I do not exactly remember the number of times I interviewed Pope Tawadros II, nor do I recall the specific topics on which we talked, but I will never forget my first interview with him at the desert monastery of Anba Bishoy hours after the altar draw that declared him the 118th Coptic patriarch.
With this year 2022 witnessing a number of significant Church events, including the first gathering of Middle East patriarchs in Egypt, the consecration of ten Coptic bishops, and the canonisation of new saints, I felt it was time to again meet Pope Tawadros. The Pope welcomed the idea with his legendary affability and I found myself once more heading to the monastery of Anba Bishoy where our meeting was scheduled. I could not help but contemplate the 10 years during which Pope Tawadros was head of the Coptic Church; my head spun at the volume of pastoral and reform work achieved. I woke up to a scene that had dramatically changed in 10 years: the road to the monastery was wider and accommodated two-way traffic, the big iron gate of the monastery was opened by remote control, trees lined pathways that had once been desert sand until I reached the papal residence set close to the church of the Transfiguration, the Logos visitor-conference centre, and the magnificent library.
Putting house in order
It was inevitable that many of my questions to the Pope would draw on topics broached in previous interviews. Our dialogue went on for a full 90 minutes that felt much shorter till I happened to look at my watch! Yet, in his true simplicity as a monk and responsibility as a patriarch, Pope Tawadros let me leave only after he had replied to all my queries.
Q In my first interview with Your Holiness, you said your priority list included “putting the house in order”. Ten years on, what has been achieved on that front?
Pope Tawadros: “Putting the house in order” is an expression that denotes very big work. Our Church and congregation inside and outside Egypt have grown extensively, meaning that we need competent administration of various services, also seamless communication and information exchange between churches and clergy in different places; this is what we term in short ecclesiastical management.
By the grace of God, we have achieved several objectives on this front. We drew ten bylaws for various Church activities, among them bylaws to govern the selection and responsibility of bishops, priests, and consecrated deacons; administration of parishes and of monasteries; and formation and charge of church lay councils. In fact, the first set of bylaws drawn was concerned with the election of the patriarch; it replaced the older one of 1957 which had become outdated.
We also established an institute for ecclesiastical management and development, to focus on the structural organisation of the Church as an institution.
On another front, we created new parishes inside and outside Egypt, given that the parish is the ultimate ecclesiastical form for care and service; it encompasses the congregation, servants, priests, and bishop. Inside Egypt, a new parish was created in al-Wadi al-Gadeed in the vast expanse of the Western Desert and oases—the first parish there in eight centuries; and the parish of Minya was divided into three smaller parishes. Outside Egypt, new parishes were set up in The Netherlands, Greece, and two in Canada. And that is only part of what was achieved. Let me tell you that it is only 10 per cent of what we wish to fulfil; our Church needs so much more.
Bishops .. bishops
Talking of parishes brings me to my next question: the recent consecration of 10 bishops last June was the 12th such event in the space of the 10 years of your papacy. Given that it is no simple matter to consecrate a new bishop, especially in our modern era when various streams of thought require of the Church developed pastoral and societal care, how is a bishop selected and what is expected of him?
When a diocesan bishop passes away, the parish is “orphaned”. Previously, there were no specific arrangements for such a situation, now we have set up procedures to follow till a new bishop is seated. First, a papal legate is appointed to fully supervise the diocese and give us a comprehensive report on the financial, administrative, pastoral, and spiritual condition of the diocese. This presents us with a vision for selecting a new bishop, seeing that a bishop is a pivotal figure for the well-being of the congregation. A significant factor in the choice of bishop is that the right man be placed in the right place. We go back to official maps and figures to determine the area and dimensions of a parish, the number of churches in it, the numbers of priests and congregations. A parish inside Egypt has needs different from that in another place in the world; one that primarily requires building new churches or community centres needs to be run in a way different than one where the major need is pastoral. Many of the bishops who departed left us with an adequate legacy of churches and buildings, so we now focus on choosing bishops who could deliver profound spiritual and pastoral care; these are in general found among the older, experienced, mature monks.
Apart from the huge effort and the wisdom we seek from God to choose a new bishop, the bishops chosen were given a condensed 40-hour course in pastoral management, and were invited to visit existing dioceses to observe firsthand how they are run. We constantly pray for our bishops, new and old.
Development not charity
Please tell us about the care offered by the Church to the congregation.
Care is a multifaceted activity; we attempt to offer it holistically. On the ground, I see shortages in homes for the elderly, training of Church servants, and pre-marriage preparation courses for young people. The most recent Synod of the Church last June decided to designate the year June 2022 to June 2023 “My Holy Family Year”. All Church activities and services should focus on this objective; I will also do so in my weekly Wednesday evening prayer meeting.
Church care runs along three axes, in order of priority: support, education, and construction.
Support for the needy is moving away from charity donations, except in case of the poor who are incapable of working, to development which is broader and more sustainable. But even so, the Church still helps those in need through our Charity Commission. In Cairo, the Commission helps some 60 couples a week to get married, each couple getting around EGP9,000 or its equivalent in kind. It also helps the sick, and families in need of homes or home repairs, in coordination with the bishopric of social services (BLESS) and the patriarchal secretariat for social care which is in itself in partnership with a number of NGOs that operate in various fields and places. We have a data base based on the ID of those offered care and service. In short, the Church now offers holistic care in a humane, competent manner to every human in need.
Egypt: a great temple
Your great love for Egypt is one of your very obvious traits. How do you see Egypt?
Egypt has the unique singularity of being under the special care of God who explicitly said in the Book of Isaiah “Blessed be Egypt, my people” (Isaiah 19:25). Only the hands of God control life in Egypt which gave refuge to the Christ Child, His Mother Mary, and St Joseph on their biblical flight from Herod.
I see Egypt as a great temple supported by several pillars, the Coptic Church being one of them. If a pillar falls, the entire structure collapses. The other pillars are the Muslim institution of al-Azhar, Egyptian culture, sports, judiciary and so forth.
Coptic Church: Egyptian, independent
How do you see the relationship between the Coptic Church and the Egyptian State?
The Coptic Orthodox Church is Egyptian to the core, and has been thoroughly Egyptian throughout its 20 centuries of history, regardless of change of rulers or conditions in Egypt. It has always remained firm in its faith, and has without fail prayed for the land and the people.
The Coptic Church is the only Egyptian institution that has always remained independent; it never came under any outside authority. The story of the Russian Tsar Nicolas I who sent to the Coptic Pope Boutros al-Gawli (patriarch in 1809-1852) offering to protect the Coptic Church is preserved in history; Pope Boutros asked the Tsar’s envoy: “Does the Emperor die?” When the envoy answered that of course he would die, the Pope said: “We are under the protection of One who doesn’t die”.
The Coptic Church has never sought power or authority, its field has always been the spiritual, it serves the community and is faithful to the country. When in August 2013 the Muslim Brothers attacked and burned more than 100 churches and Christian institutions nationwide, Copts did not retaliate, realising the attacks were meant to destabilise Egypt. We called for self-restraint; I then said: “A homeland without churches is better than churches without a homeland.”
President and Pope
President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi holds you in deep love and respect, as he explicitly said at the Cathedral of the Nativity of Christ on 6 January 2022 when he wished Copts a Happy Nativity Feast. How did this come by?
It was the will of the Lord to choose me to shoulder the mission of pastoral care of the Coptic Church during one of the most difficult times for Egypt and the Church. I became patriarch in November 2012 when Egypt was in the throes of the post-Arab Spring rule of the Muslim Brothers (MB), experiencing the highest level of sectarianism and terrorism. A few months into the papacy, [Islamic] terrorists attacked the grounds of St Mark’s Cathedral, which also house the papal headquarters, at Anba Rweiss in Abassiya, Cairo. It was a very sad incident, but I was confident in God’s protection and I clung to the wisdom of silence and steadiness practised by the Coptic Church throughout its history. We prayed for the Lord to lift the hardship, and He did lift it not only for the Church but also for all of Egypt.
It took a mere few weeks later for Egyptians to go out en masse to demand the overthrow of the MB regime and the establishment of a civil State in what has famously been termed the 30 June 2013 Revolution. The unrest led me to put off my weekly prayer meeting and go in retreat at a Church desert home in King Maryut southwest Alexandria.
Once again God’s answer to prayers was obvious. I received an official telephone call inviting me to an important meeting with the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. An aircraft flew me from Borg al-Arab Airport to Cairo where for the first time I met Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi.
With participation of Sheikh Ahmad al-Tayeb, Grand Imam of al-Azhar, and representatives of the various sectors of the Egyptian people, we candidly and transparently discussed the country’s situation in a totally democratic climate. A road map was drawn with true love for Egypt and a faithful vision for its future. The Military Council issued a statement assigning Adly Mansour, President of the Constitutional Court, as Interim President of Egypt, and paving the way to a new Constitution and the election of a new president.
A sense of comfort and relief engulfed me. As I flew back, I saw from above the jubilation of the masses of Egyptians in the streets. I thanked the Lord and still thank Him for bringing peace and security to Egypt.
In June 2014, the election of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as President of Egypt represented the birth of the State of citizenship; and returned the relationship between the State and the Church to its proper place.
Copts have for long years encountered a climate of rejection, to the point that they were persecuted and martyred. How do you see the current situation of Copts?
There is a big improvement in the situation of Copts under the political leadership of President Sisi. Since he became President in 2014, he made it a tradition to visit our church on Christmas Eve every year at the outset of Midnight Mass to wish Copts a happy Feast of Nativity; he is the first Egyptian head of State to do so. During these visits, President Sisi repeatedly said that all Egyptians—Muslim and Christian—are one; our unity is invaluable and keeps our country and people intact.
But it is not only about Christians in Egypt. Let me tell you of a recent incident that involved the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC) which last May held its General Assembly (GA) in Egypt for the first time. The MECC includes ten Arab countries and Cyprus as members. Representing them in the GA were popes and heads of Churches; also attending were representatives from some 30 different countries around the world. We saw it as a good chance for them to meet our President.
We contacted the presidential office which directly welcomed the idea and set a close date for the visit. On 17 May 2022, 17 popes and heads of ME Churches were warmly welcomed by President Sisi at his office. The meeting lasted for one hour and 20 minutes, and was friendly and affectionate. The President listened to his guests attentively, expressing sympathy with Christians in countries that are experiencing hardships, and stressing that Christians are an essential part of the Arab society.
Going back to the situation of Christians in Egypt, the representation of Copts in parliaments and leading positions in the State has unprecedentedly increased, confirming equality, non-discrimination, and the citizenship concept on which the State is based. Coptic MPs in the House of Representatives today number 31; for the first time in the history of the Senate, the number of seats occupied by Copts is 24; and the Coptic woman Phoebe Girgis was elected Second Deputy Speaker of the Egyptian Senate—another first. Damietta and Daqahliya have Coptic governors; Manal Awad Mikhail is the first Coptic woman to hold the position of governor [of Damietta].
For the first time, Egypt now has a law to govern the building and restoration of churches following centuries of suppression and after 160 years of the Ottoman Humayouni Edict which required approval of the head of State to build a church. In desperation and dire need, Copts had to resort to building or restoring churches without licence, which caused more than half the attacks waged against them by fanatics.
The 2016 law for building and restoring churches includes provisions for legalising unlicensed churches; so far 2162 have been granted legality out of a total 3730 that had applied for it. The remaining will be successively legalised.
Moreover, the State restored and renovated all churches that had been destroyed by the MB in August 2013.
The State has also built the largest cathedral in the Middle East in Egypt’s New Administrative Capital, and President Sisi has given directives that every new town built in Egypt should contain land allocated to building a church.
Church and State: iconic partnership
I see a new dawn of the Church partnering with the State in development efforts. How is this being done?
The Church has always promoted a culture of volunteer work; a culture that has bred great efforts on the global scale as in the Red Cross and Médecins sans Frontières. In Egypt, many of our youth have taken part in State initiatives including “Decent Life” which aims at working holistic development in villages.
The Committee of Peacemakers is among the Coptic Church’s endeavours to promote innovative development ideas by youth. A few weeks ago, the Committee held a meeting at the papal headquarters, with participation of Anba Danial, Secretary-General of the Coptic Orthodox Holy Synod; and representatives of al-Azhar and the Islamic Research Academy, MPs and senates, and a large number of youth from political parties. The idea was to offer new thought for effective national participation.
In the near future, I should be meeting young people from Mediterranean countries who will be gathering in Alexandria in a youth camp organised by the Egyptian Ministry of Youth. We are interested in working with youth one and all.
Our Church has signed a number of agreements and protocols with the government to participate in State development projects. The most recent were concerned with protecting the environment and conserving water.
In anticipation of COP27 which will be held in Sharm al-Sheikh, Egypt, next November, the Church launched a tree planting competition between its various parishes. The winners will be announced early November.
The Coptic Church is no longer contained within Egypt’s borders; the See of St Mark now extends to countries all over the world, to which Copts migrated. As the Patriarch of Copts in Diaspora, how do you manage that?
First, let me tell you that I reject the term Diaspora “Copts”. We are first and foremost Egyptian and we love our Egypt. Coptic migration started some 60 years ago and was linked to problems in Egypt. Even so, whether escaping discrimination or economic hardship, expatriate Copts remained part and parcel Egyptian, their father the Nile and their mother the land. The term Diaspora Copts possibly stuck because the Coptic Church brought them together. Ambassadors who wish to meet Copts meet them in their churches; our churches have become the Egyptian people’s embassies.
Sixty years ago, the Coptic bishops abroad were 11, but today they number 39. I am keen to meet them all on regular basis, to discuss all issues and aspects of pastoral care and administration with them. Even during COVID-19 lockdown, we held our meetings online through Zoom. I visit our parishes abroad regularly, apart from the COVID-related hiatus.
Despite your reputation of being calm and cool, it is no secret that the affairs of Diaspora Copts may represent a headache. How do you deal with this headache?
The Coptic Church outside Egypt is today 60 years old, a young Church by historical measures. Beginnings are naturally fraught with challenges; in our case these may be the language used in liturgical prayers, the duration of worship, the dates of feasts, and suchlike.
Church leaders work to resolve such difficulties. One famous issue is the date of Christmas: the Coptic Church marks it on 7 January, 29 Kiahk on the Coptic calendar, whereas Copts in the West live in communities that celebrate Christmas on 25 December. We decided that each diocese could resolve the question according to the pastoral need of its congregation. In Los Angeles, Metropolitan Serapion decided to celebrate Midnight Mass on the Eve of 25 December, but also the original one on the Eve of 7 January to mark the Coptic Feast of the Nativity on 29 Kiahk.
How about problems relating to the management of some dioceses outside Egypt that were said to suffer critical problems?
With the grace of God, we were able to resolve the problems. We did not overstate them but neither did we accept that they be depicted in a sensational light. I’ll explain to you some of them, those relating to bishops.
Anba Suriel who was Bishop of Melbourne since 1997, served well without blame till 2018 when he resigned his post. He was adamant about resigning so we accepted. An academic by nature, he relocated in LA where he now leads a stable, quiet spiritual life under the care of Bishop Serapion.
In Sydney, there were for years unsubstantiated allegations made against Bishop Daniel, but none of them was proved true. Yet in 2021 we appointed Bishop Angaelos of London, who originally comes from Sydney, as papal legate there. We thank God matters are now stable and in proper order; the two bishops work closely together.
As to France, a monk had been dispatched to serve the Coptic Church there; he remained in service 21 years till, a few years ago, we asked him to return to his monastery and monastic life. Yet some in France insisted on holding public protests against his leaving; they could not understand that a monk’s dispatch or return is a papal decision.
Conflict over monastery
The Coptic monastery of Deir as-Sultan on the rooftop of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem has frequently been the scene of a bitter conflict [between its Coptic rightful, historical owners since the 12th century, and Ethiopian monks who first entered it as guests in the 17th century but have ever since tried to seize it, attempting to pose as its owners]. Where are we now?
“The problem is political, and is as yet still unresolved despite a court order 50 years ago by the Israeli Supreme Court that the monastery rightfully belongs to the Copts. We hope it will be resolved some day. The Egyptian Embassy in Tel-Aviv, and the Coptic Metropolitan of Jerusalem, Anba Antonios, are doing their best on that front.
Copts have a presence in Jerusalem; we have monks and nuns there and we are in constant contact with them. A group of nuns from Egypt will be shortly visiting the Coptic nuns in Jerusalem.
The Coptic public were almost totally deprived of pilgrimage to Jerusalem since the Six-Day War in 1967, but our presence there is very important, and regular pilgrimage by Copts has resumed.
The family .. social media
The Personal Status Law [Family Law] for Christians in Egypt, now finally before the House of Representatives for discussion, took years of meticulous drafting yet caused much controversy. How would you comment on it?
“I am completely comfortable with the new law which should solve many problems for Christian families while faithfully adhering to the teachings of the Bible. In case of marriage for instance, the older law allowed legal separation only in case of adulterous sin. But the Bible defines marriage as a man leaving his father and mother and holding on to his wife; a couple who have separated for years have invalidated that definition. The court may, according to the new law, legally separate them, following which the Church could allow one or both of them to remarry, a decision taken on a case by case basis.
How do you confront criticism of the Church on social media?
The Coptic Church does not mind social media; the Church always works in the light, we have no hidden agenda. But we also cannot ignore social media which is by nature unchecked and thus may lack credibility, more often than not generating what we call fake news. We should teach the younger generations to be discerning, to sort out the true from the false.
The Church Spokesperson has a Facebook page on which all our news, statements, and events are posted and, last year, we launched a digital channel by our media centre.
Finally, dear Pope, what is your immediate concern right now?
What concerns me now is the preparation for opening of the largest administrative building at the papal headquarters by year end. The Coptic Church has grown, and its services have vastly expanded, so much so that the current building which was erected in 1985 can no longer accommodate its needs.
It took six years, from 2015 to 2021, till we were able prepare for an adequate building that had to be close to the papal headquarters in the grounds of St Mark’s Cathedral in Abassiya, Cairo. The new building is seven floors high, and includes bureaus, halls, and reception lobbies, as well as a guesthouse.
20 July 2022