Copts celebrated a joyful, peaceful Christmas last Tuesday. Contrary to what many had feared, no terrorist attack was conducted against them or their churches.
Pope Tawadros II had only a few days before talked openly on the issue of Islamist threats against the Copts, as well as a plethora of relevant issues including the Draft Constitution which goes up for a public vote next Tuesday and Wednesday
Fears of [Islamist] terrorists targeting churches on Christmas Eve—Copts celebrate Christmas on 7 January—“will never stop us from praying and rejoicing on that date,” Pope Tawadros II had told reporters at a gathering in the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Abassiya, Cairo, a few days before the New Year.
Painful recollections of the horrendous 2011 New Year bombing of the Saints Church in Alexandria that left more than 20 Copts dead, blown to smithereens; and the shooting at the Copts of Nag Hammadi as they left church after Christmas Midnight Mass in January 2010 during which seven lost their lives have never been wiped off the collective memory of Copts. Yet the Pope said: “We will pray without fear. The government is already doing its best to secure churches on that date, but we have nonetheless always prayed despite attacks and under duress—perhaps even more so under such conditions. We know that Egypt and the Church are sheltered in the heart of the Lord.”
President visits Pope
There had been wide conjecture as to what courtesy would President Adly Mansour show the Copts for Christmas. But the President pleasantly surprised everyone when he took a move that was the first of its kind when he paid a visit to Pope Tawadros II at the papal premises at St Mark’s Cathedral in Abassiya, Cairo, on the day before Christmas. He offered his good wishes to the Pope and the Coptic congregation. Warmly welcoming him with the Pope were Anba Raphail, Secretary-General of the Holy Synod; Anba Moussa, Bishop of Youth; Anba Marqos, Bishop of Shubral-Kheima, and the Bishops-General Anba Yu’annis and Anba Ermiya, as well as a number of Coptic clergy and laymen.
The Pope expressed his happiness with the visit which the Church described as the epitome of love, courtesy and hope. “On behalf of all the clergy of the Coptic Orthodox Church, the Holy Synod, the Melli (Community) Council and Coptic Orthodox Endowments Authority,” Pope Tawadros told a beaming, relaxed president, “We say how happy this visit has made us. Mr President, you are welcome here in your home [meaning the Cathedral]. The warmth of your feelings conveys a lovely message to all the people.”
Pope Tawadros received as well a number of Egyptian senior officials who came to offer their good wishes. Among them were the Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy the Minister of Local Development Adel Labib.
Accurate reports, please
During his recent pre-New Year meeting with the reporters at the Cathedral, Pope Tawadros II talked openly and candidly, giving his take on issues that have been the focus of wide public interest.
The Pope denied stories circulated by the media that he had been targeted by Muslim Brotherhood protestors while on a recent visit to Germany. “I was there to celebrate 20 years on the opening of the monastery of St Antonius in Kroeffelbach-Waldsolms. I only got to know the following day of a demonstration of some 20 individuals in the vicinity.” He expressed a wish that the media would be more precise when covering events.
Given that Egypt is on the threshold of a new Constitution which stipulates that Parliament should pass a law to govern the building of churches, a sore issue with Copts, Pope Tawadros said that the Churches in Egypt would hold meetings to discuss proposals for such a bill. “We will demand that the requirements for a permit to build a church and the time limit for that permit to be approved should be clearly defined by the law,” he said. “Under the current policy it took some 14 years for a permit to be granted to build a church in Nubariya in Beheira, west of the Delta. We applied for the permit in 1997 but only got it in 2011, and then it was only for a piece of land some 300sq.m. even though it is in a desert area where there is no shortage for space. If we divide the 300 sq.m. over the 14 years it took to get the permit, it would have taken us a full year to get little more than 21 sq.m!
“We only ask for the empowerment of a constitutional State and the rule of law.”
Any observer of the Coptic scene will swiftly realise that the case for Nubariya is no exception; Copts have had to endure decades-long humiliating waits and unreasonable, petty demands till they were granted official permits to build churches. Watani has reported on countless such cases. No surprise then that so many non-licensed churches have been built to accommodate the needs of the growing congregations. As to the issue of the churches that were closed down owing to ‘security considerations’, an expression commonly used to denote the churches which were closed down in the wake of the violent attacks by Islamists who objected to a the presence of a nearby church, the Pope said that we will have to respect security priorities, especially that security has not yet been fully restored on the street.
Free choice for voters
The Pope stressed the importance of societal dialogue for the sake of all the children of Egypt. He said he endorsed calls to conduct presidential elections before the parliamentary ones, explaining that the election of a new president would help unify the nation, whereas the parliamentary elections may be rather divisive, and require huge security effort.
Pope Tawadros said that the most important measure for the election of the upcoming president is competence, regardless of whether he comes from a military or civilian background. The Pope cited General Abdel-Salam al-Mahgoub, the Alexandria governor and General Adel Labib, the Qena governor as two epitomes of competence and efficiency who each had positive impacts on their governorates.
Pope Tawadros denied the Church’s intention to direct voters to vote ‘yes’ for the Constitution, explaining that the Church only encourages everyone to participate in the referendum.
The Pope said he rejected the concept of quotas or positive discrimination for marginalised sectors in Parliament, since the problems of these sectors go far beyond representation. It would be far better on the long run, he said, to work on changing the societal culture which keeps these sectors back.
Relations built on love
Good relations unite the Coptic Orthodox Church and the other Churches and religious institutions, Pope Tawadros confirmed. He reminded that he paid regular visits to the Coptic Catholic Church and the other Churches in Egypt on Christmas, with a view to fostering relations built on love and courtesy. This applies, he said, to the Catholic and Evangelical Churches as well as the venerable Islamic institution of al-Azhar.
Outside Egypt, Pope Tawadros visited Pope Francis in Rome last May, and said that the Coptic Church enjoyed strong relations with the Russian Church, and that he intended to visit Russia soon. “We would like to build a Coptic Church there, but the Russian Church which holds a 120 million-strong congregation, itself is already short of churches since many churches were pulled down under the communist rule.
With an eye to boosting relations within the Orthodox family of Churches, the Pope said that a convention will be held in India next month to be attended by representatives of the six Orthodox Churches in the world. Anba Bishoi, Bishop of Damietta, will represent the Coptic Orthodox Church.
Compensating Coptic victims
Last August Copts in Upper Egypt, especially in Minya, were victim to Islamist attacks during which some four Copts lost their lives, scores were injured, and some 100 churches, homes, schools, shops, and property of Copts were looted, destroyed and burned. The losses amounted to a staggering EGP65 million. Replying to a question on whether the Church has helped the victims, Pope Tawadros said that the Church started by giving them immediate compensations, then put an emergency plan in place. “We did all we could to help in the reconstruction needed and to compensate the victims through the donations given to the Church. We were able to partially compensate the owners of 18 pharmacies which had been destroyed and looted, and we intervened with the pharmaceutical suppliers and asked them to postpone the collection of payments that were due to them. We were also able to help reconstruct 85 per cent of the homes and shops which had been attacked,” the Pope recounted. As for the rebuilding and renovation of the destroyed churches, he said the State had recently started on the reconstruction work it had promised to do in locations where security conditions permit. And a plan is already in place to carry on with the work in other sites.
Commenting on the recent attacks against the Copts of Minya and Beni-Sweif, and the traditional reconciliation sessions which were held to put an end to the trouble, the Pope described the ‘reconciliation sessions’ as ‘disgraceful’ practice. It is no secret that these sessions, which are out-of-court settlements endorsed by local elders and political and security leaderships, are used to coerce the Copts who were victims of the attacks into giving up their legal rights for the sake of social peace.
“The law must be upheld,” the Pope said. “Egypt stands no chance of a clement future without the rule of law, the improvement of education and the media, and keeping politics out of schools and universities.”
The Church’s ban on Coptic pilgrimage to the Holy Lands has frequently come under fire from Copts who insisted it was their right to do so without Church interference. On this intricate issue Pope Tawadros said that the normalisation of relations with Israel which was stipulated in the 1979 peace agreement between Egypt and Israel only materialised on the official not the people’s level. “If Copts go to the Holy Land they will be judged by other Egyptians as traitors. The decision taken by the late Pope Shenouda III of banning Copts from pilgrimage to the Holy Land is thus still valid.”
Another thorny issue that required some comment from the Pope was the Church’s unyielding position on its strict policy on divorce and remarriage in the Church. Pope Tawadros said the issue would be discussed in the course of the upcoming year. He said that the Holy Synod had convened last year at the desert monastery of Anba Bishoi to discuss the Church’s family law. But shortly after that, he reminded, Anba Pola who is a pivotal figure on that issue was taken up with his role in the Constituent Assembly that drafted Egypt’s new Constitution. “But discussions on the family law will soon be resumed,” he said.
Hope and peace
The Pope expected 2014 to witness an improvement in conditions in Egypt, an aspiration which most Egyptians hold. “Only a small minority are working to muddy the pure waters,” he said.
The media came in for a gentle reproach when the Pope said it focused on the negative and painful incidents and almost disregarded those with positive impact.
“Egyptians today are in need of optimism, and hope for change to the better which I can see coming. Regrettably,” he said, “The media reports just the opposite; the western media is no exception. For decades on end, the BBC was the radio or channel everyone looked to for objective, credible coverage but this is no longer the case.”
A thoroughly Egyptian Church
“God has created humans with free minds but, unfortunately,” Pope Tawadros said, “humans have along the ages exploited this freedom to foster a culture of war.” Instead, he said, we need a culture of peace.
“All throughout its history the Coptic Orthodox Church has propagated a message of peace. It remained independent and Egyptian to the core—perhaps the only Egyptian institution that never came under foreign influence. It never aspired for power. It has always endorsed the time-honoured moderation of the Egyptians; and has constantly prayed for Egypt, the land, the Nile, and the people.”
12 January 2014