Faith and patriotism

Khaled Mahmoud, Tuesday 29 Nov 2022

Khaled Mahmoud reviews Pope Tawadros II’s recently released memoir

Faith and patriotism


Years of Love for God and the Nation is not just a memoir of the decade Pope Tawadros II, pope of Alexandria and patriarch of the See of St Mark, has served in the highest office of the Coptic Church, but a historical document of great importance, covering a critical period of modern Egyptian and Middle Eastern history. It combines exhaustive detail and insights into events seen from the vantage point of one of the most influential religious figures in the world

The memoir is the result of extensive interviews conducted by Sherine Abdel-Khalek, who compiled and edited the final text. It also features an introduction by Counsellor Adli Mansour, who served as Egypt’s interim president following the overthrow of Muslim Brotherhood rule and deftly navigated the ship of state through incredibly sensitive times. Pope Tawadros makes a point of expressing his admiration for Mansour, the first Egyptian president to personally convey his congratulations to the pope on the occasion of Christmas.

In his introduction to the book, Mansour writes: “There is an inexhaustible reservoir of what can be written about the personality Pope Tawadros II, the venerable, extremely humble Egyptian who is soft-spoken, contemplative, good at listening and attentive to others.”

Abdel-Khalek interviews the pope

In her own forward, “My story with the pope,” Abdel-Khalek relates how she persuaded the pope of the importance of recording his testimony given he has been not just an observer of events in Egypt over the past decade but a major actor whose patriotism is clear to all. As she notes, he epitomises the spirit of a nation whose people cannot be divided.

The first of the 12 chapters, “Before I became pope”, includes his childhood and teenage years, during which he experienced some wrenching formative shocks, including the early death of his father. We also learn of the profound influence his mother had on his life and how he learned virtues such as patience and fortitude from her.

Certain numbers appear to have played an important part in his life, particularly the number seven. “I got 77 per cent on my primary school graduation exam, and that number continued to follow me. I got 77 per cent on my preparatory school exam and once again I got 77 per cent on my secondary school exam. My seat number was 777671. Then I graduated from the Faculty of Pharmacy with honours and score of 77 per cent. I cannot explain what lies behind this number, but it has stayed with me a long time.”

The pope clearly recalls his entry into orders. “It was on 20 August at 2pm, two days before the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. It was a propitious occasion associated with fasting, by which was meant not just abstinence from food but abstinence from the world. People who want to enter the monkhood are always advised to do so at a time of fasting. So that’s what I did... I joined the order in the Anba Bishoi Monastery. After entering the establishment, I proceeded to the House of Retreat, which is where novices stay until they meet the head of the monastery. I was accepted into the order on a Wednesday.”

The second chapter, “A wounded nation and a new pope,” covers the period following the 25 January 2011 Revolution and the time when the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) assumed the reins of government. As the country passed through post-revolutionary convulsions, the Church had to contend with the death of pope Shenouda III, a man revered for his wisdom and patriotism. Pope Tawadros II recalls that many predicted that he would succeed the late pope. He was elected on Sunday, 4 November, his birthday. The day before he had travelled to the Anba Bishoi Monastery to perform prayers and vigils.

“These prayers begin at an hour after midnight and last until six in the morning. Afterwards, I went to my cell, had a simple breakfast and slept. It was around the time the conclave met in Cairo to cast their ballots. At about 10 [am] I was awoken by two monks. They had a mobile phone with a radio app on which they were following the developments in the conclave. ‘They chose a child called Bishoi to draw the lots. You’ll be the next patriarch,’ the monks said, basing their prediction on the fact that I had entered orders at the Bishoi Monastery… My mother sprang to mind at that moment. She was praying for me not to be chosen because she feared the papal mission would exact too much of a toll on me. Before long, the number of visitors in my cell jumped from two to 200. I had just been declared the new patriarch.”

“My feelings were a mixture of faith in the will of the Lord and fear. I did not know what I was supposed to do at that moment or what would come next.”

The second chapter proceeds to discuss the relationship between the Church and the government under Muslim Brotherhood rule. True to his dedication to his homeland, Tawadros II refused to let the Church be separated from the wider community of patriotically minded citizens. He relates: “Within days of assuming my official duties, I led a delegation from the Church to the Ittihadiya Palace to meet with President [Mohamed] Morsi. It was a formal meeting and all the protocols and formalities were observed. I thanked the president for signing the decree approving my appointment.”

“He said, ‘You’re welcome. I was only doing my duty. You were divinely chosen.’”

“I smiled inwardly and kept myself from saying, ‘And you were chosen by the Brotherhood…’ I left that meeting with no distinct impressions apart from a strong feeling that president Morsi was a mere figurehead.”

The pope also recounts how he received a visit from the president’s chief of staff, Mohamed Rifaa Al-Tahtawi.

“He had served as Egypt’s ambassador to Libya at the time I served there so he was not unfamiliar to me and I had heard he could be quite charming. He had come to me with a strange request, which he pitched very smoothly. He wanted me to visit the president to have some pictures taken with him to convey the image that all was well between the government and the Church. I fell silent for a moment, then gave an answer which stunned him: ‘Do you want me to serve as decor? Do you think it’s right for the pope of the Coptic Church to act as a prop? Naturally I refuse.’ Then I terminated the meeting. I had no idea what the reaction would be, but from that moment the person of the new pope began to emerge.”

The third chapter, “Bottleneck”, covers 2013, a watershed year in contemporary Egyptian history, characterised by increasingly sharp polarisation. Against a fraught domestic political backdrop, the pope refused to meet with US officials. He also recounts his first meeting with Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, the then minister of defence.

“We were a delegation of 12 members representing the whole spectrum of the Church. We were received with great warmth and respect. The meeting, as scheduled, was to last half an hour. It ended up lasting more than two hours. The discussions, which addressed the future of the nation, were extensive and fruitful. I sensed a sincere desire to get to know the new patriarch. All the conversations were national, as opposed to sectarian, in spirit and context. I was reassured to observe the acuity and presence of mind of Lieutenant-General Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, minister of defence at the time. It struck me that he always spoke in terms of facts and figures. For example, when discussing education, he said we needed to build x number of schools to accommodate y number of students to keep pace with z percentage of population growth. I was so heartened by that meeting that I recall saying to myself afterwards, ‘Thank God there are still people looking after the country.’”

The chapter goes on to relate events leading up to the 30 June Revolution and Morsi’s growing detachment.

“Amidst the acute polarisation, the seething anger and the demonstrations that filled the streets, His Eminence the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Ahmed Al-Tayeb and I agreed that we should go together to meet president Mohamed Morsi to discuss the mood in the street and learn his views on the situation. We called the presidency and obtained an appointment for 18 June at 4pm. We had no other aim than to serve the interest of the nation, ensure its safety and try to calm the situation. The meeting was scheduled to last an hour, from 4 to 5pm. During that time, Morsi spoke incoherently, coming out with such strange remarks as, ‘We seized 600,000 Tramadol tablets,’ or ‘Water is evaporating in Al-Salam Canal,’ or such and such a project is failure and such and such a project is a success, or ‘there are professionals in government who refuse to work with me.’ After an hour of this he looked at the clock and then turned to me and said, ‘please, speak.’ I spoke to him calmly, choosing my words carefully:

“There is a state of unrest in the street. I hope there will be even-handedness in the decisions.”

“‘Like on what?’ he asked.”

“I recounted the incident of a Coptic teacher in Luxor called Damiana who had been charged with contempt of religion and sentenced to three years in prison and a fine of LE100,000. At the same time, a Muslim in Cairo had been found guilty of insulting the Bible and was sentenced to a fine of LE5,000. My purpose in relating this was to underscore the value of justice and the need not to plant the seeds of sectarian strife. I had barely finished when he burst out, ‘I’ll pay the LE100,000’.”

“I was at a loss for words. I felt there was no hope to be found in him. He was in another world and the problems and tensions in the street were of no concern to him. Then, his eminence the grand imam asked to speak. He also addressed the mood in the street and turned to offences against Al-Azhar and other Islamic sites, and his concerns about the spread of Shia proselytism. The meeting lasted another hour. Before leaving, we asked him what he thought would happen on 30 June. Once again, his response showed that he was unaware of what was going on around him. He said, ‘It will be followed by the 1 and 2 July as always.’”

Hope revived with the end of Muslim Brotherhood rule and the beginning of the interim period led by president Mansour, a former chief justice of the Supreme Court. This is the subject of the fourth chapter, “The beginning of the road.”

For Pope Tawadros, the new spirit was embodied by the largest subscription campaign in history to fund the construction of the New Suez Canal. The campaign, he said, represented the first building block of trust in the new political leadership. The story of national recovery continues in the fifth chapter, “The restitution of dignity”, which opens with an account of the hopes that filled Coptic congregations around the country when President Al-Sisi paid an announced visit to the Cathedral of St Marks to convey his best wishes for Christmas. Sadly, that joy immediately turned to grief when 21 Copts living in Libya were abducted and slaughtered by Islamic State terrorists. Egypt’s revenge for those deaths was swift and President Al-Sisi’s personal condolences did much to ease the pain.

Chapter six, “The year of global terrorism,” includes the government’s response to the attack against St Peter’s Church in Alexandria.

“The incident was a turning point in the scientific management of that type of crime. In the space of 24 hours, political resolve had solidified to punish the killer and those behind him. Unprecedented technical capacities were brought to bear to reconstruct the face of the perpetrator and analyse his DNA. A positive identification was made and his affiliation with the Islamic State confirmed. This we learned immediately after the military funeral that was held for the martyrs and attended by President Al-Sisi.”

In “The difficult labour” the pope discusses major social projects, including the 100 Million Healthy Lives Initiative, the initiative to end surgical waiting lists and the Year of Women. It was a period marked by frequent terrorist attacks targeting Copts as well as military and police personnel. In the chapter, Pope Tawadros relates his many meetings with foreign heads of state, including the late queen Elizabeth II and Prince Charles, and how he used his position as a man of faith to inform foreign dignitaries about the real situation in Egypt, especially concerning Copts, and impress on them that Egypt was moving in the right direction.

He was particularly impressed by a meeting with German chancellor Angela Merkel in 2017: “I emerged from the meeting as a great admirer of Merkel’s personality, above all her sense of duty and open-mindedness. At one point, as I presented the facts to her, she said that the media abroad give a totally different picture of the situation of Christians in Egypt. She added that now she had seen for herself how Christians and Muslim are treated in the same hospitals, go to the same schools and universities, and have the same rights and duties. Of course, her previous false impression had been shaped by the misleading media.”

She left with excellent impressions about Egypt and its political leadership’s commitment to developing the country, said the pope, and her visit had a great impact on shaping the future of Egyptian-German relations.

Chapter Eight, “The year of defeating terrorism”, discusses the successes of Comprehensive Operation Sinai which made great strides towards eliminating the terrorist threat to Egypt. It also covers progress in the relationship between the Church and Saudi Arabia, epitomised by Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman’s unprecedented visit to St Mark’s Cathedral. Chapter Nine, “The calm that preceded the pandemic”, focuses on how Egypt’s foreign relations and image abroad continued to improve. Among the landmark events covered is the pope’s reception of French President Emmanuel Macron at the Cathedral of St Marks.

In the chapter “A world defeated by the pandemic” Pope Tawadros for the first time offers his personal testimony on former president Hosni Mubarak.

“I record here, for history, my great admiration for him not having left the country. He had received many offers to leave Egypt but he refused to do. He explained this in the frank manner of a military commander, saying ‘I was born in the land of Egypt and it is on this land that I will die.’ His final address was poignant, sincere, and genuine.”

Before Covid-19 struck, Egypt launched the Decent Life initiative to fight poverty and promote development in rural Egypt, an effort the government sustained unflaggingly despite the challenges of the pandemic. Pope Tawadros discusses this in Chapter 11, “The year of recovery”, in which he describes the initiative as a qualitative shift in the approach to Egyptians living in the country’s poorest villages and hamlets.

In the final chapter, which brings the decade to a close, the pope reviews the achievements of the Coptic Church and their crowning when Egypt hosted the General Assembly of the Middle East Council of Churches for the first time in 48 years.

Years of Love for God and the Nation provides a unique chronicle of a tumultuous decade in Egypt, offering an invaluable resource for historians and a compelling read for anyone interested in modern Egyptian history and the Coptic Church.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 December, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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