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Copts' cause is a cross
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 19 - 05 - 2011

Coptic Christians are divided over the relationship between the Church and laypersons, but are united in that they are Egyptian citizens and deserve full citizenship rights, writes Gamal Nkrumah
The primary threat to Egypt's post-25 January Revolution political stability appears to be the frayed relationship between Coptic Christians and secular Muslims on the one hand and Salafis on the other. The Coptic Christians of Egypt are in a funk. The reason behind the low spirits of Christians in Egypt is the sudden appearance on the political stage of the Salafis.
The Coptic Orthodox Church has had significant privileges and a wide unofficial remit which is a legacy of a sweetheart deal between the Coptic Church and the regime of ex- president Hosni Mubarak since the latter released Coptic Pope Shenouda III from incarceration in 1982. Pundits, Coptic Christians and Muslims alike are of the opinion that Pope Shenouda has been eternally grateful to Mubarak ever since.
Pope Shenouda has urged Copts to halt their current protests in front of the Maspero state Television Building immediately. Earlier, he even urged Copts to refrain from congregating in Tahrir Square during the heady days of the 25 January Revolution. And pleaded with them not to dabble in politics.
Copts should disband from the protests, he warned, because the authorities are losing patience with the Coptic protesters. But he seemed to backtrack somewhat after meeting with senior members of the Higher Council of the Armed Forces on Sunday, when the Pope was quoted as saying that: "I cannot put pressure on my children [Coptic Christians] to do anything against their will."
This confession was interpreted differently in different quarters, both Christian and Muslim. Some felt that the Pope was conceding that he no longer has a say among his congregation and that he is fast losing influence among Copts. Others believed that the Pope was reneging on his admonition to Coptic Christians to stop meddling in politics. He himself has refrained from deviating from non- religious matters in public.
"There is a misconception that every single edict of the Pope is mandatory. Many Copts turned a deaf ear to the Pope's injunction of not getting involved in the 25 January Revolution protests. On the contrary laypersons are free to decide on political matters even though as Coptic Christians they must abide by Papal edicts," Managing Editor of Watani International Samia Sidhom told Al-Ahram Weekly.
The Coptic Orthodox Church's position on this prickly subject does not necessarily reflect reality. The Church is increasingly finding it difficult to refute claims that its decisions are based on outdated dogma rather than on pure merit.
The reality is that the Church is feeling vulnerable. "Both the Church and Coptic laypersons are feeling less secure these days. Security was better under Mubarak. And, militant Islamists didn't have the freedom that they now enjoy because most of the Salafi activists were incarcerated," Sidhom explained. "The only hope we as Copts have is in the strengthening of the civil society in Egypt and to install a secular government to secure our citizenship rights."
Other Coptic human rights activists and intellectuals concur. Sure, having used all the tricks in the book, from flirting with the Mubarak regime to dampening Copts' involvement in the revolution, the Church is now feigning disinterest in politics and turning to ecumenical matters.
"The Pope is free to issue edicts. We, too, are free not to heed his advice. He asked Christians not to demonstrate against Mubarak and they did," Samir Morcos, political activist and commentator told the Weekly. "The central issue is whether one defines the Christians of Egypt as a sect or as citizens of this country. I believe that the way forward is to relinquish the old practice initiated by the late president Anwar El-Sadat of designating Copts as a sect. You cannot pigeon-hole Copts. We are citizens and not a sect. You cannot divide Egyptian society according to religious classifications. I am a Christian Egyptian citizen and I am entitled to full citizenship rights."
Former MP Ibtisam Habib, a Coptic Christian member of the defunct National Democratic Party (NDP), concurs. "The Coptic Church's influence over the majority of Christians in the country is also a legacy of the country's recent history."
She noted that even though many Coptic Christians are devout churchgoers, the Church has no final say concerning their political affiliation and ideological orientation. There are Copts in the Wafd Party, others in the Socialist and Communist movements and newly founded parties and yet others in the Tagammu Party and among the Nasserists."
In many Coptic communities, the Coptic priest is no longer the authority figure he once was. "The debate sparked by Pope Shenouda's admonitions is healthy and not divisive," Habib noted. "The clergy have to leave politics for the politicians. The Church is not supposed to dabble into politics."
The issue has also divided senior clerics. Much of the Coptic hierarchy has lined up behind the Church, others are banking on the secularist political parties in a bid to curtail the growing power of the Jihadist Salafis. "We simply have had enough," said a Coptic priest who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Our generation, raised during the Mubarak era, simply wants a contemporary and secular country with a vibrant civil society," he explained. This perspective has set off a chain reaction among those who see the militant Islamists as a threat.
There are those who want the Coptic Church to have a niche in this overwhelmingly Muslim country. Does the Coptic Church have the right or capacity to use its status among Copts to cement itself into national life in the post-Mubarak era?
The controversy, today, is whether the Church could or should play a key role in nurturing the nascent democracy in Egypt. Many Coptic laypersons, including Coptic politicians, defer to the teachings of the Coptic Church. Most Coptic politicians are churchgoers and pious believers. However, the majority just want to be seen as ordinary Egyptian citizens with full citizenship rights.


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