The State of Egypt’s Coptic Church
Published Thursday, March 28, 2013
A year after the death last March of Pope Shenouda III, the 117th patriarch of the Egyptian Coptic church, Egypt’s Copts face the challenge of adapting to the new reality that has been taking shape since the January 25 revolution.
The rise of Islamist political movements, the growing political instability in the country, and deteriorating economic conditions have impacted not only the church’s relationship with the state, but also the Coptic community’s internal dynamics.
In a 2008 study by researcher Mai Mugeeb, she examined the different stages of the Coptic church’s relationship with the Egyptian state, ranging from 1856 when a “historic understanding” was brokered, to a period of reciprocal pressure in the 1970s.
Developments in the years leading up to the 2011 revolution did not present any drastic changes in the Copts’ situation, other than the fallout from the bombing of the All Saints Church on New Year’s Eve 2011.
Since then, the church-state relationship has become “confused,” according to Yousri al-Izbawi, a researcher at al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. “It has not yet settled. There is still room for push and pull.”
The church knows that the state has not yet stabilized, Izbawi explained, yet the country’s new rulers want to retain the old regime’s practice of confining the state’s relationship with the Copts to the pope. Ultimately, the church “is careful to keep channels open on all sides. It will always be in need of the regime to obtain certain gains,” he said.
Kamal Zakher, coordinator of the secular current in the Orthodox church, said its ties with the state have worsened. In his view, the state has abandoned its impartiality, citing its attitude to recent events in Libya, where an Egyptian church was attacked after Copts torched a Libyan flag in Cairo. The flag-burning followed the death of one of 55 Egyptian Christians who were detained by Libyan authorities after being suspected of proselytizing.
“The pope does not need means of exerting pressure,” Zakher said. “The church is not a political player. It was forced to be in the past because the Copts were reduced to the church. But now it is not inclined to play that role.”
Yet differences in Pope Shenouda III and his successor Pope Tawadros II’s personalities are also a factor. Shenouda’s many skills led the majority of Copts see him as a safety-valve.
The church is aware that while in the past there was only one powerful force it had to deal with – Hosni Mubarak’s regime – there are now three: political Islam, the armed forces, and the revolutionary youth. It is wary of all of them, fearing the army’s power, the potential of the youth to bring social discord into the church, and the prospect of political Islam turning a blind eye to factors that could harm the Copts.
The Church and Political Islam
Although the church’s relationship with the Salafi currents has always been tense, ties with the Muslim Brotherhood were neutral in the months that followed the revolution. This began changing as Christians largely sided with the secular current opposed to President Mohamed Mursi’s rule. Fawzi maintained that increased Coptic integration poses a challenge to the Islamists.
Council of Egyptian Churches
A striking development under Pope Tawadros II has been the successful establishment of the Egyptian Council of Churches bringing together Egypt’s five churches.
The Council, which prior to the revolution had been a dream, was set up in February, and was seen by many observers as one of the churches’ answers to the Islamist rise.
Even more significant was Tawadros’ attendance of the investiture of Egypt’s new Catholic patriarch, Bishop Ibrahim Ishaq. This was unprecedented given the ancient schism between the two churches. Tawadros’ speech emphasized mutual love and heralded a new period of rapprochement.
The Egyptian revolution saw Coptic youth emerge from the churches and take part in protests. Previously, Coptic youth had been accused of apathy and only protesting issues of concern to the church.
The new Coptic youth activism now extends to organizing protests in defiance of church policy. After the Maspero crackdown, young people in Cairo’s main cathedral chanted slogans against the military in Pope Shenouda’s presence. Protest banners were also raised against some of the bishops nominated as candidates to succeed him.
Emigration rates have long been considered a good gauge of the Copts’ condition in Egypt, and they appear to have risen after the revolution. A report in al-Yom al-Sabe newspaper claimed that in the past 14 months, some 83,000 Copts emigrated to Georgia alone, where there is an Orthodox majority.
Emigration trends in the roughly three-million Coptic community were also considered in Mugeeb’s study. She found that the principal reason people gave for emigrating was difficult economic conditions. Suffering from religious discrimination was at the bottom of the list.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.