'Living through a political contradiction'
In an exclusive interview with Al-Ahram Weekly, Bishop Morcos, chair of the Coptic Church's media committee and bishop of Shobra Al-Kheima, discusses Egypt's uncertain situation with Michael Adel
Click to view caption|
Expatriate Copts demonstrate during Mursi's visit to New York, portraying a show of unity with all fellow citizens -- not just Copts
Bishop Morcos, chair of the Coptic Church's influential media committee, a member of its elections committee and bishop of Shobra Al-Kheima, told Al-Ahram Weekly in an exclusive interview that because the Muslim Brotherhood is still technically an outlawed group in Egypt the country is "living through a political contradiction" by having Brotherhood members in the highest offices of state.
The Coptic Church could not allow the establishment of a religious state in Egypt, he said, adding that it had "potent weapons" such as prayer and faith to prevent this from happening. One problem the country faces was that everyone today has become a mufti, feeling free to issue religious edicts and denounce others as apostates, he said. There was a contradiction, he added, in protecting Islam from blasphemy, when Abu Islam, who burned a copy of the Bible was "as free as a lark", indicating the existence of possible double standards.
Bishop Morcos said that the producers of the US-made film mocking the Prophet Mohamed "know nothing of Christianity and are ignorant of Christianity's compassion, tolerance and acceptance of others". Millions of expatriate Copts could not be judged by the actions of a few, he said.
What is your view of the offensive US-made film about the prophet and its aftermath?
We naturally reject any mocking of religion, and the film is evidence of ignorance of the Christian religion because Christianity teaches love, tolerance and the acceptance of others. This film should be seen as being outside the realm of the revealed religions.
However, there were expatriate Egyptian Copts involved in the making of the film.
I want to clarify that expatriate Copts do not approve of this film, and they have denounced it and criticised the actions of those who made it. We cannot reduce all the expatriate Copts to one, two or even five people. There are millions of expatriate Copts.
What was your reaction to Abu Islam's burning of the Bible?
We cannot remain silent about what has been happening to Christianity or back down about the Bible-burning incident because it was an insult to Christians and Christianity. Unfortunately, those who offend Christianity in Egypt are not prosecuted, whereas it is a different matter when the offence is against Islam. This means that there is a legal double standard. We intend to pursue legal action but not violence.
Some Copts are worried after the ascension of Islamist currents to power in Egypt. What would be your comment?
Muslims are even more worried than Copts about preserving a secular state in Egypt. While there is a religious current advocating a religious state, there is also a strong popular current seeking a civic state. We will never allow the creation of a religious state.
How is the Church dealing with these concerns?
We are reassuring Copts that Egypt will remain a civic state.
Are you worried about the Islamist current?
The Church fears nothing, and nothing that contradicts our laws can be imposed on us. We reject the notion of a religious state that would prevent us from exercising our freedom as Copts, and therefore the state should be ruled by law and not by religion. Islamic Sharia law does not grant non-Muslims their rights, and someone could interpret the Sharia in such a way that it imposes special taxes or punishments. One Salafi leader has said that Egyptian taxi drivers should not give Christian clerics rides to church because this is haram (forbidden). This is an ugly notion.
President Mohamed Mursi promised the Copts five cabinet seats, but these did not materialise.
We don't care about Copts being ministers. We want the best and most qualified people to fill these positions. The most important thing when choosing a minister is competence, not religion. On the other hand, why shouldn't a competent Copt be appointed to a key ministry?
Does the Church have a say on the appointment of Coptic officials and ministers?
Of course we do not. However, if we are asked we are ready to give our opinion.
Do you field names for such positions?
No, we don't, since we do not interfere in politics. But, as I said, if we are asked, we will naturally respond.
"Woe is Egypt" is a phrase that many Egyptians have been heard saying recently, especially Copts. What does this phrase mean?
"Woe is Egypt" is a phrase I have heard as well, and it is true that people do not feel safe or protected and there have been shortages of electricity and water. If there are people who are inciting hatred and animosity, if there are groups who are trying to stir up strife, divide the country and emphasise the differences between Muslim and Christian, then this could be the cause of people saying "Woe is Egypt".
What about some Copts choosing to emigrate?
We encourage Copts not to leave their country or trigger an exodus from Egypt. I hope conditions in Egypt never force the Copts to flee.
The public has a right to know whether the rumours of a dispute among bishops about the next incumbent of the See of St Mark are true.
There is no dispute. These are just rumours, hearsay and speculation. We sit together in the Holy Synod in love and brotherhood. The acting pope, Bishop Bakhomious, steers discussion freely, and each bishop speaks up without restriction. No one knows who the next pope will be because this will be decided through a process of elimination and the divinely inspired drawing of names. If there is a dispute, it's between at most two or three people.
What will the relationship be between the president and the next pope?
I believe President Mursi is trying to establish good relations with the Church, but the problem is the people surrounding him. I would wish that they could be more objective and not belong to a specific current. We pray that the next pope will be wise in his relations with him.
What if the president rejects the choice of the next pope?
He does not have that right, and this would never happen. The pope will be ordained whether the president approves of him or not. Church bylaws state that the name of the patriarch is sent to the presidency, and the president then issues a presidential decree for his appointment. The ratification by the state is a foregone conclusion, and we do not expect the president to object.
What happened under the rule of former president Anwar Al-Sadat could happen again.
Impossible, because there were special circumstances during Al-Sadat's time, and I do not believe that these will come together again. Today, there is greater freedom and greater media coverage, unlike in the past.
Some Copts have objected to the possible nomination of parochial bishops to succeed Pope Shenouda. What is your comment?
The Holy Synod permits these nominations according to the 1957 bylaws. The nominations committee will decide on this.
Many of us think that the new pope will face many challenges in the future because of the present political upheaval. What do you think could be the key challenges facing the next pope?
There are of course many challenges ahead. Regarding the Church, the next pope needs to continue on the path of Pope Shenouda, and in some ways he is at a disadvantage since he will come to the papal throne after a period that saw Pope Shenouda's accomplishments. Another challenge will be those who are demanding permission for a second marriage within the Church, which Pope Shenouda has banned. In terms of relations with the state authorities, Pope Shenouda's reign did not take place when the Islamists were in power, and therefore the next pope will be entering a different era and set of circumstances amid the rise of an Islamist current whose methods and approach is unknown.
One bishop has been accused of building relations with the Muslim Brotherhood and its leadership with the help of various businessmen. How do you explain this?
I don't know what you're talking about and cannot comment.
Do Coptic businessmen with financial and political influence interfere in the affairs of the Church?
It is impossible for money to influence the course of the Church. We do not allow any interference by businessmen in the affairs of the Church.
When does the Church seek their help?
The Church embraces businessmen because they need spiritual guidance, and of course they assist the Church in taking care of the poor and the sick through donations. However, they do not have any authority to take decisions on behalf of the Church. As a result, the Church is not influenced by money, but it benefits from those who have it in order to benefit the poor and the sick.
Some Copts were surprised or angered by the visit of a delegation from the Church to the headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood in Mukattam. What were the reasons behind this visit?
Acting pope Bishop Bakhomious was asked about the visit and he said that it had been scheduled one month beforehand to thank the Brotherhood for paying its respects at Pope Shenouda's funeral.
Why did the Church not visit the Brotherhood under the rule of former president Mubarak?
In all honesty, because the Brotherhood was not in power at the time. Today's political reality requires us to do this, and we cannot deny the Brotherhood's existence. We must deal with this reality.
So you believe the group is no longer outlawed?
It is still banned by law, but it is not banned politically, which creates a contradictory and confusing situation. I don't understand how matters can proceed in the light of such a contradiction.
Sheikh Said Abdel-Azim, a Salafi leader and member of the Constituent Assembly, has said that amending Article 2 of the constitution could encourage sectarian strife and he has refused to add a paragraph giving Christians the right to self-government. What are your views?
This is his point of view, though it is completely mistaken. Amending Article 2 of the constitution, which gives us the right to abide by our own laws, protects us from the interpreters of the Islamic Sharia. This is something that does not worry Al-Azhar, so why is he so concerned? We are not asking for the religion of the state to be either Islam or Christianity.
Could the Church withdraw from the Constituent Assembly?
If it does not agree to all our demands, the Church could withdraw.
Does the Church encourage Copts to participate in protests?
We encourage peaceful protests under certain conditions, and I call on the government to issue a law regulating demonstrations.
What would this law say?
It would sanction demonstrations by issuing permits that specify the time, place and goal of the protest concerned. Strikes, sit-ins, and the barricading of roads and railway tracks are absolutely unacceptable, and the state must deal firmly with such things.
During Mubarak's time the Church objected to demonstrations.
This is not true. Pope Shenouda worried about thugs infiltrating Coptic demonstrations because Coptic young people are not used to hooligans. Therefore, there were warnings against protests, but there was no ban on them. Don't forget that it was the Copts who were the first to rise up against the Mubarak regime after the events in Omraniya and the bombing of All Saints Church in Alexandria. They were also the first to say 'No' to the officials who came to the subsequent funerals.
You have asked to meet with Sheikh Mohamed Hassan and various Salafi leaders. What happened as a result?
I did not ask to meet him. He happened to be sitting next to me in the palace of the Saudi king during a visit to Saudi Arabia by an Egyptian delegation. I suggested that we meet to discuss our different points of view in order to try to overcome any differences. However, he did not respond.
What is your opinion about the phenomenon of people denouncing others as apostates?
No one has the right to call another person an apostate because everyone has a tendency to think that their ideas and beliefs are the truth and anyone who is different is an apostate. We don't want to use this word. God is the judge and man has no right to judge his fellow man.
What is the relationship like between the Church and Al-Azhar?
There is a very strong relationship. We are true friends. Al-Azhar is a model of moderate Islam, and it does not preach fanaticism, violence or extremism.
There have been efforts by some groups or individuals to curtail the role of Al-Azhar in the region.
Al-Azhar is the key reference in the world on the interpretation of the Quran, the sunna (the prophet's teachings) and the hadith (the prophet's sayings). Al-Azhar's strength lies in its power to address these issues, and we will support it and stand by it against any attempts to undermine it because we love and respect Al-Azhar.
Many Copts are said to be going to foreign embassies with applications to emigrate. What is your view?
Emigration has been taking place not only by Copts, but also by Muslims. There is no safety or security in Egypt, and the weak economy and fear of extremists are both factors leading people to want to leave. The Copts want to leave out of fear of those who may issue edicts against them, asking them to pay certain taxes or demanding that they give up certain jobs. We don't encourage Copts to emigrate, but tell them not to be afraid or abandon their homeland. This is our country, and we will live and die here.
Does the Church know the number of Copts in Egypt?
The truth is that we do. We have accurate statistics.
How many are there?
The number fluctuates from day to day because of new births, but the closest estimate we have is about 18 million inside Egypt and more than three million abroad. That brings the total to about 21 million Copts altogether.
It has been unfortunate that people have been conducting themselves so poorly on the streets and that weapons have become too accessible. How do you view these phenomena?
What is happening in Egyptian society today is the result of what happened during the revolution when police stations were attacked and prison doors were flung open, allowing the escape of prisoners, thugs and extremists. For this reason, I demand that the truth be revealed about what happened then and who was responsible and why. It is unfortunate, as you say, that so many people seem to be carrying arms.
Are there weapons in churches?
We possess the weapons of prayer, fasting and faith. We are not interested in other types of weapons.
How do churches protect themselves against attacks or armed robberies?
We oppose carrying arms on principle and believe that God will protect His House and places of worship.
Why did the Church decide to cancel its hosting of Iftar (Ramadan breaking of the fast) this year?
We were in mourning for Pope Shenouda. It has not been one year since his departure.
Was it because the Muslim Brotherhood was in power?
It had nothing to do with the Muslim Brotherhood.
However, this decision could be viewed in a negative light.
If the Salafis were invited to these meals, and if they came, they would refuse to eat the food, saying that it was forbidden them. Then what would we do? We don't want to be insulted. I'll tell you a story to confirm what I'm saying. A Salafi leader once refused to drink a can of soda offered to him by a bishop -- a strange and incomprehensible thing.
Finally, what do you want to see from the president, the government, the Copts, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis?
I ask the president not to be biased towards a specific current or to take decisions based on the orders of any single group, in order to prevent the country from sinking. The government is required to provide for the needs of all Egyptian citizens. I say to the Copts not to fear those who mistreat you. Do not fear for yourselves, for you are in the hands of God. I ask the Muslim Brotherhood to maintain good relations with the people and to fulfil its promises.
And the Salafis?
May God save us. They have strange and contradictory ideas and they incite hatred and violence.