Monday,23 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1125, 6 - 12 December 2012
Monday,23 October, 2017
Issue 1125, 6 - 12 December 2012

Ahram Weekly

The boycott option

Shortly after his appointment as secretary to the Holy Synod, Bishop Raphael talks to Michael Adel about the Coptic Church’s stance towards the draft constitution and other issues

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Bishop Raphael, bishop of the Coptic diocese of Central Cairo, was appointed secretary of the Holy Synod as soon as the new Pope Tawadros II was selected. He was nominated by the members of the Holy Synod themselves, who chose him unanimously because of his popularity among bishops and the Coptic congregation. He is also highly respected and liked by the pope himself.
Born Michel Erian Hakim on 6 May 1958 near the Church of Our Lady in Shobra and studying at Al-Tawfikiya School, he received a degree in medicine and surgery from Ain Shams University in December 1982. Two years later, he received a BA from the Seminary College in Cairo. Since secondary school, Bishop Raphael has regularly gone to Baramos Monastery on spiritual retreats, and in August 1987 he went in an official capacity to the Monastery of Our Lady in Baramos.
He had wanted to join the order at the Monastery since an early age, and on 28 February 1990, he became Monk Yustus (Justus), choosing the name because it was a personal favourite. Bishop Raphael was ordained a priest on 18 May 1995, and two years later he became bishop of Central Cairo.
The present interview with Al-Ahram Weekly is the first to appear after his recent appointment.

Why did the Church withdraw from the Constituent Assembly tasked with drawing up the country’s new constitution?
We had hoped that the new constitution would champion citizenship, the rights of non-Muslims, and the right for us to follow our own laws on personal status issues, Church affairs and the choice of religious leaders. Other issues can be left to the experts: there are constitutional scholars who know the subtleties of the language being used. I am not an expert on the constitution, but we withdrew because what we wanted did not happen.

Was there pressure for the Church to return to the assembly?
It was impossible for us to return because the draft constitution is replete with religious clauses, and thus is a constitution for a religious and not a civil state. I believe it would be impossible for the Church to return because of the religious content of the draft constitution.

How do you perceive the current crisis triggered by the president’s constitutional declaration?
We do not interfere in political matters, but the Church supports the Egyptian people in rejecting the constitutional declaration and the draft constitution. The draft constitution reinforces theocratic rule, and we are thinking about boycotting the referendum on it.

What do you think of the choice of Pope Tawadros as the new patriarch of the Egyptian Church?
I thank the Lord for choosing Pope Tawadros II. He is much loved, and I love him dearly. Since the passing of Pope Shenouda, I saw in him the next pope because he has good managerial skills, is very organised, and is innovative on issues of interest to children, youth and people in general. He has always taken a keen interest in education and pastoral matters.

What was your opinion of the transition phase in the Coptic Church after the death of Pope Shenouda?
The whole world praised the Egyptian Church for how well it managed this difficult period, and Bishop Bakhomious (Pachomius) led the Church’s interim phase with impressive skill that will always be remembered. This experience also shows how Pope Tawadros will manage the Church because he is a disciple of Bishop Bakhomious: the offspring faithfully continue the journey of their fathers and perhaps even go beyond them because of their youth and stability. The new pope will of course look into how to resolve various issues, and he will investigate all the troubles of the Church. The interim pope knew that his mission was to ensure that the transitional phase was a success.
What are the main issues the pope will discuss with the Holy Synod?
He will be interested in how services are rendered in all departments, including amending the papal electoral process, Church education, the election of priests and bishops, the organisation of the monasteries and services for the poor. He will also want to discuss the relationship between the Church and society and social services such as hospitals, schools and youth clubs. There is also the issue of suspended priests, as well as the need for the Church to have a professional media team.

Are there proposals for new draft laws?
All new legislation has to pass through the Holy Synod. Legislation cannot just be a matter of ideas or unilateral decisions. Committees must be formed to investigate each issue.

The first thing the pope said was for the Church to be better organised. How can this come about?
It will require working groups and joint action. Every member of the Holy Synod must have a role, as must the clergy. Lay members can also lend their expertise.

Could the Church under Pope Tawadros become a political institution?
The Church is primarily a spiritual institution that plays a social and cultural role. I doubt — in fact I am sure — that the Church will become politically active.

Are there situations in which the Church must intervene?
Yes, because the Church is part of the homeland, and therefore it is the duty of the Church to give its opinion and guide its congregation, while at the same time not forcing anything on anyone. The Church gives guidance and direction.

Is there conflict within the Church?
The Church is a spiritual institution, and there is no conflict within it because all members of the Church are working through God and His guidance.

After the selection of Pope Tawadros, is there a possibility of amending Law 57 regarding papal elections?
As soon as Pope Tawadros became patriarch he looked into the issue, and amendments are being made to Law 57 to allow more voters to cast their ballots. I don’t understand why Orthodox clergy in Sudan, France and elsewhere are not allowed to vote even if they are not Egyptian nationals. We must keep the expatriates in mind and resolve the problem of the second and third generations and their right to participate in Church affairs. After putting the Church’s house in order, the pope will look into other issues with guidance from God, and we will support him and stand by him in these difficult times for the country in terms of its political and economic stability.

Do you believe the January Revolution negatively influenced society, or do you view it in a solely positive light?
The 25 January Revolution was a momentous event, and the culture of the Revolution has now become part of the psychology of Egyptian youth, including the Copts. People are rising up against everything and anything: respect for the elderly has collapsed and people are showing a tendency to object to anything even if that thing is correct. We want to see things calm down and the youth regain their poise and confidence in their elders. We also want to see the latter reconnect with the young and embrace them rather than ignoring or marginalising them.

There are Coptic movements and Christian groups that have reservations about Church policies. How will you handle them?
Coptic movements that are contrary to Church policies will be dealt with through understanding and dialogue. The Church is a spiritual institution, not a political one. Its role is to guide. Everyone is free to do what they want politically.

Are Copts persecuted in Egypt? What problems do they face?
Some people think our problems are only about building churches and personal status issues, but in truth our problem lies in the culture, in everyday interactions on the street and at work. The Copts are insulted everywhere by a culture that is fanatical, extremist or indifferent. These problems will not be solved by a decision, a constitution, or a law. They can only be solved by a culture of tolerance through cooperation between the media, the educational system, churches and mosques and civic groups in order to embed the values of tolerance and accepting the other in Egyptian society irrespective of differences in religion, gender, colour or belief. In the end, we are all human beings and we must be respectful when dealing with each other.
The culture of marginalising the other in Egypt and squandering capabilities and opportunities has resulted in many Copts not being given their rights. For example, if someone graduates, why can’t they become a teacher’s assistant at university if they are eligible to make use of their skills? The state has subsidised their education and it should now be able to benefit from their expertise and skills.

Do you believe there has been forced Islamisation or the stifling of freedom of belief?
Freedom of belief should be guaranteed to all because faith cannot be forced. I cannot force someone to embrace Christianity because the bond with God is like marriage, and one cannot marry someone against one’s will. No soul can bond with God against its will: love, acceptance and conviction must exist first. As a result, freedom of belief must also exist.

What is your interpretation of the increasing violence and hoodlumism in Egyptian society?
Violence has spread in Egyptian society because of incorrect upbringing. Parents deal with their children aggressively, which causes these children to do the same when dealing with others. A violent person is off balance. He rejects rational thinking, is superficial when dealing with others, and puts himself in the place of God. He rejects God’s patience with people and decides to deal with people violently instead.

Many Copts say they are willing to die in demonstrations.
The right to protest is guaranteed for all, and we are willing to be martyred at any time. However, this cannot be the case at demonstrations.

What are your concerns about being secretary to the Holy Synod? Were there any objections to your appointment?
Any job in the Church has its own concerns. The secretary to the Holy Synod assists the pope in issues pertaining to the Synod. There has been a misunderstanding to the effect that the clergy are accountable to the secretary of the Holy Synod, but it is the Seminal Council that is in charge of these matters. I was chosen for this position unanimously by the members of the Holy Synod. They are my dear brothers and my relationship with them is strong.

How was your own life transformed when you left medicine for the priesthood?
The idea of joining the monastic order was in my mind before I went to medical school. Ordination dominated my thoughts and I had a conviction that one way or another I would serve the Lord.

Why did you choose the Baramos Monastery?
I used to go there on retreats ever since secondary school. I came to like the monastery, the priests and atmosphere there.

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