Al-Ahram Weekly Online   1 - 7 March 2007
Issue No. 834
Egypt
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Coptic Church rumbles on

More tension is surfacing within the world's oldest Orthodox institution. Gihan Shahine reports

Pope Shenouda III

Rifts within the world's oldest Coptic institution have again surfaced after the unexpected exclusion of Anba Morqos from his post as a church spokesman and the holy Synod's decision to expel George Habib Bebawi, dean of the Institute of Theological Studies at the University of Indiana in the US, for allegedly spreading what has been described as distorted theological views. And there have been further accusations accusing Pope Shenouda III, the patriarch of the Orthodox Church, of atheism.

No official reason was given as to why Anba Morqos was excluded, but there were reports of a policy conflict within the church over the abolishment of a term in the Egyptian constitution which considers Islamic Sharia the only source of legislation in Egypt. Whereas Anba Morqos recently called for the removal of the term on Sharia, the pope last week warned Copts not to provoke Muslim sentiments or create sensitivities.

Anba Morqos's earlier statement had indeed prompted heated debate among Muslim and Coptic circles. Mustafa El-Feki, head of the Foreign Affairs Committee in parliament, insisted that Morqos's statement did not reflect the views of many distinguished parliamentary figures, including MPs Mounir Fakhri Abdel-Nour and Georgette Qillini.

Shenouda has stepped into the fray calling upon Copts not to interfere in legislative reforms and to leave the matter in the hands of those in charge. This sparked even more outcry, especially among the Coptic elite who insist the church should not get mired in politics and focus more on its spiritual role.

Coptic thinker Milad Hanna said, "neither Anba Morqos nor the pope are the spokesmen of Copts who have varied views and should express them individually.

"No one should speak in our names," he snapped.

Anba Morqos told the daily independent Nahdet Masr that he did not mean to speak in the name of the church when he called for the removal of the Sharia term. He said he was assigned the role of a spokesman during a temporary, turbulent period when Coptic dissident Max Michel announced himself the archbishop of a new church, the True Orthodox Christian Church. "The media, however, continued to quote me as the church spokesman," Morqos said.

Coptic human rights activist Naguib Gabriel, however, is not convinced. He regrets the "recent, sad incidents" [involving Max Michael, Anba Kirolos, Anba Morqos and Bebawi], saying they were "symptomatic of confusion within the church management".

Gabriel, who has been spearheading a campaign to abolish the term Sharia from the constitution, expressed disappointment with the pope's decision to expel Anba Morqos, albeit speculating that the pope "is the keenest on Coptic interests and as such would probably have a more prudent and long-term vision."

Not that Gabriel listens to what Pope Shenouda says anyway. "He [the pope] does not represent the viewpoint of all Copts," Gabriel insisted. Instead, Gabriel suggested some reforms to the church's "centralised management which concentrates all power and decisions in the hands of the pope alone.

"More coordination is needed between the leadership and the clergy," Gabriel told Al-Ahram Weekly, insisting the church should be more transparent when dealing with such issues as that of Anba Kirolos if further street protests are to be avoided.

"First [the church management] said Anba Kirolos was referred to a church tribunal, then it said he was back to his parish, and now it says investigation is well under way. Such lack of transparency on the part of the church is likely to weaken it and make it lose much of its public credibility."

Many similarly think the church did not manage its theological dispute with Bebawi correctly. "The church should have resolved such a dogmatic conflict over such specialised issues, that the public can hardly grasp, within the confines of the church and away from public limelight," Coptic thinker Rafiq Habib said. "Instead, the church focussed on giving media statements rather than engaging in a true theological debate with Bebawi, creating public confusion."

The apparent mismanagement on the part of the church has perhaps split the Coptic community in two over Bebawi's case. Whereas the church clergy supported his expulsion on the grounds it would curb the spread of what one termed distorted thoughts, many secularist Coptic thinkers slammed the church decision as returning to the era of the inquisition.

Bebawi had told the press that the Synod's decision was illegitimate since he was not invited to a debate where he could discuss his views. He told the daily independent Al-Masry Al-Yom that he did not call the pope an atheist, saying only that the pope was not a strict follower of the early fathers of the Coptic Church.

Many secularists including Coptic thinker Kamal Zakher, who recently spearheaded a call for reforms within the church management, have risen to Bebawi's defence, forming a committee in his support. Zakher argued Bebawi was not given a chance to explain his views before being expelled, and wondered why he was expelled at this particular time when his teachings have been around since the 1970s.

Zakher also lambasted a statement by Anba Bishoy, the secretary of the holy Synod and responsible for church tribunals [Bishoy is notorious for his hardline policies], that the church will track down all those following the teachings of Bebawi.

This is not the first incident of the Orthodox Church being mired in internal rifts. Pope Shenouda has reportedly been in conflict with many bishops nationwide. The disputes led to the unprecedented resignation of the bishop of Mehalla Al-Kobra and the expulsion of the bishops of Luxor and Abu Tesht. The bishop of Samalout has not attended meetings of the holy Synod for 20 years while bishop of Manfalout has lost authority over half his parish, which is now affiliated to Pope Shenouda.

Public and media hubbub over last week's news of a reported church tribunal, and perhaps ultimate expulsion, of Bishop of Nag' Hammadi Anba Kirolos has not abated, even after the church, succumbing to public pressure, allowed the bishop to return to his parish.

"Differences are not the problem but the way those differences are dealt with is," Gabriel said. "Such rifts will likely lead to weakening, and perhaps the ultimate collapse of the church. It also makes it lose much of its public credibility."

Many analysts say the recent illness of the ageing pope has, perhaps, left the door open for a new generation with different views to vie for power and authority inside the church. There were reports that some groups inside the church are trying to monopolise administrative decisions. Those urging reform within the church thus call for the regulation of church tribunals, clarifying the Denominational Council's role and a more systematic circulation of power within the clergy's higher ranks.

A more optimistic Habib, however, rules out any possibility of a church "collapse" or loss of credibility in light of the "massive public support of the church and the pope". He argued that the church had been through even worse dissent in the 1960s and 70s but had overcome it.

"The fact that these problems are gaining unprecedented media attention is, perhaps, why they might sound new," Habib said. Which is why he suggests, "the church should try to accommodate differences and conflicts to curb future rifts before it starts taking strict administrative measures against its clergy."

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