The 28 July meeting which took place between President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi and Pope Tawadros II came at a time when the Copts in Egypt were full of bitterness at the systematic attacks waged against them, especially in the governorate of Minya. They suffered pain and injustice, and no official action taken to alleviate their suffering and bring them justice. Quite the contrary, the law was waived in favour of out-of-law conciliation settlements that added to the oppression the Copts were victim of.
Recent Coptic grievances
A series of Islamist attacks against Copts had taken place during May, June, and July, and had left one Copt dead, several injured, and Coptic homes and property damaged and burned. The majority of the attacks were waged in retaliation against rumours that the Copts in some given village were building or converting an existing building into a church. The attacks constituted collective punishment of the Coptic communities in the villages of al-Karm, Koum al-Loufi, Abu-Yacoub and Tahna al-Gabal in Minya, some 250km south of Cairo; and Saft al-Kharsa in Beni Sweif, some 100km south of the capital. No culprits were brought to justice; rather, the Copts were coerced into ‘conciliating’ with their attackers in out-of-court settlements that forced them to relinquish their legal rights.
On 20 July Pope Tawadros held an evening of prayer which lasted for two hours in which he was joined by the congregation in fervent prayer for Egypt, the Copts, the victims of the attacks, and the offenders. [http://en.wataninet.com/coptic-affairs-coptic-affairs/sectarian/the-copts-painand-bitterness/16916/]
A few days later, on 25 July, a delegation of MPs headed to the Papal headquarters at St Mark’s Cathedral in Abassiya, Cairo, to meet the Pope and talk about the recent Coptic grievances. Pope Tawadros talked candidly about the injustice inflicted upon Copts and the lack of law enforcement, and also about the draft law for building churches which is now in parliament awaiting discussion. [http://en.wataninet.com/coptic-affairs-coptic-affairs/sectarian/the-copts-painand-bitterness/16916/]
Thursday 28 July saw the meeting between President Sisi and Pope Tawadros. The meeting came upon invitation from the President, and lasted for an hour and 20 minutes. Accompanying the Pope was a delegation of bishops, clergy, and members of the laity. [http://en.wataninet.com/coptic-affairs-coptic-affairs/coptic-affairs/president-sisi-meets-pope-tawadros/16984/]
President: Coptic patriotism and wisdom
The initiative by President Sisi to meet with the Pope and the generous time allotted to the meeting left a favourable impression on the Copts and gave rise to cautious optimism. This despite the fact that the subsequent official statements given by the spokespersons for the presidency and the Church were disappointing, since they both focused on courteous generalities but gave no details.
Father Boulos Halim, spokesperson for the Coptic Orthodox Church, said the main theme of the meeting was that all Egyptians should work hand-in-hand to resist divisions, and that Egypt’s future, which the spokesman said was the topic of extensive talk by the President, was at stake. The spokesman for the Presidency, Alaa’ Youssef, said that Presient Sisi insisted Egyptians were all one before the law, and that diversity and plurality were the mainstays Egypt was built upon. Egyptian Christians, he said, have been famous for their time-honoured patriotism, fortitude and wisdom; characteristics they invariably exercised in dealing with the challenges that have confronted Egypt during the last few years.
What actually took place in the meeting remained unreported, however, leaving the Copts wondering at what the President and the Pope talked about for near one-an-a-half hours of their precious time. Watani got to know, however, that a good part of the time was granted to Anba Macarius, Bishop of Minya, to explain the grievances of the Copts there, given that Minya suffered the majority of the attacks against Copts. He also explained what Minya would need to put an end to that suffering, giving what an inside source said was a prescription for a cure.
President listens intently
“We found the President well-informed about what took place against the Copts in Minya as well as in other places in Egypt,” Anba Macarius said. “He listened to us intently, was very patient, thoughtful and understanding, and promised the problem would be tackled.
“Even though the President gave no details as to how he would handle the problem, his attitude and demeanour assured us he would take serious measures to rectify matters.”
Anba Raphail, Secretary-General of the Holy Synod; and Anba Pimen, Bishop of Qous and Nagada, and Head of the Church’s Crisis Management Committee, talked to the President on the peril of not applying the law in cases of sectarian conflict, and forcing the Coptic victims to ‘conciliate’ with their attackers and give up their legal rights. They demanded that there should be no alternative to enforcing the law. President Sisi insisted that all Egyptians, Muslim and Copt, stood on equal footing before the law. “Everyone is answerable to the law,” he said, “all the way up to the president of the republic.”
Articles Church does not accept
Anba Pola, Bishop of Tanta, talked to the President about the draft law for building churches, which is scheduled to go before the House of Representatives this month. The law has aroused much controversy, since it includes articles the Church has said it can never accept. Two articles in specific were points of contention. One required that the building of any new church should pre-require security approval; the other placed a condition that an existing non-licensed church would only be recognised if it had acted as a church for a minimum of five years. The Church, for its part, demanded that the first article should be altogether removed from the draft law; and the second should reduce the minimum period to one year instead of five.
The matter had been broached during the meeting between Pope Tawadros and the MP delegation a few days earlier. The Pope was then very straightforward when he addressed the MPs with: “We will not accept that any body or authority should hold sway over the building of churches. We have so far been governed by an outdated edict that goes back to the Ottoman Empire some 160 years ago. Do not put me in the position where I will have to reject the law,” he said.
When Anba Pola explained the matter to President Sisi during the meeting with the Pope and the Coptic delegation, the President showed profound interest. Since the draft law is proposed by the State, the President directly issued his orders that the Church’s demands should be fulfilled. It was very important, he said, that the law should be passed as soon as possible, to put an end to problems that arise on account of the Copts having to build their churches outside the law.
Countering fanatic culture
Anba Raphail and Anba Pimen pointed out to the utmost importance of fulfilling President Sisi’s call for Islamic religious reform in order to counter the fanatic culture that breeds hatred against Copts. The President, for his part, confirmed his stance against fanaticism, and for religious reform. The meeting ended warmly, with the Pope thanking the President for his initiative, understanding, and positive moves where Copts are concerned.
On 29 July, it was announced that Minya security chief, General Reda Tabliya, was replaced by a new chief, General Faisal Dweedar. Given that a major cause for the Copts’ suffering in Minya has been security shortcoming that bordered on complicity with the Islamists who attacked them, the Copts hailed the dismissal of General Tabliya as a step in the right direction.
The first statement made by General Dweedar following his new appointment was that Minya Security would work to bring about safety to all, and that the law should be applied to work justice in all the recent cases of attacks against Copts.
Sunday 31 July carried news of changes of a number of governors in Egypt. There were strong indications that Minya Governor Tareq Nasr would be among those leaving, but no name has as yet been given for the new governor.
Potential attack nipped in the bud
Again on 29 July, an incident which carried the potential of turning into an attack against Copts was nipped in the bud by the police, a first where sectarian conflict is concerned. The security apparatuses in the 15th May satellite town south of Cairo instantly responded to a call for help posted on the Internet by Fr Athanasius Rizq, a priest in charge of a Coptic Orthodox community service centre in the town, who said he had received threats from Muslim extremists that they would burn the building.
The police swiftly moved to the site of the community service centre and placed it under guard. More importantly, they headed to the local Ahmed Khalil mosque which was reported by the priest to be the source of the incitement against Copts, arrested four men, and went after their leader, an Arabic Language teacher.
Fr Athanasius says the centre includes a clinic, nursery, and home for the aged, and it serves Muslims as well as Copts. He says the city is relatively new so includes no churches. The community centre serves some 350 extended families, and their number is expected to grow as the urban community expands. In July 2011 the Copts sent an official request to the Ministry of Housing to allocate a piece of land to build a church, but there has been until today no official response.
31 July 2016