In the shadow of revolution
Egypt's Coptic Christians are celebrating Easter this year amidst fears of the rise of the Islamists and sadness at the loss of the late Pope Shenouda III, writes Sameh Fawzi
Click to view caption|
From top: Egypt's Copts celebrating Easter in a church in Cairo; the funeral of Pope Shenouda III
Michael Shalabi, owner of a fish-and-chip shop in the iconic British seaside resort of Brighton, seems to be the very model of an Egyptian Coptic expatriate who has no fears about the future. The walls of Shalabi's shop are decorated with photographs of the late Coptic Pope Shenouda III, and any Egyptian Muslim friends have come by to express their condolences.
"I felt that my own father had passed away when Shenouda died," Shalabi says. "But when I saw the great expressions of national unity at the Pope's funeral, all my fears for the future of Egypt evaporated. This great man united Egyptians in his death as much as he did in his life."
While millions of Egyptians took to the streets last year to oust former president Hosni Mubarak and his cronies from power in the 2011 January Revolution, as many millions if not more came out onto the streets to mourn the late Pope Shenouda.
However, Shalabi's comparative lack of concern may not be shared by other members of the Coptic community, whether in Egypt or abroad. Another Coptic expatriate, who asked to remain anonymous, said that he had moved to the United Kingdom partly because of fears about the future of Egypt's Coptic Christians under Islamist rule.
In addition to fears of being treated as "second class citizens" under Islamist rule, present among many Copts, this man said that he feared that competition among the Islamists themselves in the upcoming presidential elections could result in violence. If that happened, he said, Egypt's Copts could pay a disproportionate price.
Such contrasting positions are to be found not only in the Coptic community inside and outside Egypt, but also among segments of the wider Egyptian society. However, as a religious minority group, the Copts may have special fears about the future, coming at least in part from decades of unresolved problems. These have included restrictions on building and repairing churches, under-representation in political and professional organisations, the lack of a fair share of key positions in the state apparatus, and perceptions that there has been a decrease in religious tolerance in Egypt.
Now the Copts have the additional worry that these problems may get worse under an Islamist government, whether this is dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood or by the Salafist groups.
The Islamists have long been portrayed by many Copts as religious fanatics, particularly by those who feel that they were targeted by the successive waves of Islamic radicalism that occurred in the 1980s and 1990s. Islamist discourse on the Copts in particular and non-Muslims in general sometimes also contains edicts stripping non-Muslims of full citizenship rights.
Nahla is one young Egyptian Copt who believes that the Islamists intend to discriminate against the Copts. "If the Islamists could deport us from Egypt, they would do so," she said. While there may be some fanatical Islamists who air such extreme opinions, this idea is far from being the official position of the Islamist groups, and there are many Islamist groups and thinkers who argue for a version of inter-faith relations based on equity and justice.
In this regard, generalised fears of those sometimes described as Islamists only increases fears and hinders the flow of normal interactions among Egyptians who have coexisted despite their religious differences for millennia.
Nevertheless, the recent death of Pope Shenouda may have increased fears of future discrimination among the Copts. Seham is a public employee who lives in a Cairo suburb among majority Muslim neighbours. She headed to the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo after she learned of the death of Pope Shenouda, feeling that "I had lost a father who used to defend my rights." Seham like thousands of others waited in the long queue of Coptic mourners to get a glimpse of the body of Pope Shenouda seated on St Mark's throne.
For many Copts, the late pope, with his charismatic personality and clear presence in the public sphere, was a defender of the Copts against any prejudices they might have to endure. However, this situation was hardly ideal, since it raises the question of the neutrality of the state vis-³-vis the country's different religious communities and places a heavy emphasis on the Coptic Church as the de facto defender of Egypt's Copts. This is at least questionable in a modern, notionally secular state, and it may indicate an inability by state agencies to represent and meet the expectations of all citizens.
When the state fails to deliver, other organisations, sometimes religious, are tempted to take over the state's role, benefiting from the loyalty that should belong to the state. Under the former Mubarak regime, the state failed satisfactorily to address many people's socio-economic needs, and as a result many resorted to other organisations, such as religious groups, for financial support, medical care, and rapid help in a crisis.
Some Muslims joined Islamist groups as a result of the inadequacy of the state apparatus, while many Copts were drawn ever closer to the Coptic Church. The state's declining role in the provision of social services led all the country's religious organisations, including the Coptic Church, to strengthen their presence in the public and private spheres.
Now that Pope Shenouda is no longer present to lead the Church, this picture is unlikely to change since the Coptic Church, like the various Islamist organisations, is making up for the lack of socio-economic services in society. If the state is able to restore its developmental and service-providing role, then it seems likely that the Church and other religious organisations will also return to a more restricted role in Egyptians' public and private lives.
Moreover, the role of the Church, and of Shenouda's role within it, was hardly uncontested during the Mubarak years by Coptic intellectuals and activists, many of whom claimed that Shenouda's leadership of the Church had worked to prevent them from participating effectively in public life and had even suffocated the Coptic political class.
Milad Hanna, a prominent leftist intellectual, has been a critic of Pope Shenouda over recent years, and other Coptic intellectuals like Gamal Asaad have followed the same path. The late Pope tended to overshadow other Coptic figures because of his charisma and popularity, leading many to complain that the state didn't treat Coptic intellectuals as interlocutors, preferring to deal with the Church hierarchy alone.
This was exacerbated by the perception among many Egyptians, Muslim and Christian alike, that Shenouda was a wise man able to discourage sectarian tensions. As a result, he had a strong following even in the Muslim community, with one bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church saying that many Muslims had expressed their admiration and respect for Pope Shenouda, some even printing thousands of copies of his photograph and publicly distributing them. The Pope had helped all Egyptians, and not just Christians, to overcome some difficult times in a calm and effective manner, he said.
Today, there is a widespread hope in society that the next Coptic pope will follow his predecessor's path. Metropolitan Bakhomios, or locum tenens, sometimes called the acting patriarch of the Church, has said that he is keen to follow in the path blazed by Shenouda during the transitional period after the death of the former pope. Bakhamios's public statements and official visits to the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the prime minister, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar and the Grand Mufti of the republic have revealed his understanding of his role as being modeled on that set out by Shenouda.
"He thinks carefully before acting, and he relies upon teamwork rather than individual choices," one senior bishop said. The interim period overseen by Metropolitan Bakhomios may last a few months or a few years, particularly if there is controversy over the election of a new pope. This period will also see a certain amount of upheaval attendant on the election of the new president, with fears of a confrontation between the SCAF and the Muslim Brotherhood possibly being in the offing.
Bishop Moussa, responsible for youth in the Coptic Church and believed to be a candidate for the papacy, is supported by a large number of bishops in the Church's synod. He has said that Copts, like other citizens, should feel free to cast their votes however they may choose in the forthcoming presidential elections without any interference from the Church, something believed to be essential in keeping the Coptic community distant from the competition among political forces.
Nevertheless, some commentators believe that the Church may signal its support for one of the candidates, even if it does not do so publicly. It is unlikely to favour candidates with an Islamist background, particularly after the Copts were allegedly marginalised by the Islamist-dominated committee set up to draft the country's new constitution, something that led to their withdrawal from the committee, along with representatives of Al-Azhar.
Yet, regardless of who is the next president of Egypt, the new pope will likely follow in the footsteps of Pope Shenouda by working to help sustain national unity, peace-building and the Palestinian cause. Additionally, the acting patriarch Metropolitan Bakhomios and the new pope will have to face up to various inherited problems in the Church's relationship with the state, especially regarding the building and repair of churches and the Coptic personal status laws. However, these purely Coptic issues may well be temporarily overshadowed by the troubled political situation nationwide.
At root, the situation of Egypt's Copts is not so very different from that of any other citizens who want to be fully-fledged members of the national community. The law should be applied equally, and legal problems should be addressed. The building of places of worship and the relationship between the religions should be strictly governed by a single code of law that guarantees equality. Moreover, the political system should represent all segments of society, and, that being so, the Copts should have a reasonable presence in elected institutions according to their individual merits and contributions.
All this cannot be achieved in the absence of a tolerant cultural setting, meaning that any inherited slights or wounds should now be made good on. This is particularly important since religious tolerance has been decreasing in Egypt, and in order to restore it a campaign should be instigated to look into media content or school curricula that directly or indirectly encourage misunderstandings.
In this regard, responsibility also lies on the shoulders of the religious majority in creating a tolerant atmosphere and healthy inter-faith relationships. In Egypt, the religious mainstream supports co-existence and refuses any calls for discrimination. However, if the present negative atmosphere continues, there are fears that even some formerly moderate Egyptians may become intolerant, meaning that today the majority should work to provide spaces for inter-faith interactions and halt the recall of religious edicts from the mediaeval period that may cause some Muslims to believe that they are superior to non-Muslims and that Christian participation in politics at the national and local levels should be curbed. Naturally, this is not a one-way process: Christians, too, should respond positively, in order to leave behind unjustified fears.
The management of religious diversity should not be like a football game, in which competing teams respect each other, or are expected to respect each other, while both competing to gain the lead. This kind of zero-sum-game mentality should be rejected and a more healthy way of relating encouraged. It is not enough to say that the Christian community in Egypt should be respected, or to declare that all Egyptians share the same racial, linguistic and cultural background.
All this is good, of course, but there is also a need to promote the idea that Egypt's cultural heritage has been accumulated over many centuries of interactions between Muslims and Christians. In particular, the importing of cultural norms and practices from Gulf countries that either do not have, or do not value, cultural and religious diversity in the way Egyptians do is a danger to the unique Egyptian model of religious coexistence and homogenous culture.
Finally, Egypt's present problems, including those relating to its religious mix, should be addressed in a transparent manner through public institutions. This means that the society should develop public policies to solve any problems related to religious diversity, on an agreed-upon legal framework for building and repairing churches, for example, or on achieving the better political representation of Christians and eliminating tensions between people of different religious affiliations.
Such policies can help to promote the accumulation of social capital between the different religious communities, preventing the conflicts that may take place between Muslims and Christians. All these things require public policies in the form of laws, bylaws, and ministerial decrees, these encouraging the spread of rational reflection, dialogue, and the possibility of learning from mistakes.
Easter this year will be different for many Copts, particularly in the absence of Pope Shenouda. However, tears and condolences may not be enough to calm a sometimes frightened people or tackle pre-existing problems. Let us admit that all Egyptians are worried about the future, even if this sense of anxiety may be higher among Christians, a numerical minority living among an overwhelmingly Muslim majority. Yet, these fears cannot be dealt with in isolation: they have to be managed through a democratic political system based on equality, justice and freedom.
Egypt's Copts are as eager for equality and justice as their Muslim fellows. This can be a good start for building a new system that accommodates all and excludes none. And this not just a dream: in Tahrir Square Egyptians united under one banner reading the "people want to pull down the regime." Now they face the task of erecting a new regime. The future will show whether they are as good at building as they were at destroying. Whatever the case may be, the future of Egypt's Copts is insolubly linked to the future of Egypt as a whole.