Monday,23 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1121, 8-14 November
Monday,23 October, 2017
Issue 1121, 8-14 November

Ahram Weekly

Old issues, new pope

Samir Sobhi  examines the pressing issues that await the new pope

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Al-Ahram Weekly

In the early 20th century, Egypt had two Coptic prime ministers, Boutros Pasha Ghali and Youssef Wahba. Copts were part and parcel of the political scene, members of both the opposition and the government. There were Coptic leaders in Mustafa Kamel’s National Party and in its various successors, including the Wafd whose first leader, Saad Zaghloul, served as a minister in the cabinet of Boutros Pasha Ghali.
The Copts’ role in the 1919 Revolution is well-known. And let’s not forget that when the British sentenced seven Egyptians to death in 1923 for resisting occupation four of them — Morcos Hanna, Wassef Ghali, George Khayat and Wisa Wassef — were Copts.
Under Gamal Abdel-Nasser Copts maintained as high a political profile as they did in business. Nasser not only maintained good relations with the Church but was president during the foundation of the current patriarchate.
The situation changed under Anwar Al-Sadat as the first incidents of sectarian sedition began to unfold. But even today Egypt is still a country that honours Christianity and Christians. There are more than 1,400 churches in the country. The Coptic Church is a major institution in Egyptian life.
The selection of Pope Tawadros II following a multi-tier selection process involving 2,414 Church members is an occasion to revisit pending Coptic issues.
According to Anba Paula, Bishop of Tanta, who supervised the recent elections, the Church believes that President Mohamed Morsi will do his best to protect Copts.
One issue that causes concern to the Coptic Church is the possibility of the government auditing the assets of the Church, something that can lead to immense consternation, according to Anba Paula.
The Church’s hold on the Coptic community has been challenged in the past. In the early 20th century the government sanctioned a creation of a milli (sectarian) council. Its mundane duties and lay membership is still seen by clerics as an attempt to interfere in Church business.
The Church is also holding on to tradition concerning family laws. According to Anba Paula, divorce is only allowed in cases of proven adultery.
According to Church sources, President Morsi has instructed Vice President Mahmoud Mekki to supervise the drafting of a unified law on personal status for Christians.
Writer Wassim Al-Sisi, who has long followed the Coptic scene, says that we need reformers more than politicians at this stage. “As for President Morsi, I hope that the Copts will want him to stay in government for another term, for this will mean that he has done the right thing.”
Mohamed Ali’s son, Ibrahim, who brought Syria under Egyptian rule in the 1820s, was known for his concern for the minority rights. Here is an excerpt from a letter he penned to the governor of Jerusalem after the latter was accused of mistreating Jewish and Christian pilgrims.
“You know that in Jerusalem there are a lot of monasteries, churches and religious sites that attract large numbers of Christians and Jews every year. Members of these communities have complained to us of the crude ways and injustice inflicted upon them, as well as the taxes and excessive fees they are asked to pay, sums which you impose arbitrarily to satisfy your own whims. Such behaviour is reprehensible to proud souls and cannot be tolerated. Therefore I forbid you, and I warn you against mistreating these communities. And I ask you to allow the priests, monks and the faithful of all creeds, whether Copts or Greek or Armenian, to perform their religious duties in freedom. Do not prevent them from holding the rituals of their religion. Do not take from those who visit the religious sites any taxes and do not force their children to pay money. If you obey you will be doing yourself a favour, and if you disobey you will be courting trouble.”
The call for tolerance resonated centuries later in an article by Abdel-Masih Al-Antaki published in the Cairo-based magazine Al-Hilal on 1 June 1893. In the article, titled “Fanaticism and Tolerance,” Al-Antaki discussed the importance of tolerance for the advancement of nations.
“Fanaticism is against religion and defies reason because it is the source of all evil and the essence of disputes. May God save us from the advocates of fanaticism and keep us on the path of tolerance, which is the path to goodness and success,” Al-Antaki wrote.
The Muslim Brotherhood is said to have prepared a draft law to criminalise contempt of religion. This step, if combined with measures to ensure equality among all Egyptians, is the first step to defusing sectarian tensions in Egypt.

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