Targeting the heart of Egypt

02-09-2015 12:16 PM

Nader Shukry

To a demonstration planned against the Coptic Church on 9 September, the Holy Synod declares: Why demonstrate when the Church’s doors and arms are open before any complaint?

The Coptic community has been busy lately trying to figure out the facts behind a demonstration planned outside St Mark’s Cathedral in Abbasiya, Cairo, on 9 September. What has made it difficult to fathom is that the figures planning the protest are entirely unknown to the Coptic community at large and to Coptic activists in specific.

News had circulated that a number of Coptic youth were working to organise a protest at the Cathedral—St Mark’s is the papal headquarters of the Coptic Orthodox Church—and had obtained a permit from the Interior Ministry for a 200-person protest to be held at the foot of the Ahmed Saïd flyover which lies close to the Cathedral. Who these youth are and what are they protesting against is something of a mystery.


Reasons unclear

The protest is to be held under the banner: “Church, the Congregation is angry!” The organisers claim it is against ‘abuse of Church funds’ and demand supervision over the Church’s finances. Yet they do not back their claim by any single or specific incident of such abuse.

Christians who harbour grievances on account of the Family Law for Christians and its strict stance vis-à-vis divorce and remarriage have been encouraged to join the protest. Given that there is no connection between Church funds and the family law, the real reason for the protest remains unclear.

Watani investigated the issue and came up with some interesting remarks. First, the persons who have called for this protest, Waheed Shenouda and Emad al-Masry, have never participated in any public or Church activity; they are not political activists nor do they belong to any Coptic movement. Mr Shenouda was for several years resident in Cyprus and initiated this protest upon his return.

Second, it is the first time any protest is held against the Church’s funding and finances. The only time this topic was raised was in 2012 during the days of the post-Arab Spring Muslim Brotherhood regime which demanded to impose supervision on Church funds.

Third, given that the group organising the protest have never been involved in activist work before, and that the issue under protest is backed neither by claims nor evidence, it appears that this group is executing some obscure agenda against the Church and that some hidden hand is egging them on.

Last but not least, the slogan announcing the congregation is angry begs the question of who speaks on behalf of the “congregation”? Who claims the “congregation is angry”?


Me angry? Says who?

The slogan “Church, the congregation is angry” has sparked a wave of resentment on social media. On Facebook, Hany Kamel posted: “I am a member of the congregation of the Coptic Orthodox Church and I am not angry. I haven’t heard of anyone who is.” Marianne Mounir and Sheri Adel wrote: “We’re not angry. Can you please specify who is? Where have you come up with such a claim?”

Hany Ezzat, an organising member of the protest assured that a permit has been granted for the protest which, according to lawyer George Habib who is also among the protest organisers, can be banned only for ‘security reasons’. Mr Ezzat explained the protest is against “the squandering of Church funds”, and conditions relating to the comparative influence of the clergy, the laity Community Council, and Coptic businessmen in the Church.

Father Boulos Halim, spokesman of the Coptic Orthodox Church, confirmed that the 9 September protest will take place outside St Mark’s Cathedral, “the Cathedral is a place of worship and no protest may be held on its grounds as some have propagated,” Fr Boulos says.
“I don’t know the organisers and it is not clear to me exactly what they are protesting against. If it concerns the family law for Christians, we have already announced that the final draft for the law will be approved by the Holy Synod during its upcoming convention in November 2015. Any other issue can be raised and discussed inside the Church. I see no reason for public protest,” Fr Boulos added.

The planned protest has failed to meet the support of Coptic activists or intellectuals; most agree that the demands are vague and some hidden hands are behind the group which, they insist, is protesting for unclear reasons at a time that couldn’t be more wrong given all the challenges Egypt is currently facing.


Inner conflict

Coptic thinker Kamal Zakher believes that the protest is possibly backed by individuals in inner conflict within the Church, and aims at weakening Pope Tawadros, who is working hard to modernise the Coptic Orthodox Church. Mr Zakher thinks that the old guard in the Church may not take kindly to plans for a more liberal Church that strives for closer, warmer relations with other Churches in the world.

“We’ve seen such conflict in our Church history,” Mr Zakher says, “during the papacy of the patriarchs Kyrillos IV (1854-1861), Macarius III (1944-1945) and Yousab II (1946-1956). It is undeniable that there is a conspiracy against Pope Tawadros who became patriarch in 2012, and it shows in minor deeds constantly directed against him. Even though these deeds have no significant effect against him since the Pope enjoys wide popularity in Coptic, national, and ecumenical circles, they are surely nuisances that make his life more difficult. The question is whether the State will allow for this conspiracy to take shape especially that the Pope is considered a pillar of the 30 June Revolution in 2013, which led to the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood post-Arab Spring regime. He is also a staunch supporter of President Sisi. Any blow to the Pope is also a blow to the State.”

Claims that the clergy are squandering Church funds, Mr Zakher says, clearly indicate the protestors do not have the Church’s interest at heart, but are mere attention seekers or serve a hidden agenda. “It’s a fact,” he says, “that the finances of the Church are handled by a special committee in every church or parish and are managed by accountants. The endowments of the Church are supervised by the Accountability State Authority (ASA). So the claim of mismanagement of funds is unreasonable and baseless.”


Managing Church finances

Father Abdel-Massih Basseet, Pastor of the Church of the Holy Virgin in Mostorod, confirms Mr Zakher’s views. “In every church,” he says, “a committee of 7 or 9 members including a president and a treasurer handles the collection of donations, subscriptions and all sorts of funds. It pays expenditures such as salaries, assistance to the poor, and the various needs of the church. Any spending must be approved by the majority of the committee members, and any extra sums deposited in the bank. The funds of the Church are managed in the most organised manner.”

The Egypt’s Copts Coalition, even as it rejected the call for protest as a mere show-off, said that financial matters in the Church are handled with utmost honesty and transparency. Fadi Youssef, the coalition’s coordinator said that Pope Tawadros had unequivocally admitted that Church funds come mainly from donations. “It is the custom,” Mr Youssef says, “to divide them into four parts. Ten per cent are kept aside as reserve and the remaining amount is divided into three equal parts directed to three spending areas: the first is for the poor and needy, the second is for the construction and restoration of churches and monasteries, and the third is spent on salaries, fees, and administrative issues.
“Anyone who has doubts about the management of his church’s finances,” Mr Youssef says, “may simply check the records at his parish. Complaints are made through the legal channels in the Church, and are directly investigated. These are serious matters that cannot be left unchecked. So protest is not the right way for anyone seeking solutions; it is the way for those seeking fame.”


The heart of Egypt

The Maspero Youth Union has rejected the call for protest on 9 September for fear that the demands declared may be a mere front that conceals behind it pressures on the Church to change the current liberal direction it is endorsing. Hany Ramsis, member of the union’s political office says: “The protest has a hidden target beyond what has been announced. In my opinion, it aims to give an impression that the congregation is opposed to the Pope and that divisions exist inside the Church, implying that the entire Church institution is feeble.
“Encouraging anyone who has long-lasting problems with the Church to join the protest is intended to give the impression the protesting group is powerful and large in number.” By this Mr Ramsis is alluding to those who oppose the family law and who were invited to join the protest. “But the question here is what do they hope to achieve? In my opinion, they probably wish to cast doubts on the confidence Copts place in their Pope, thus embarrassing the Pope and broadcasting an image of a Church rife with division.” But Mr Ramsis notes that this strategy has invariably failed because it was always unacceptable to Copts.

For Ishaq Hanna, member of the Enlightenment Association, the 9 September protest might very likely lead to counter protest that displays support for the Church. “Where will we find ourselves then?” he says. “Matters could escalate into clashes among Copts, a situation which would be detrimental to national unity. With this in mind, is it now clear that whoever is behind the 9 September protest is after promoting divisions that would start with Copts and inevitably reach out into the wider Egyptian community? This is targeting the heart and core of Egypt and it has to stop!”

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