22 August 2010
On Coptic questions
At a time when sectarian hostilities are gaining momentum and fast spreading through Egyptian towns, villages and urban neighbourhoods, officials are often behind the curve. To curb the looming spectre of sectarian strife, those who care about the welfare and safety of this nation must join forces and find an inclusive solution.
Anba Bisanti, (Psanti) Archbishop of Helwan and al-Maasara, is a figure known for his courageous character and candid statements. In a comprehensive interview with Watani Anba Bisanti tackled the dimensions of sectarian discord as well as possible ways out of the current impasse.
How do you explain the rise of sectarian violence in Egypt?
I believe the issue could be seen via different angles. First and foremost is the absence of love; the spread of a culture of hatred of the ‘other’ makes all crimes possible. I believe that love is at the very core of all religions. Second, where are the security forces? Why do the police fail to prevent sectarian violence and crimes? Third, Muslim scholars, Coptic clergy, the media and intellectuals must undertake their responsibility regarding promoting values of tolerance and love. Fourth, when a crime is committed against Christians, perpetrators should be brought to justice.
Some consider the violence against Copts a sign of sectarian persecution while others see it as no more than individual hostility. How do you see it?
There is no doubt that violent attacks against Copts have recently increased remarkably. The State is responsible for protecting its people whether they are Muslim or Christian. Extremists should be handled with firmness to avert further escalation of sectarian strife. More importantly, however, motives behind the attacks should be defined and those who incite violence should be punished. Children should be taught to love one another regardless of faith. Events including Coptic and Muslim clerics would help promote a climate of peace and sympathy and would enhance values of citizenship.
Do you believe that some foreign powers have an interest in fomenting sectarian strife in Egypt?
Yes. A plan to divide the Middle East along sectarian and ethnic lines was formulated in the 1970s. Since Egyptians are ethnically homogenous, the religious card is the only one left for foreign powers to play on. Standing up to these conspiracies requires activating constitutional article 1 stressing the principle of citizenship. All religious discrimination should be discontinued.
We had better solve our problem our own way, without foreign interference. But this should be done with maximum transparency.
Pope Shenouda III is sometimes criticised for speaking in the name of Copts. It is claimed he should stick to his spiritual role alone. How can you comment on this?
When the Church, represented by Pope Shenouda, undertakes to defend the rights of Copts, it does so to protect the safety and peace of the homeland. The Church has nothing to do with politics. It only intervenes when Copts are discriminated against, especially regarding the rights due to them as Egyptian Christians; otherwise a Copt would feel an alien in his or her homeland.
Do you think Coptic students should be allowed to enrol in the al-Azhar University on the grounds that, even though al-Azhar is an Islamic university, it is sustained by Egyptian—Coptic as well as Muslim—taxpayer money?
Even though al-Azhar teaches Islamic religion and doctrine beside all the secular routines, the Church does not in the least mind Copts studying at al-Azhar University. Pope Shenouda’s brother studied Arabic at al-Azhar.
Do you agree with calls for abrogating article II of the Constitution, which stipulates that Islam is the religion of the State and that Islamic sharia is the main source of legislation?
I would much rather focus on activating article I which states that “Egypt is a democratic system based on citizenship”. If this article were put into action, there would be no room for discrimination on the basis of religion, ethnicity or gender.
The Church has called for removing Qur’anic verses from school curricula. Do you agree?
We are calling for the removal of Qur’anic verses from the Arabic language curriculum. Arabic is the language of the nation and it is unreasonable for the Islamic religion to be inserted into the Arabic language curriculum. Qur’anic verses may be taught within the curriculum of Islamic religion.
In your opinion, what are the problems from which Copts suffer most?
The absence of a unified law for building places of worship. While it is so easy to build a mosque, erecting a church would take years on end, due to the complicated procedures required. Copts suffer from discrimination in the fields of education and work. Some colleges do not accept them, and in many cases they are excluded from holding leading posts.
How do you assess the manner in which the Egyptian media handles the sectarian file?
The current variety of media outlets can provide an excellent opportunity for spreading a spirit of tolerance and peace. Unfortunately, however, many channels make it their business to disseminate material which promotes extremism and incites religious hatred. This can have a ruinous effect on the community.
How do you see the role performed by the Coptic diaspora?
They are loyal to their country. Their main objective is to stand up to discriminative measures at home. Much of their criticism has to do with their suffering while they were living in Egypt. But when, in their zeal to defend their brothers and sisters at home against the discrimination they are subjected to, they commit infringements or insult Egyptian national constants, the Church unequivocally opposes their practices.
Do you agree with calls for a quota of seats for Copts in legislative bodies?
No, I see this as working more harm than good. It is better to encourage Coptic contribution in political life. And I think the ruling National Democratic party should exert efforts to attract Copts.
A Coptic lawyer has expressed his willingness to run for the presidency. Do you think he stands a chance?
I cannot see any logic in such an announcement, since it remains so difficult for a Coptic candidate even to secure a seat in parliament, let alone run for the presidency.
Do you think a party should be established to defend Copts’ rights?
I am against the establishment of any political party based on religion, since this would polarise the Egyptian population along sectarian lines and undermine the unity of society.
Can there be a solution to the problem of divorce among Christians?
We abide by the rule laid down by the Bible. Divorce in Christianity is only possible in the case of adultery. If we overlook this principle, we can only be helping to raise the number of street children due to more and more broken homes. But the Church studies each case individually and grants divorce when necessary even in the absence of actual adultery.