, were forced to build a new cultural sphere within the walls of the church.

This approach helped Egyptian Copts to continue to have a civil role that inevitably contributed to society through the work and ideas of Coptic citizens.

In contrast, in rural areas, Copts were traditionally more confined within the boundaries of the church. As such, it would be the bishop who would attend to all issues of the community, from personal matters to the relation between the citizen and the state – often conducted in an "out of court" fashion, so to speak

This, however, caused a rupture in the links between Muslim and Coptic youth – something that would have been unheard of and even unthought of for young people during my college years.

Bishop Moussa, a terribly alert man, was fast to notice this phenomenon and was also fast to try to build bridges. He invited me, and others, to take part in joint activities between Muslim and Coptic youth. We had some success.

And then came the January Revolution. Then it was the advice of the church that Copts steer clear of the demonstrations.

Initially many bowed to the advice. However, from the early days of the revolution there was a representation of the Coptic youth – and some gave their lives during the 18 days.

Later, there was a moment of massive anger among the Coptic youth for having been denied participation in the revolution. Many in the church leadership, particularly Father Moussa, acted to accommodate this furore.

At the end of the day, the January Revolution rocked the entire Egyptian society at heart. The youth were particularly touched by this revolution, and the Coptic youth were certainly no exception.

Many of the Coptic youth decided to end the isolation and to take part in wider societal activities, political as well as cultural. They were there in the newly founded political parties and the newly issued papers.

They were there on social media and in the wider societal space. They participated in demonstrations – some of which were related to the grievances that Copts had been subject to, including the Maspero demonstrations where young Copts had to die in the most inhumane way as they were crushed by trucks.

I think it is safe to argue that the Maspero demonstrations was a turning point in the attitude of many young Copts who decided once and for all that their presence in society would never again be interrupted by the influence of the Coptic Church that would remain, nonetheless, the source of spiritual leadership.

Today, we can see the evidence of this evolution in the attitude of Coptic youth clearly reflected in the handling of the law on the construction of churches that aimed to rectify archaic regulations that had been applied since Ottoman rule in Egypt.

All truly civil citizens are certainly for the adoption of a unified bill for the construction of churches and mosques. However, pragmatically speaking this is not an option under the current circumstances.

It was still interesting to observe the debate over the articles of the law on the construction of churches that was initially negotiated between state and church but later had to be revised and improved under the pressure by Coptic youth and by the largest segments of civil society that aimed to improve the regulations of the new law.

I think that the civil Coptic influence will only increase, especially with the support offered from many Muslims who truly see that matters related to the rights of Coptic citizens are not and should not be treated as "sectarian" issues.

This is not just about the reintegration of Copts in society after a long period of isolation. It is also about the democratic evolution that our society is determined to go through.

This is the inevitable cycle of history; things will keep moving forward, whether the regime likes it or not. Full and equal citizenship was one of the main calls of the January Revolution and it will continue to be a target that many Egyptians will act to realise, simply because this is the spirit of January that has never subsided, contrary to the belief or wishes of some.

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