Three popes, the Church, and the state
Dina Ezzat, Tuesday 16 Mar 2021
The issuing of three commemorative coins to honour three patriarchs of Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church sums up the story of a delicate relationship

At a small grocery store in the eastern Cairo neighbourhood of Zaytoun, Afaf, a retired civil servant, is doing her shopping for the first two weeks of Lent. She is buying lentils, chickpeas, and fava beans to prepare the traditional vegan meals that her family eats for 55 days from 8 March to Easter Sunday, this year falling on 2 May, according to the Coptic Christian calendar.

This 72-year-old lady is “really thankful” that this year Covid-19 restrictions have been eased so that she and her older spouse can attend church during this holy religious season for the Copts of Egypt.

Afaf is hopeful that with the Covid-19 vaccine, “we can put behind us this painful episode, just as we did with other difficult episodes when churches were threatened.” She said she was counting on her “intercessor, [former] Coptic Pope Kyrollos [Cyril VI],” to work a miracle.

Pope Kyrollos is a favourite intercessor for many Copts, particularly of Afaf’s generation. He was the patriarch who validated the apparition of the Virgin Mary in 1968 following the military defeat of 1967 that cracked the morale of the nation in none other than Afaf’s own Church of the Virgin Mary in Zaytoun.

The 116th patriarch was the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church from November 1959 to March 1971, when he passed away to be followed by Pope Shenouda III who passed away in March 2012 to be followed by the current and 118th patriarch, Pope Tawadros II, who has headed the Church since November 2012.

A few weeks ago, the Ministry of Finance issued three commemorative coins to honour the legacy of the three patriarchs in a rare but not unprecedented gesture from the state towards the Coptic Church.

In 1968, the government issued a stamp carrying a portrait of Mar Morcos (St Mark), who introduced Christianity to Egypt in the first century CE. In 2016, it issued a stamp carrying a picture of Pope Shenouda III.


THE DEBATE: Pope Kyrollos was born in the Delta city of Damanhour in 1902 at a time when the Egyptian nation was contemplating a serious question of identity regarding whether or not Egypt should remain part of the Islamic caliphate (khilafa).

According to Dina Al-Khawaga, a political scientist, the early years of the 20th century were times of mixed sentiments. It had been a few decades since the khedive Ismail towards the end of the 1870s had attempted to dissolve the dhimmi (protected) status of the Christians of Egypt, then still part of the Islamic khilafa and subject to its regulations, by introducing the Milli Council as a civil-society board that would help the Coptic Church in administering its affairs.

It was also, however, just a few years before the convocation of the First Coptic Conference in 1911 in the Upper Egyptian city of Assiut, where the grievances of the Copts were spelled out in a clear way against the backdrop of discussion over the association with the Islamic khilafa. It was also a moment, Al-Khawaga added, when the Coptic Church was worried over the impact of foreign Catholic and Protestant Christian missions.

Pope Kyrollos was born at a time of a debate on the two intertwined questions of protecting the identity of the Coptic Church and protecting the rights of the Copts of Egypt. Al-Khawaga said that while it is often the case for this point to be associated with the run-up to the 1919 Revolution, it was not just that.

It was also, she said, the moment of the launch of the Coptic edition of the Sunday School Movement, which aimed to counter Christian missions from abroad. Moreover, she added, it was the moment of “what I would call the invention of Coptic traditions,” with volumes on the history of the patriarchs appearing and the work that historian Iris Habib Al-Masry later did on assembling the history of the Coptic Church.

“So, yes, we have the leading Coptic figures whose names are associated mostly with the 1919 Revolution, the Wafd Party, and so on, but they were mostly from leading families who benefited from the educational and land-owing systems that [former ruler] Mohamed Ali introduced in the early decades of the 19th century. They were by no means representatives of the majority of Copts, whose main destination was the Church,” Al-Khawaga argued.

In 1952, when the Free Officers ousted Egypt’s last monarch king Farouk, the Coptic Church had been under the leadership of Pope Joseph II (Youssab II) for two years, and he looked cautiously at the new political scene.

“The Copts at the time were generally very cautious. They waited, as they traditionally would, for the reaction of the Church. Under the monarchy, they had had some representation, but it was not very large or significant, and they had also had lots of grievances, especially against the Al-Ezaby Law of the mid-1930s that offered quite a conservative context for the Copts to build churches,” said Ishak Ibrahim, director of the minorities desk at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, an NGO.

“People often refer to the regulations introduced in the 19th century as restrictive, but in fact those regulations were introduced as a means to establish the rights of Copts to have churches rather than to constrain this right as they later did,” Ibrahim said. “The regulations of the mid-1930s were not moving things beyond the regulations issued under Ottoman rule, but they were incompatible with the spirit of Egypt’s 1923 constitution.”

According to Ibrahim, both on the eve of the 1919 Revolution and beyond and during the so-called “liberal age” of Egypt before 1952, the majority of Copts were not necessarily flourishing.

According to Al-Khawaga, the Church too had its concerns. “It took three years after the death of Pope Youssab in 1956 for Pope Kyrollos to find his way to the head of the Church towards the end of 1959. [Former president Gamal Abdel-] Nasser, who was not willing to embrace elections in the country as a whole, would not have wished the head of the Coptic Church, or for that matter the head of Al-Azhar, to be elected, so he waited for things to take a different path and for Kyrollos to ‘emerge’ as the kind of Coptic patriarch he would be able to deal with,” she said.

After the ascent of Kyrollos to head the Coptic Church, the Copts saw a major numerical transformation, as they started to leave Egypt, said Suleiman Shafik, a researcher in Coptic history. Either they had apprehensions over the true colours of the new regime, which at first had an ambiguous association with the Muslim Brotherhood, or they were looking for better economic opportunities “just like everyone else”, he said.

“This was one of the waves of Coptic emigration, but at that time the Church was not acting as a facilitator of the exodus. That came later under Pope Shenouda,” Al-Khawaga said.

It was also under Shenouda, Shafik argued, that the Church established greater contacts with Copts abroad, mostly in the US, with these starting to play a political role in raising Coptic grievances.


NEW ERA, NEW CONTEXT: According to Shafik, the relation between the Church and the state and among the people of the Church continued in an “almost” business-as-usual mode during the early years of Pope Shenouda, who succeeded Kyrollos in 1971.

“I say almost because unlike Pope Kyrollos, Pope Shenouda was a university graduate. It was in 1947 that Shenouda had received his BA in history from Fouad 1 [later Cairo] University. Pope Kyrollos was immersed in theology, but Shenouda, though very strong on theology, also had another edge in a wider education and knowledge,” Shafik said.

During his first two years at the head of the Coptic Church, Shafik added, Pope Shenouda played the same role that Kyrollos had done in the wake of the 1948, 1956, and 1967 wars in lobbying support for Egypt through the International Council of Churches. He also had a good rapport with the new head of state, president Anwar Al-Sadat.

“It was not a similar relationship to the one Pope Kyrollos had had with Nasser, not just because the two men were different and the context was different, but also because this was a relationship that had started a few decades earlier when the two men had worked, prior to the ordination of Nazir Gayed Roufail, later Pope Shenouda, for a magazine in which the latter had edited the work of the former,” Shafik said.

In the wake of the October Crossing in 1973, with Sadat attempting to harness political Islam movements as a way of undermining the left in Egypt, the Copts became worried and so did their patriarch. The close association between Sadat and some traditionalist Arab monarchs who sent preachers to Egypt to spread their version of Islam also led to Muslim-Coptic squabbles and worries among the Copts.

“So, we were seeing more Islamisation, more radicalisation, the launch of TV channels that strictly catered for religious preaching and assaults against Copts and Coptic targets, not just in the rural context, but also in an urban one, though mostly in the suburbs,” Al-Khawaga said.

“Pope Shenouda, unlike his predecessor Kyrollos, was not completely apolitical. He had a naturally political mind, and he thought he could push things a bit,” said Amin Iskandar, leader of the Karama Party.

In 1978, when Sadat arrived in the US to negotiate the Peace Treaty with Israel, Iskandar recalled, he saw for the first time a group of Egyptian Copts who had migrated to the US carrying signs and publicising the grievances of Copts in Egypt.

“Sadat got upset and felt that Shenouda was defying him, especially since Shenouda had already expressed reservations about Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem the year before. It was the beginning of a falling-out that ended in the presidential decree to internally banish Pope Shenouda in 1981,” he added.

When Shenouda was allowed to resume his full religious duties a few years later under the rule of former president Hosni Mubarak, Shafik said, it was a time for reconciliation. “Mubarak was determined to avoid possible frictions with the Church, and Pope Shenouda had been mellowed by his experience with al-Sadat. It was time to open a new page,” he said.

According to Al-Khawaga, Mubarak had decided that the state would play the traditional role it had during the rule of king Fouad, being to protect the Copts and to deal with them mostly through the Church. In return, the Church should play its role of securing the political standing of the Coptic population.

This equation was in play until the end of Mubarak’s rule with the start of the 25 January Revolution in 2011. During the time between January 1985, when Shenouda was re-instated, and January 2011, when the revolution started, there were ups and downs in the relationship between the pope and the president.

However, as Iskandar notes, there was never a falling-out “because both sides were keen to avoid one. Each side tried to keep its side of the deal on the tacit understanding that while the regime might not manage to fully secure all Coptic rights, it would certainly protect their most essential ones, and try to expand them too, while the Church would keep the Copts as aligned as possible behind the president,” he explained.

According to Shafik, like Sadat, Mubarak’s worst problems came with the mobilisation, “now a lot more frequent”, of Copts abroad. While Mubarak would avoid all forms of confrontation with the head of the Church, the security bodies, especially in Upper Egypt where there had been a spread of radical Islamist ideas, seemed to tolerate some clashes every now and then to “remind” the Church that it needed the state to protect it.

The deadly attack on the Two Saints Church in Alexandria during New Year’s Eve in the last hours of 2010, Ibrahim said, was a turning point. “It was a moment of a total show of contempt,” Iskandar said. It was also one of the reasons that many Copts secretly sympathised with the 25 January Revolution even though they were afraid of the role the Islamists had played in it.

According to Al-Khawaga, the January Revolution did not go very far in accommodating Coptic grievances. The coalition of the leaders of the revolution that was assembled after the ouster of Mubarak in February 2011 did not agree on the representation of a member from the Maspero Coalition, a Coptic association. But this did not send the Copts, at least the younger generation, behind the walls of the Church where they used to retreat even when they expressed their dismay, she said.

However, in the wake of the Maspero demonstrations in Cairo in October 2011 that left over 30 Coptic demonstrators dead in clashes with the law-enforcement agencies, the vast majority of Copts seemed to ponder the wisdom of any confrontation with the state.

When the time came for Pope Tawadros to take over in November 2012, Shafik said, it was already the beginning of the run-up to the 30 June demonstrations that ended the rule of former president Mohamed Morsi, who came from the ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood.

“Democratic or not, it was very unlikely for the Church and the majority of Copts to accommodate Muslim Brotherhood rule, and it was expected for the Church to be fully behind the 30 June demonstrations,” Shafik said. “It was not just about the choices of Pope Tawadros; it was in the nature of things,” he added.

According to Ibrahim, the Copts “knowingly” accepted the need to pay a “hefty bill” for their role in the 30 June Revolution. They had wanted to take things back to the old parameters where they sided with the state and were protected by the state.

“The Church had already been in the hands of the state, though not so willingly,” Al-Khawaga argued. This time round, Shafik said, it seemed more appealing.

Under Mubarak, he said, Pope Shenouda saw the first-ever inclusion of Coptic Christmas in the calendar of official holidays in Egypt. Under President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, he added, Pope Tawadros saw the beginning of an annual tradition of a visit from the president to the Coptic Cathedral in Cairo for Christmas Mass, the construction of the Nativity Church in the New Administrative Capital, a very vocal discourse at the top level of the executive about the rights of the Copts, and an easing on some of the restrictions related to the construction of churches.

“In return, however, unlike his two predecessors, Pope Tawadros was very cautious about bringing up Coptic grievances behind closed doors, and certainly very strict about not bringing them up in public,” Shafik said. This, he argued, was not always to the liking of the majority of Copts. “People were upset when the pope would not meet with or speak up for the case of a Coptic woman who was violently assaulted by radicals in a village in Upper Egypt,” he said.

The pope did not think it wise to throw oil on the fire, and he told his interlocutors that the head of the executive had gone the extra mile to accommodate Coptic rights, Shafik explained.

“He personally called on Coptic churches in the US to ask their followers to refrain from bringing up these issues during presidential visits to the US,” Shafik said.


PARALLEL DOCTRINES: According to Shafik, while “the particular relationship” between the current president and the current patriarch is “exceptional”, it is for the most part in line with the otherwise established idea of “power-sharing”.

“This has been particularly purposeful for all patriarchs in their management of internal Church affairs,” he said.

The state ordered a limited media coverage of the controversial 2019 killing of a Coptic priest at the hands of two other clergies and left it to the management of the judiciary — to the liking of Pope Tawadros. Nasser similarly did not interfere when Pope Kyrollos decided to dissolve the Milli Council after it had publicly criticised him.

Sadat, for his part, watched as Pope Shenouda ordained priests to enlarge his support against those surrounding Father Matta Al-Meskine (Matthew of the Poor), a prominent theologian who was critical of the enlarged economic role of churches and monasteries, saying it was inconsistent with the basis of monasticism.

According to Al-Khawaga, it was Sadat who tried to push the line with Pope Shenouda when he received an agreement from Matta Al-Meskine to allow new Israeli methods of agriculture to be tried out at the Wadi Al-Natroun Monastery that Al-Meskine was then heading.

However, she added that for the most part the state generally refrains from getting too involved in Christian matters, including the debates now going on between the Church and secular Christians over personal-status issues, primarily the right to divorce.

“This has not been to the benefit of ideas of common citizenship, with many Copts perceiving themselves mostly as subjects of the Church rather than as Egyptians of a Christian faith,” Iskandar argued. This, he said, was not helpful to the question of citizenship, traced with few successes across the 20th and well into the 21st century in Egypt. “The Copts tend to expect the Church or the state to give them their rights,” Iskandar added.

During his years in politics after he went to university in the 1970s, Iskandar said he had never presented himself as a Christian. His path in politics was guided by his political convictions as an Egyptian. This, he said, was partially due to his own upbringing and due to the space the Church had tolerated for Copts in politics under Pope Kyrollos and during the first years of Pope Shenouda.

Today, he said, “it is more an issue of the political space” rather than what the Church condones.

For the time being, Ibrahim argued, it is rights rather than politics that are on the minds of many Copts, including in the secular camp. The vast majority of Copts think that they have more rights today, he said, something they ascribe both to the wisdom of the pope and the actions of the president.

According to Marianne, a banker in her early 30s, it is not impossible for her to believe in “parallel doctrines” at the same time. “I am a proud Christian… And I am at the same time a proud Egyptian,” she said. “For me, the Church is not just a spiritual place. It is more than this because I don’t just go there to pray and serve, but I also discuss things that I think about things there, including everyday developments and my own views on life and politics,” she added.

Still, Marianne is not willing to fully bow to the word of the priests of her Heliopolis church, in east of Cairo, on things that do not relate to her faith, including political participation. She was just graduating when Pope Tawadros came to head the Coptic Church. She was not sure what to think at that time, not just because she grieved over the death of Pope Shenouda, but also because it was a moment of transition on her intellectual path, where she was asking serious question about her status as “an equal citizen of this country.”

“This is not about me personally or about my surroundings. I don’t recall ever suffering a grievance myself. But it is due to my socio-economic setting and my social milieu. The question is about every single Christian in this country,” she said.

“Things have improved on some fronts, but I think the road is still long,” she said. The Church, the state, and society have each a role to play to bring about equal duties and equal privileges.

For now, however, she sees “the worth of the commemorative coins. These are important because for most Christians, whether or not they agree with the Church on everything, the Church and the pope mean a lot,” she said.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 March, 2021 edition ofAl-Ahram Weekly