Watani was the first to meet Pope Tawadros II after he knew he had been chosen pope. His face was still wet with the tears he shed during Thanksgiving Prayer, and I ran over to congratulate him.
Pope Tawadros II whose name, Theodore, literally means gift of God, is for Copts a true gift from the Divine, chosen by an altar draw that invokes Divine will, from among the three names elected by the Coptic electorate.
When he was chosen to be the 118th Patriarch of Alexandria and the Pope of the See of St Mark, Anba Tawadros II said: “I will be a servant to all the people, be they Christian or Muslim.” His words strongly brought to mind the words of Jesus Christ: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant.” (Matt 20: 25, 26)
To begin with, I asked His Holiness how he came to know of the altar draw.
“When the election results were announced on 29 October, I found my name among the three chosen. Tradition has it that, once one is elected, he must go into retreat. I thus headed to the monastery of Anba Bishoi in the Western Desert where I had taken orders some 24 years ago. There I spent the days fasting, praying and reading. On Sunday 4 November, the day of the altar draw, I celebrated Holy Mass with the monks in the early hours, from 3:30am to 5:30am, then retreated to my cell. Around 10 o’clock, two brother monks dropped by, and we sat together on the straw mat and followed on the mobile phone of one of them the Mass that was being celebrated at St Mark’s cathedral in Cairo and at the end of which the altar draw was conducted.. When the child Bishoi was picked up to draw the name of the upcoming pope, one of the monks saw this as a premonition that the next pope would be from Anba Bishoi monastery. Since the two other candidates for the papacy, Bishop-General Anba Raphail and Fr Raphail Ava Mina come respectively from the Baramous and the Mar-Mina monasteries, and I come from Anba Bishoi’s, there was a general sense the new pope might be me. I was silent; the brother who had the mobile phone temporarily lost the signal, so he went outside the cell for a better signal. A few minutes later, he rushed back into the cell and threw himself into my arms in joy, saying I had been picked up as the new pope. All this happened in a fleeting moment. We then went out, the three of us, to the church to offer a prayer of thanksgiving. On our way I was met by the congregation of the monastery heading towards me in joy and jubilation.
Did you never feel before that you would be the next pope?
Never; and I still feel utterly unworthy. I do not say this out of modesty; the feeling is genuine. But God uses the weak for the glory of His name. I still feel that Anba Raphail, who is a dear friend and brother and a blessed bishop, is more worthy than myself. Father Raphail Ava Mina is a wise and reverred priest and a disciple of Pope Kyrillos VI, and is also more worthy. Anba Raphail serves in Cairo and Fr Raphail near Alexandria; they both appeared more fit than me whose service has been in remote, rural areas.
How does Your Holiness feel now that you have been chosen by the Heavens?
I canstantly pray and fervently ask: “O God, be mindful of my help; make haste, O Lord, to help me” (Psalm 70: 1), and say “Thy will be done” because it is the choice of God.
The altar draw was on 4 November which coincided with my birthday; it also coincided with the Egyptian feast of love. This day therefore held two happy occasions, and I was praying
that it wouldn’t carry for me a third ‘happy’ occasion. But I have a reputation of believing that everything on earth comes in threes, so when the date of the altar draw was changed to 4 November, everybody felt the day would carry a triple happy occasion.
What does the number ‘3’ represent to Your Holiness?
The number ‘3’ symbolises the Trinity; as well as the cycle of life: birth, life and death. It also symbolises the beginning, the path and the end. It represents the triangle, the first geometric shape, formed of three sides.
Do you see difficult times ahead with the rise of Islamist currents?
Islamist currents have existed for a very long time. It is true that they have now become more brisk, but we believe in the last promise Jesus Christ gave us: “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age”
Can I count this as a message of reassurance to Copts who seek to leave Egypt? What is your advise to them?
More often than not, fear compells one to seek to emigrate. But we must recognise that emigration is an individual decision. Under the same circumstances, some persons or families may decide to leave, while others may not.
I would like to tell those who think of leaving that, if there are factors which drive you towards reasonably successful paths outside Egypt, why not take the chance? The Bible tells us: “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.”
But to those who take the decision to emigrate out of fear and nothing but, I would say: do not escape Egypt. Our Egypt is better than anywhere in the world and is more deserving of her children’s efforts and input. My personal feeling is that Egypt is unique in her versatility, and hope that those in power would realise this. Beauty lies in diversity and versatility, and Egypt, with her Muslim and Christian children, is rich in diversity, which we should all work to preserve.
How can we achieve this?
This is rather the role of the State not the Church. The State has to promote acceptance of and respect for the other; reject discrimination and marginalisation; and root the concept of citizenship.When people feel their citizenship rights are trifled with they hasten to escape their homeland.
Will the Church have a political role?
The Church has no political role to play, especially since the 25 January 2011 Revolution drove Egyptian youth, Muslim and Copt, to actively take part in the various political activities. Youth today join political parties and movements, and address their demands to the State not the Church. I call on Coptic young men and women to participate in school, university, and civil society activities. I invite them to go out of their churches, and remind them of the Bible’s words: “You are the salt of the earth…you are the light of the world.” In order for the ‘salt’ to do its job, it has to dissolve and spread out.
The Church does not have a political role, politics is played inside legitimate parties. The Church is a spiritual institution in the first place, which cares about the salvation of the souls and prepares for eterntal life through the Bible, prayers and holy sacraments.
Notwithstanding, the Church plays a social role in what concerns citizenship needs. The Church offers health care to all citizens, establishes schools, and aids the poor and marginalised. I will seek through the Church and in collaboration with the State to actively help them. The patriarch is first and foremost a servant.
How do you plan to deal with the State?
I will employ the concept of ‘love in action’. Our heart is open to everyone, and we love everyone. We offer our love indiscriminately to all, even those who hate us. I am opening a new page with all individuals and streams, including the Muslim Brothers’ Freedom and Justice Party. I thank the Lord that the Church’s relation with the President is one of affection and respect. We pray that the Lord gives him strength and support to serve this country.
What about the Church’s relation with al-Azhar?
Al-Azhar is a moderate Islamic institution, and we enjoy good relations with it. We cooperate and exchange opinion on communal issues. Many challenges face our society in its entirety, including unemployment, poverty and drug addiction to cite but a few. I wish we could all join forces against them.
What about the constitution?
There is a strong Coptic representation in the constituent assembly. The Church’s representation comes from a citizenship rather than a political perspective. I call on all political forces to talk together for the sake of the poorer Egyptians, and to put political ambitions aside, in order to come up with a consensual constitution that would achieve full citizenship rights for all.
During this critical period in Egypt’s history, how do you plan to handle the Church?
To start with, we should put our house in order, with a view to make the Church a successful organisation. I have started with the papal secretariat which is the first line anyone has to cross to deal witht the patriararch. I have chosen the secretaries that had been employed by the locum tenens Anba Pachomeus: Fr Angaelos Ishaq and Fr Makari, to be joined by Fr Amonius.
We were used to a papal secretariat from among the bishops. So how is it no longer so?
The bishops are already overburdened with the responsibilities of their regular services, and I feel reluctant to burden them with further services. Besides, we can do with new blood in the secretariat, in order to maintain the vitality required of that body.
Speaking of bishops, what will you do about those who were suspended from serving their dioceses?
Bishop Daniel of Sydney is already back in his diocese. There remains Anba Takla of Dishna, Anba Amonius of Luxor, and Anba Matthias of Mehalla. But I have to remind you that the suspension was decreed by the Holy Synod, and thus only the Holy Synod can take decisions in that respect. I will, however, ask the Holy Synod to reconsider their cases.
Which brings us to the question of how you plan to deal with many pending problems.
Our Church is one that is not based upon papal autocracy, but is consensual in nature. It includes a substantial base of worthy clergy and laity—worthy on the spiritual and material levels. The pope does not work alone; he is aided by the Holy Synod and experienced laity. All matters will be open to discussion. The starting point, as I said, is to instate a sound institutional base.
Do you then foresee a new role for the Melli (Community) Council [the council of laity]?
I believe the Melli Council’s role should be ameliorated and enhanced in order to tackle all the societal and ecclesiastical variables in play today. I envision for it to play an active consultative role so that the entire Church would benefit from the extensive experience and knowledge of the laity.
How will you proceed with changing the 1957 bylaws which govern the election of the Coptic Orthodox patriarch, and regarding which there has been a general demand for change among the Copts?
I totally agree that the 1957 bylaws need to be changed to resolve several legal ambiguities and to make provisions for modern-day conditions and variables. I have already asked the papal elections committee, the role of which would have normally been concluded with the naming of the new pope, to take over the task of changing the bylaws. The committee is presided over by Anba Pachomeus who is widely loved and trusted, and has as members nine bishops and nine laymen from among the Melli Council and the Coptic endowments authority. Once the new bylaws are drawn, they will be offered for approval by the Holy Synod and the congregation before they assume the normal legislative course.
Since you have brought up the issue of the congregation’s desires, many aspire to go to Jerusalem to visit the holy land, but Pope Shenouda III had banned such ‘pilgrimage’ on grounds that it was not a religious requirement and would serve to antagonise Egypt’s Muslims. How do you view this issue?
If Copts go in droves to visit Jerusalem while Muslims reject the idea of naturalising relations with Israel, this will be seen as treachery on the part of Copts. I believe Pope Sheouda was very wise in his decision to ban such visits.
There are demands by specific Coptic movements to go back to use the 1938 bylaws on family affairs for Copts, which stipulated lenient measures for divorce, and which is no longer in force. How do you see the question of lenient divorce?
The 38 bylaws were drawn by laymen, and the Church has always been against it, since it went against the Bible’s teachings. The Bible says that there can be no divorce except in case of adultery, and we strictly hold on to that. In case a marriage has been based upon deceit, the marriage may be annulled. This is a topic which will, in time, be tackled by the Holy Synod.
How will you interact with the congregation, especially seeing that you will never escape comparison with the charismatic, widely popular Pope Shenouda?
I see myself as an extension to Pope Shenouda and his predecessor Pope Kyrillos VI. I will do my best to emulate both, and to follow the same course as Pope Shenouda did. I plan to continue his tradition of the Wednesday evening sermon and prayer meeting at St Mark’s.
Finally, what would you like to say to the Coptic congregation?
As much as the Lord grants me, I will serve each and every one of you. I ask for your prayers. Pray for me to be able to honour the post He gave me though He knows how unworthy I am. Pray for this heavy duty I have been shouldered with; there can be no success here except through the spirit of prayer. Pray that the Lord should perfect His work in us.
…And to Anba Pachomeus, the spiritual father to whom you owe your discipleship, and the interim acting patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church during the span of time between the death of Pope Shenouda III last March and the seating of Pope Tawadros II today?
I tell Anba Pachomeus: you have fulfilled your mission masterfully. You added a new dimension to the role of acting patriarch; you reinstated the concept of fasting and prayer in times of need. Today, everyone bears testimony to your wisdom and ability. You will always be indespensible for the Church; we will need your presence, guidance, and fatherliness.
18 November 2012