The Priest and the Sheikh: Coptic Challenges in Contemporary Egypt

Vivian Ibrahim*

During Egypt’s 18 day uprising in early 2011 that saw the toppling of Hosni Mubarak through a wave of popular protests, regular pictures were beamed across the world of Muslim and Copt side by side in Tahrir Square. During Friday prayers on 4 February 2011, Copts—brandishing their tattooed wrists with a cross—protected their Muslim brethren from attack. Two days later, Muslim crowds encircled Coptic Sunday Mass in the square ensuring safety. These images whilst wonderful are not reflective however of underlying religious discrimination against non-Muslim communities in Egypt today. Instead, these images serve to reinforce a series of myths that have long found currency in Egypt and the Arab World.

First, that at times of political upheaval, Muslims and Copts renounce any differences for the benefit of their beloved Egypt. The age-old slogan “religion is for God and the Nation is for all” is repeated. National unity becomes the key banner with images of the Sheikh and Priest holding hands and the Cross and Crescent flag flown between them. This rosy picture and pertinent symbol finds its roots in Egypt’s 1919 revolution and the fight for independence against the British.

The second myth is that the Copts are one homogenous community headed by the Coptic Pope who acts not only as the spiritual leader of the community, but also the political guide. Discussions of ‘the Copts’ and their stance to the 2011 uprising, or any other event for that matter, is not fractured by class, interests or ideology like other groups. Instead, there is an inherent assumption in most analysis and imagery that Copts act in a unified and consistent manner.

“The life of the Square” (Hayat al-Midan) that was lived in those 18 days—an alleged Egyptian utopia—while perhaps genuine for a small minority of protestors, is not a reflection of the life of Copts in Egypt today or indeed at anytime in the recent past. Instead, the photo opportunity of the Sheikh and the Priest, which is beautiful, is not a reflection of long-term deep socio-political unrest that has plagued Egypt’s Muslim-Christian relations and more importantly the development of the Coptic community in contemporary Egypt.

Minorities and Majorities

The Copts are Egypt’s Orthodox Christian community, and their numbers are a politically contentious issue. Estimates range between 6-7 per cent, according to Egyptian government statistics, and20-25 per cent, according to unofficial Coptic estimates. Despite constraints in accessing official census records, most analysts and commentators place the number of Copts at between 10-15 per cent of Egypt’s 82 million person population. Regardless of whether Copts constitute a quarter or ten per cent of the population, they are—at least numerically—a minority to Egypt’s majority Muslim population. In official discourse the word ‘minority’ or Aqaliyyais actively avoided by both the Church and the state. The connotation is that by being a minority, Copts are somehow ‘less Egyptian’ or should be protected- thus in theory being less capable of being a citizen.

Under International Human Rights Law, the aim of minority rights is to ensure that groups in a 'minority' situation have equality with the dominant group, in terms of the rights to non-discriminatory practices and freedom of religion- thus being full and equal citizens.

The reality in Egypt however is more complex. While the vast majority of Egypt, regardless of religious affiliation, continues to suffer economic and social hardships as well as politic repression, Copts are privy to additional constraints in government jobs as well as discriminatory practices. For instance, incurring difficulties in obtaining building permits for churches. Until recently, all church permits had to be signed by the President. While restrictions have eased, everything from repair-work to extensions on church property must have official sanction. This is in stark contrast to the sheer numbers of Mosques—whether official sanctioned or not—that exist throughout Egypt.

Official State-Church Relations: A photo opportunity?

Official State-Church relations have also been strained. Most commentators point to how the policies of President Anwar el-Sadat (1970-1981) exacerbated sectarianism. Changing the Egyptian constitution from Shariah being a principle reference to being the principle reference, Sadat also reversed his predecessors’ policy by forging a closer alliance with Islamists and releasing those imprisoned. Unlike the close relationship between President Nasser (1954-1970) and Pope Kyrillos VI (1959-1971), Sadat and the late Pope Shenouda (1971-2012) were at loggerheads. Kyrillos had been a solitary monk and was a deeply spiritual man, Shenouda in contrast was highly educated and had worked with urban Coptic youths, establishing the El-Keraza newspaper, in his time as a Bishop. Middle East commentator and former editor in chief of the Al-Ahram  newspaper, Muhammad Hassanien Heikal, has described Shenouda as a ‘Militant Monk” when referring to the relationship with Sadat. Sectarianism reared its head early in both Sadat and Shenouda’s reign, for instance the burning of a church in Khanka in Northern Egypt in 1972. This resulted in strained relations which continued throughout the 1970s and culminated in 1981 when Shenouda was placed under ‘house arrest’ in a monastery by Sadat. The Coptic Pope remained there for four years, well into the reign of Mubarak (1981-2011), leading some commentators to remark that the new President was setting the boundaries of acceptable behaviour.

Under former President Mubarak, relations with the Pope were largely cordial. There were certainly strains, yet in large part both parties kept up the façade. Frequent photo opportunities showed them side-by-side—often with Shaykh Al-Azhar—to promote an image of national unity. Despite this however, discriminatory practices and outbreaks of violence—often sectarian in nature—continued. On 1st January 2011, just two and half weeks before the Egyptian uprising, a bombing of al-Qidasayeen Church in Alexandria took place killing 23 Copts. State security services had failed to protect the church despite being on high alert, this would be noted by some of the youth activists in Tahrir square just weeks later as one of the key ‘triggers’ to the revolutionary uprising.

Post 25th January 2011

Pope Shenouda played a cautious role during the Egyptian uprising in 2011, calling on the Coptic community to refrain from participation. While some heeded the calls, others took part. This should be noted since the Coptic ‘community’ is not exceptional- like the rest of the Egyptian population, participation and solidarity in the uprising was contingent on a number of factors, not least class and ideological belief. Pope Shenouda, unsurprisingly stood by the existing power structures in Egypt, his actions were consistent with an elderly statesman aware of potential political consequences depending on the outcome. This stance has led however to wide-spread criticism from Coptic youths who have long viewed Shenouda as reactionary and bulwark to change.

Post February 2011, frequent sectarian attacks have occurred including a burning of a church in Sol (March 2011) and the attack of a church in Imbaba resulting in fifteen deaths in May 2011. As a result, some Copts have sought to directly demonstrate grievances rather than seek the intervention of the church and Shenouda. In October 2011, Coptic protests broke out in front of the State television building in Maspiro, Cairo after a church had been attacked in Upper Egypt. State television broadcasts were made during the Maspiro demonstrations calling upon Muslim Egyptians to safeguard the army which was being violently attacked by Copts. This false broadcasting, resulted in the violent killing of 28 Copts outside the television building, including Mina Daniel, a Coptic activist and considered a ‘youth of the revolution’ in Tahrir earlier that year. While protests have been frequent post-revolution, the events of Maspiro are significant as the highlight how not only the Church institutions have failed to safeguard communal interests but also how the state—and particularly the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF)—have manipulated sectarian conflict to advance their position as ‘protector of the nation and its cohesiveness’.

The massacre at Maspiro had multiple consequences and led to deep scars in the Coptic community. First on an inter-communal level, this was a public assault on the Copts as a religious group protesting against on going sectarianism. The massacre should therefore be read not only as an attack by the very authorities that claimed to serve to ‘protect the nation’, but also religiously endorsed by the largely Muslim institution of the army. This has served to reinforce the idea, at least in pro-revolutionary leftist movements, that the army and the Muslim Brotherhood (as well as perhaps other Islamist groups) are bedfellows.

The second scar by the events of Maspiro was intra-communal in nature. Pope Shenouda had appeared as exceedingly weak in maintaining the rights—religious or political—of his community. Indeed this was further showcased at Christmas Mass, less than three months later on 6th January 2012. The late pope blessed SCAF, who were in attendance, as the ‘protector to the Copts’. This blessing, led to fierce criticisms, especially Coptic youths who had participated in the uprising. They claimed that Shenouda had abandoned the welfare of the community and that his words were inappropriate- these youths have increasingly challenged the scope and the authority of the patriarch. Yet contextualising this is also important, for the vast majority of practicing Copts, the Pope still maintains the highest degree of authority and supporting the political structures—be it SCAF or the Presidency—appears to be the safest way of ensuring communal survival.

The Coptic Diaspora

Since former President Mubarak has stepped down, some commentators have claimed that tens of thousands of Copts have emigrated from Egypt. The largest Coptic diaspora communities are in the US, Australia and Western Europe.  Large migration waves took place after the fall of the monarchy and with Nasser’s nationalisation policies, during Sadat and the increase in inter-communal violence and also under Mubarak with the rise of Islamism and discriminatory policies. While it is impossible to verify figures, the Coptic diaspora has long been a contentious arm of the wider Egyptian Coptic community. Under Sadat, the Coptic diaspora took out several adverts in newspapers concerning persecution and discrimination. Sadat was reportedly furious at the negative publicity, particularly as he was on the verge of signing the Camp David Agreement. While Pope Shenouda distanced himself from the adverts, he regularly took trips to the US, opening up new bishoprics and churches. Shenouda was careful, particularly in the Mubarak era, to distance himself from the activities of Copts abroad. He frequently made statements to the effect of ‘what happens in Egypt should stay in Egypt’ while simultaneously raising funds from diasporic groups.

Coptic diaspora groups have been vocal and critical of discriminatory policies in Egypt. In more recent years, a religious revivalism has led to strong Coptic communities emerging in the US. These groups champion themselves as the saviour of Copts since they are protected by alleged freedom of speech. In September 2012, the trailer to a video, “The Innocence of Muslims”, purportedly explaining the life of the Prophet Muhammad as a paedophile and womaniser, was released on Youtube. This has lead to widespread protests in Muslim majority countries and it is believed that the producer and director was an American Copt, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula. This has led to his arrest warrant being issued in Egypt. Actions like the production of such videos should be viewed as harmful to Coptic causes in Egypt as reprisals are likely.

A new Pope and challenges

Final selection of the new Pope, to replace Shenouda who died earlier this year, is due to take place in November/December. At the forefront of the challenges faced, is definition of the role of the patriarch in post-revolutionary Egypt and vis-à-vis the Coptic community. Will the Coptic Pope be a political representative of the community or keep to mainly spiritual affairs? In the case of the former, the pope will need to negotiate a delicate line with the new President Muhammad Morsi, his political party (the Muslim Brotherhood), and the Supreme Council for Armed Forces (SCAF).

Some of the practical challenges that are faced include the question of the status of Shariah Law in the constitution. While present as a main tenet of the constitution since 1971, it has never been officially implemented. The test now, not only for the Pope, but different sectors of Egyptian society, is the extent to which Shariah will be implemented and will affect the rights of non-Muslims in worship, democratic participation in the state, and day-to-day living.

Similarly, the new pope faces strong challenges within the Coptic community, particularly focusing on his role. He will need to take decisive measures in order to lead spiritually at a time of factionalism. Appealing to youth groups who played a role in the events of 25th January, as well as addressing long needed urgent reform such as the church’s position towards divorce, which may in turn help create a more cohesive communal and religious entity, particularly in the face of a changing political landscape. 

*Croft Assistant Professor of History and International Studies at the University of Mississippi and the author of The Copts of Egypt: Challenges of Modernisation and Identity, (IB Tauris, 2010)




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