At this time of crisis when COVID-19 pandemic wreaks havoc with people’s lives, health, and livelihoods the world over; as tensions rise on Egypt’s eastern and western borders on account of Turkish and terrorist hostilities; and with the yet unresolved issue of the Ethiopian Grand Renaissance Dam that threatens Egypt’s lifeline of water supply; the Coptic Church in Egypt has been under enormous pressure to respond wisely to all the issues at hand. With this in mind, Pope Tawadros II was guest of eXtra News TV satellite channel in a special interview at the papal headquarter at St Mark’s Cathedral in Abbassiya, Cairo.
EXtra News TV host, Ibrahim Ezzat, started by thanking Pope Tawadros for his hospitality, and asking about his health, seeing that there had been rumours the Pope had contracted COVID-19. “Thank God, I am fine,” the Pope smiled. “I have been always susceptible to colds and influenza since I had my tonsils removed at a very young age. These days, it is enough for a person to cough or sneeze once for an alarm to be sounded that he caught COVID-19. But I did not catch it.”
The talk on coronavirus led Mr Ezzat to ask the Pope how he viewed the pandemic. “I see it as an alarm bell, a wakeup call from God to the creation he so loves and cares for,” Pope Tawadros said. The pandemic has infected some 15 million and caused around a million deaths, an unprecedented event on the global scale. It appears to remind humans of how small and weak they are, no matter how much wealth or power they possess. God is telling us: ‘See, you are very small and frail. A virus that’s less than a millionth of your weight was able to bring you down. Forget about armies, authority, wealth, property, possessions … go back to your real size’.
“In Egypt, the official response to and measures taken against the spread of the virus have been efficient and prompt. A curfew was imposed; places of gatherings were closed—and this included churches and mosques; social distancing and protective measures were applied; hospitals and quarantine centres were readied, and treatment was made available to all. Now the daily numbers of cases and deaths have drastically fallen, and the country is gradually reopening.”
Reopening for Holy Virgin’s Fast
In reply to a question on how his daily life and activities proceeded under the coronavirus lockdown, the Pope said that a lot of change took place. “Almost no personal meetings could be held, nor visits to churches or organisations. We had to go online as an alternative, using videoconferencing or online applications. We used this to remain close to churches, congregations, and clergy inside and outside Egypt.
“Church activities such as Sunday School, sermons, and prayer meetings all went online. Masses were held without congregations and broadcast live.
“Now, however,” the Pope said, “we are gradually reopening while applying strict cautionary measures.” Most dioceses opened their churches in that way, but the few parishes that reported the highest COVID-19 infections, including Cairo and Alexandria which are under the Pope’s jurisdiction, had remained closed. Pope Tawadros announced they would partially reopen on 3 August. All churches in Egypt would thus be open for Masses during the widely loved period of the Holy Virgin’s Fast from 7 to 22 August, but would be closed for the usual spiritual activity held every evening that involved Vespers and prayer meetings of sermons, hymns, and praises to the Holy Virgin. These joyous activities always witnessed large numbers of worshippers, a risk too high to take even though COVID-19 numbers are rapidly declining. But services will be broadcast live for the benefit of the congregation.
Prayers for Egypt
Mr Ezzat moved on from the topic of coronavirus to ask the Pope on national affairs. “Egypt is facing challenges on several fronts,” Pope Tawadros said. “It faces foreign threats on its western border and in the Mediterranean; [Jihadi] terror [in north Sinai]; it confronts coronavirus; all this takes place even as the country strives to achieve economic advancement to secure good living for all Egyptians. What I see,” the Pope sounded appreciative, “is that all State apparatuses and officials: the President, government, army, police, judiciary, and all others are working together with the people to achieve clear goals, and have taken it upon themselves to keep Egypt well and strong. Our army works to defend the country even as it never attacks others. President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi has clearly stressed that; he recently said the ‘Egyptian army is rational’; meaning it knows very well when to act to defend the country.
[A week earlier, Egypt’s parliament unanimously approved sending Armed Forces troops on combat missions outside the borders to the western strategic direction to defend Egypt’s national security.]
“We pray that God would spare our beloved country and people from wars, which bring losses to all involved. But when necessary, the army should be ready to step in.”
Ever since he was enthroned patriarch, Pope Tawadros has been the subject of harsh criticism that extends to abuse by some on social media. According to Mr Ezzat, phrases said by Pope Tawadros are frequently taken fully out of context to launch unfounded criticisms. Why is that so? he asked.
“In fact,” the Pope said, “I can find no justification for such behaviour. Words or phrases I say are taken out of context, misquoted or twisted to give meanings other than the real one. The Church has been closely following up on these [vilification] campaigns, and we have data of persons who benefit from them. Most are inside Egypt, but a few are outside the country.”
“Are they from inside or outside the Church?” Mr Ezzat asked. “And why doesn’t the Church take legal action against them, given that it knows who they are?”
“If you mean whether they are just Christians or members of the clergy, let me tell you that this rarely comes from the clergy, and if it does it is easy to deal with. However, I prefer not to take legal action, but rather wait to give these persons an opportunity to repent. Jesus says in the Bible words which terrify me: Whosoever shall say ‘Thou fool’ shall be in danger of hell fire. How then if much more than ‘Thou fool’ is said?
“We take our cue from St Paul who says of himself that [when yet Saul] he ‘persecuted the church of God beyond measure’ (Galatians 1:13), yet repented and became the great St Paul.”
Again, Mr Ezzat asked why such attacks against the Pope, to which the Pope replied that, with more than 2000 years behind it, the Coptic Church is the oldest ongoing people institution, national entity, in Egypt. It has played a big role in modern-day events and revolutions [including the massive revolution of 30 June 2013 which led to the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood Islamist regime which has taken control of Egypt in the wake of the 2011 uprising known as the Arab Spring]. “The Church has a national, patriotic responsibility. I see that attempts to weaken the Church are indirect attempts to destroy the country. Destroying national unity is among the surest ways to destroy nations.”
Among the issues that aroused heightened interest within Coptic circles recently was the defrocking of a Coptic priest who belonged to the diocese of Minya but was resident in the US. Mr Ezzat asked Pope Tawadros on the matter, and the Pope replied that any person who is member of an institution but deviates from its principles and rules is normally stripped of membership. In the Church, this is termed ‘defrocking’. “It is not an easy decision,” the Pope said, “and is only taken following meticulous investigations which may extend over a long time, sometimes years.” The case in question, he said, goes back to 1997 when complaints were made against that priest; he was defrocked in 2014 and ordered to return to Egypt but he did not, citing health reasons. Now, in July 2020, a new decree of final defrocking was issued in addition to the previous one; he was ordered to revert to his name before ordination, and the decree was forwarded to the civil authorities to inform that he was no longer a priest.
In reply to a question by Mr Ezzat that the long delay in publicising the defrocking was some sort of coverup, the Pope said there was a very big difference between ‘coverup’, which would involve concealment and inaction in the face of wrongs; and ‘shielding’, which involves protection of a sinner or wrongdoer—in all cases a child of the Mother Church—from defamation. This is during the investigation phase, but once the decision to defrock a person is taken, the decision must be publicised [to protect the public] and to officially inform the civil authorities in order that they take the necessary measures.
Holy Virgin sightings
Sightings of the Holy Virgin manifesting herself on the spire of the church consecrated in her name in the Minya town of Deir Mawas some 320km south of Cairo, were reported on 17 July. Mr Ezzat asked the Pope about the standards the Church applies to announce such manifestations.
“Appearances by the Holy Virgin are always cause for comfort, especially during hard times,” the Pope said. “Anba Aghapius, Bishop of Deir Mawas and Dalga, said that the recent appearance was reported only once. The Church prefers to wait for more appearances by the Holy Virgin to confirm her manifestation. In 1968, the Holy Virgin’s appearances at her church in Zaitoun, Cairo lasted for an extended period of time [more than 18 months]. The Church verified it beyond doubt, and hence issued an official statement confirming it. Such standards do not apply to the appearance in Deir Mawas.
Last month, the Coptic Church warned against books that claimed to be Arabic translations of the Bible; they were being distributed to Copts free of charge while urging them to accept them as gifts. Mr Ezzat asked Pope Tawadros to explain the matter.
The Pope began by stressing that all publications of the Arabic Bible or parts of it are produced by the Bible Society, which has many branches worldwide, including in Egypt. He said it was printed on specially treated paper to guarantee it remains in good condition for no less than 100 years. No print houses in Egypt can offer these features, so the Arabic Bible is printed only by the Bible Society, in places outside Egypt. Any books other than that, which claim to be Bibles are not ‘Bibles’. “That is why the Coptic Church issued a statement warning against them,” the Pope said.
The Coptic Culture Centre issued a statement warning against four of them which it said it had received queries about. The statement said the books were fake Bibles that included twisted misrepresentations of Bible texts, heresies to destroy the correct Christian faith, and had moreover not been published by the Bible Society. It said that the misrepresentation of Biblical texts was part of a widespread, fanning conspiracy that aimed at reviving heresies of Arian character, which were defeated by the Church since the first centuries. The Bible Society also issued a statement explaining that it had nothing to do with these books, and why they were erroneous.
“Those books you mention were printed for questionable purposes that target Egypt’s national unity—the most precious thing we have,” the Pope said.
Communion with common spoon?
“As churches reopen,” Mr Ezzat said, “I am reminded of the controversy that raged through social media over the Coptic method of Communion using the masteer, a common spoon that some feared might carry the infection. Is there any plan to change that”?
“With churches reopened,” the Pope said, “we go back to what has always been our normal practice of administering Communion. The Church uses the masteer and also uses the method of dripping the Holy Blood over the Holy Body of Christ and giving it to communicants without using the masteer. Both methods are correct and both are in use. We have changed nothing.
“I was asked about this matter by Watani’s Victor Salama, and my reply was that the two methods are in use but, since the idea was being discussed on social media, there was nothing against its being discussed by the Holy Synod. That was all.”
Interview with Watani:
Putting the house in order
Pope Tawadros spoke of his first goal when he became patriarch, that of “putting the house in order”. By this he meant organisational restructure of the Coptic Orthodox Church to become a modern-day institution subject to established rules and bylaws that bypass the personal whim of those in charge. He said that the process had taken off, but needed much more time to complete in view of the extensive scope of work. In areas of ministry where bylaws were written, new order was created and the result has been impressive, he said. He gave an example of rules set for the ordination of priests, and the organisation and networking created in serving the needy. With a quiet laugh he said, however, that the new order gave rise to rumours that the Church has cancelled its service of the underprivileged, and that the Pope does not like the poor!
As the interview drew to a close, Mr Ezzat posed a question to the Pope about his ‘friend’; “who is she?” he asked. Pope Tawadros replied that the word was used in a figurative sense as the title of a “short story” he had written and which was published on 3 July in the Friday issue of the State-owned Cairo daily al-Ahram. The ‘friend’, he said, was the third-storey window of his cell at his office in Ikingi Maryut, 34km west of Alexandria. “It is the place from which I run my ministry in Alexandria, because I find it difficult to stay at the papal headquarters at St Mark’s Cathedral in the city centre. The security measures taken when I am there inconveniently disrupts the residents’ activity.
“At Ikingi, which is a solitary place, I find peace. My window overlooks a serene scene of natural beauty. A eucalyptus tree grows there, its branches reaching up to my window. The chirping of the birds and sound of the breeze in it captivate me. It is a scene I deeply love and resonate with. Contemplating it gives rise to calm sentiments which I found myself jotting down on paper at the early hours one day. By 6am I found I had a ‘story’ which was in essence no more than spontaneous contemplations of personal feelings.”
Excerpts from: “My Friend”
“The sky is clear, the air pure, the sun shining, the eucalyptus tree lofty, and the birds chant their melodies with overwhelming joy and peace, moving and flying with no worry or anxiety …
“It is as though I listen to a soft melody … feeling only the birds and wind … speaking to each other, likely in a language that surpasses our knowledge.
“Each morning I sit quietly before that window, feeling that God is watching me … I see my thoughts and life … I see love flowing from the sky, sun, tree, birds, sounds, breeze, and light … indeed a magnificent tableau.
“It seems to me the window speaks of my life, now that I am nearing the end of the seventh decade of my years … the constant movement of the tree’s branches represents the movement of my life. Sometimes this movement was gentle; at others abrupt …
“ … the leaves … represent the people I met: close relatives, loved ones, or transient acquaintances. Life has no meaning without people …
“Love is this beautiful sentiment one feels through others. I have loved most of those I knew: my family, friends, colleagues, acquaintances, visitors … the love differed, of course, from one person to another.
“I experience overwhelming love in my relations with others … I feel my heart crying towards each person, ‘I love you!’ I cannot recall a day when I permitted hate to creep into my heart.
“When, at the beginning of the seventh decade in my life, the Divine placed me in a position of significant responsibility, I felt the energy of love flowing … a stream of fresh water flowing towards everyone indiscriminately, even to those who were hostile or antagonistic towards me, or those who criticised or condemned my decisions … but the most difficult was harshness with which I was met by some of them. It was as though their hearts were devoid of mercy, sympathy, or love.
“I wonder: how can loveless people exist in a domain the primary prerequisite of which is love?
“In the bird’s graceful movement, I sense God’s loving gentle hand; in the bird’s soft voice, I feel His tender voice; and in the bird’s comings and goings, I feel life’s continually renewed pulses.
“God’s work with me has been truly overwhelming … Looking back, I am amazed at my life, enveloped in God’s strong hand. I feel I resemble that bird which moves fearlessly, freely and joyfully, with no concerns.
“The birds’ songs are sounds of praise, prayer, joy, and serenity. It is a feeling mutual among themselves, and between them and me.
“This window, and all I see through it mean that life is sweet and intact … despite the evil we hear or encounter … my sentiments towards “my friend” are of comfort and peace.
“… And it paints a beautiful tableau of my life.”
29 July 2020