It is now ten months since Pope Tawadros II was seated as Patriarch of the Holy See of St Mark on 18 November 2012, less than five months after an Islamist regime had come to power in Egypt.
It was a difficult—if not positively stormy—time to take on the leadership of the Church and the care of its congregation, a task impossible to achieve successfully without divine intervention and support. Pope Tawadros helped lead all of Egypt forward by working a balance between the Coptic Church, one of the world’s most historic associations, and the Egyptian government which for the first time was led by a president who received his orders from the guidance office of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB).
The Pope was able to navigate successfully through the difficult time. He proved that the strength and success of the Church are an essential part of the whole country’s strength and success. His tradition of reaching out in love to others despite the painful attacks against the Copts and churches, including the attack on the papal premises, endeared him to many and built up respect and honour for him and the Church.
When the Islamist regime fell on 3 July under pressure from the people’s 30 million-strong mass protest on 30 June and consequent military intervention, Pope Tawadros was right there among Egypt’s military and civil leaderships to announce the Roadmap for Egypt’s future, which he had taken part in drawing.
Pope Tawadros II spoke to Watani on the recent events in Egypt, events that will go down with special significance in Egypt’s history. It is the first interview he had given since the 30 June Revolution.
Can you tell us about the relations between the Church and the ousted president Muhammad Mursi?
Mr Mursi’s time as president was but one year; yet for Egyptians, especially for Copts, it was short but hard. History will register the total absence of political will to avert sectarian strife during this period. We will never forget the unprecedented attack on St Mark’s Cathedral—a national Coptic symbol—and the papal premises while the police looked on.
Yet this was not the first time in its history that the Church faced hardships. But the Church has always been a patriotic establishment and has unfailingly displayed courage and balance in regard to politics. We spent the Mursi year exercising the self-restraint and love implied by Christian idealism; the Bible teaches us that a Christian should bless when persecuted and offer love for hatred. We bear no grudges against anyone; we don’t allow such sentiments in our hearts. We cherish deep love for everyone.
I visited Mr Mursi twice in the presidential palace; we met a third time when placing a wreath at the war memorial cemetery and a fourth time at the opening of the Shura Council. All these meetings were cordial and official and we did not exchange points of view. However, a very different meeting was held on 18 June, a few days before the 30 June Revolution. Back then I joined Ahmed al-Tayeb, the Grand Imam and Sheikh of Al-Azhar, in requesting audience with Mr Mursi. We could see that Egypt was engulfed in a critical, uncertain, unsustainable situation. Out of pure national responsibility, we—Sheikh Tayeb and I—asked to speak to the then president in an attempt to reach a consensual national agreement to rescue the country. But it appeared that Mr Mursi assessed the situation differently. He told us that 30 June 2013—one year on his swearing in as Egypt’s president, the date set by the grassroots Tamarud movement for mass protest demanding his overthrow—would pass peacefully just as any other day. As 30 June drew closer, however, I could sense the deep anger at Mursi and his Islamist regime in the Egyptian street, and it was clear that it would be difficult. Following my weekly sermon on Wednesday 26 June I retreated to the desert monastery of Anba Bishoi to pray for Egypt and for our sons and daughters who would be on the streets that day.
Had you called on the young people to take to the streets on 30 June?
The Church has no authority to call for or ban public protest by any member or numbers of the congregation. I realised that even had we done the impossible, that is to attempt to deter our young people from taking part in the protest, their patriotism and love for Egypt would have got the better of them. All I could do was to call on them to stick to peaceful expression of opinion, no violence and no fighting. The situation in Egypt was complex and required a sincere effort to rescue the country and the people. My message, which I tweeted, was: “Do not be afraid; we have God’s promises that bring us peace and reassurance. Do not be afraid, because your God is with you wherever you go.”
What about the part you played in planning the Roadmap for Egypt’s future, which came into force once Mursi was ousted?
I was at Anba Bishoi’s when, early in the morning on 3 July, I received a call from the Ministry of Defence asking me to attend a meeting in Cairo. I rightly guessed the reason for this meeting, since the people who took to the streets on 30 June represented the largest-ever public demonstration demanding change and the overthrow of a ruler. The armed forces realised how critical the situation was, and had already warned Mr Mursi against the consequences of his intransigence and his indifference to the wrath of the masses. The Defence Minister and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces Colonel General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi had issued the military’s ultimatum to the president to heed the people’s demands and come up with a roadmap for Egypt’s future, otherwise the military would have to enforce its own. The ultimatum, which Mr Mursi had already rejected, ended at noon on 3 July.
A military plane was dispatched to carry me from the monastery to Cairo to participate in the meeting in which Colonel General Sisi, Sheikh Ahmad al-Tayeb, and representatives of the various sectors of the Egyptian political arena took part. Over four hours, we discussed the Roadmap which was announced later in the day. We were all there with Sisi when he announced it in a televised address; and every one of us was given the opportunity to express his or her opinion in a short word.
We remember that the word Your Holiness gave stressed that the Roadmap had been drawn with input from every one present, and that it was geared towards the interest of all Egyptians, with no “exclusion, marginalisation or exception”. Did you mean that as assurance that the discrimination against Copts would come to an end?
The meaning went far beyond that. Healthy, balanced societies never exclude any of their sons or daughters be they Christian, Muslim, man, woman, moderate, leftist, rightist, or whatever. Today’s world is based on diversity and pluralism. I never meant only Copts, I meant all Egyptians with their diverse beliefs, loyalties and ethnicities. We love everyone and serve everyone with no exclusion, marginalisation or exception. We pray every day for Egypt and the people to live in wellbeing, peace and joy. We are confident that God will protect Egypt and its people. Religion concerns God, but the homeland concerns all the people no matter their various affiliations.
Some saw the Church participation in the Roadmap as some kind of involvement in politics, even though the Church has invariably insisted it had nothing to do with politics. What do you say to that?
The Church’s participation was no involvement in politics. It was participation in a national concern. If President Mursi was elected by the people and came through the ballot, he was also unseated by the people in masses never seen before. Copts were there among the crowds. The Roadmap was a national not a political concern.
The Church’s first and last concern is spiritual; this translates on the ground into serving everyone indiscriminately, and taking to heart the concerns of the country, praying for its well being every day. It is precisely this spiritual responsibility which drives us to participate in national concerns, major among which was the Roadmap.
Does this also apply to the drafting of the new Egyptian constitution?
The constitution, too, is a national responsibility of the first order; and the Church is living up to that responsibility. Anba Pola, Bishop of Tanta is our representative on the 50-member panel that is drafting the constitution, owing to his experience in that field. Our aim is a consensual constitution that would be accepted by no less than 80 per cent of the people.
You have recently received a number of foreign delegations. What were the main topics of discussion?
Some of the foreign delegations and figures that visited Egypt following the 30 June Revolution were keen to hear what we in the Church had to say. I met delegates from the US Congress, the Greek Orthodox Pope, and the African Union, as well as a number of ambassadors, ministers and activists. In all these meetings I explained exactly what happened in Egypt, especially that the 30 June Revolution was not a coup but a purely public revolution supported by the army and the police. There has been wide confusion on this particular issue. The Copts and their churches were targeted by the Islamists to get back at Egyptians for overthrowing the MB regime; they were targeted not only in their capacity as Christians, but first and foremost as Egyptians.
How do you see Egypt’s future?
Egypt’s future is blooming! With the grace of Christ, I can clearly see that Egypt is going in the right direction. A new constitution is being written, and parliamentary and presidential elections will follow. The interim government is working hard to make the daily life of Egyptians better, and the people are strongly joining hands with the army and police to fight terrorism and bring about security. All these bear indications of a brighter future for Egypt.
But people are living in fear and anxiety. They feel unsafe because of the Islamist terrorist activity, the Friday demonstrations, the bombings here and there, the attempted political assassinations, and the Sinai war of terror.
This is normal and was to be expected. The country is in the throes of acute labour pains. But the baby will soon be born, and a new beautiful Egypt will emerge.
18 September 2013