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The Coptic Orthodox Church : Challenges and Opportunities following the Arab Spring

by Field, Catherine Clare

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Debates over how concepts of Islamic law and Christian values can co-exist in a secular sphere
have become fodder for debates between academics and religious scholars and become a particular
contentious issue in discussions on a new constitution. Coptic rights and freedoms that have until
now been protected under special clauses in the constitution could come under review in a
constitution which allows for pluralism and equality. One of the thorniest issues is the question of
personal status, such as inter-religious marriage, civil marriages, divorce and inheritance where the
Church has final say.

“The vast majority of Egyptians would not accept turning matters concerning social status over to
a centralized and secular body of law,” notes Rachel M. Scott. 83

“The (above) attitudes toward marriage, divorce, inheritance, and freedom of religion and speech
indicate that while Copts oppose Egypt as an Islamic state they also see citizenship in terms that
make it possible to preserve the centrality of the church. They are interested in maintaining the
integrity of the Coptic community, and because the Christian family is the core of the Coptic
community, the best way to do so is through the personal status law.” 84

An opinion poll carried out by the Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes Project suggests
Egyptian views on religion and public life vary according to age. In early 2013, a survey showed
that around two-thirds (68%) of those aged 50 and older thought laws should strictly follow the
Qur'an, compared with 60% of 30-49 year-olds and just 54% of those under 30. 85

83 SCOTT Rachel M. The Challenge of Political Islam : Non-Muslims and the Egyptian State, Stanford
University Press (U.S.A.) 2010, pp. 170.
84 SCOTT Rachel M. The Challenge of Political Islam : Non-Muslims and the Egyptian State, Stanford
University Press (U.S.A.) 2010, pp. 176.

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The Coptic leadership

At the heart of any debate about the future of Egypt's Copts is the role of their Church, and in
particular the authority of its Patriarch. By tradition, the Church is a communal institution that
nurtures Copts' spiritual wellbeing, education and employment through its social network, including
an influential Sunday School movement. The Patriarch is the community's spiritual and temporal
representative on the national stage.

Beneath this, though, are distinctive strands. “A Coptic political mainstream, willing to
accommodate opposing opinions concerning constitutional articles; a Coptic left, calling for quick
and fundamental change for the relationship of the Copts and the state; and a political right,
calling for further restrictions on religious liberties to ensure the control of the Church over its own
affairs.” 86

From 2012, as state structures became weakened and attacks on Copts intensified, the influence of
the Coptic secular elite and internal criticism of the Church declined and many Copts sought unity
behind the Patriarch, but not exclusively so. After the military suspended Morsi's constitution, the
Church had its own representative on the committee to draft a replacement, Bishop Paul Tanta, an
appointment that secular Copts strongly attacked.

The instinct by a section of the community to shelter behind a powerful, single institution has deep
roots. For centuries, Patriarchs have played the role of interlocutor or protector of the Coptic
community at large. One example, pointed out by O.F. A. Meinardus, was in 1855 when Copts
became eligible for conscription members of the community sought out Pope Kyrillos IV to
intervene, just as he had done during the 'millet' arrangement. 87

86 Oasis Foundation, What Do Copts Want in the Constitution Milan (Italy) October 2013
87 MEINARDUS O.F. A. Christian Egypt : Faith and Life The American University in Cairo Press
(Egypt) 1970, pp. 19.

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Even once the 'millet' system of protection gave way to integration, Patriarchs retained their access
to Egypt's leaders. To achieve this 'neo-millet partnership', Patriarchs typically refrained from
intervening in national affairs in exchange for recognition of Copts' rights to worship and to own
property, and for maintaining the Church's powers in communal matters. This was the case in the
lengthy papacy of Shenouda III (1971-2012), whose tenure coincided with the 30 years in power of
Hosni Mubārak.

Pope Shenouda, initially confrontational, changed to a more conciliatory approach after enduring
three years of de-facto house arrest ordered by Sadat. Shenouda determined his relationship with
Mubārak could be driven by mutual interest: churches could be built and maintained, and in return
there would be no direct criticism of the government. In this delicate neo-millet-style balance, the
Church was a representative of all Christians to the state, and Mubārak was their shield against
Islamist groups. 88 The risks of this relationship were exposed in early 2011, when Shenouda came
out in support of the increasingly embattled Mubārak and called on Copts not to join protests
against the regime.

Shenouda's successor, Tawadros II, took a sharply different approach. In April 2013, he publicly
criticised Morsi for failing to prevent sectarian violence after an attack on Cairo's main
cathedral. Two months later, Tawadros openly supported the millions of people protesting against
the Morsi government.

Where this path leads is unclear. Will Tawadros seek an accommodation with Egypt's new rulers, or
will he remain aloof from them?

88 HAYWARD Emma Death of a Pope: The Worsening Position of Egypt's Copts, Washington Institute,
(U.S.A.) April 3, 2012.

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At the core of these questions lies a dilemma. The Church can use the mayhem of the postrevolutionary
period to secure a special status for itself -- and by extension, reinforce its role as
defender of the Coptic community. Or it can pursue a wider agenda, of promoting values of
freedom, democracy and social justice as part of a civil society for all.

This debate has seethed within the Coptic Church for centuries. It burst into the national arena in
the leadup to the Coptic Congress in Asyut in 1911 which dealt with numerous grievances, among
them demands for greater political rights, equal access to state education and positions within the

The major difficulty for the Orthodox Copts under Muslim rulewas their responsibility and
their obedience to two social orders, the Church and the state, and the superstructure within which
the Church existed,” notes Otto F.A. Meinardus. 89

For Elizabeth Iskander and others, millet-style deal-making is self-defeating. A minority that is
given special protection by the state in exchange for its religious freedom ends up having less
presence in public life: it ends up marginalising itself. 90

89 MEINARDUS O.F.A. Christians in Egypt The American University in Cairo Press (Egypt) 2006,
pp. 17.
90 ISKANDER Elizabeth Sectarian Conflict in Egypt: Coptic Media, Identity and Representation,
Routledge (G.B.) 2012, pp.79.

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As I have sought to illustrate, Egypt's Copts are facing a multitude of challenges, some of them with
deep roots in history, and others that have more recent causes.

As 2014 nears, the situation for them is bleak : Egypt is in many respects a broken country, and the
risk of sectarian strife there is now greater than it has been in centuries. After taking power, the
military have set in motion a slew of laws restricting the Muslim Brotherhood from political and
civic life. The danger is that this will further polarise the country, forcing radicalised members to
meet in 'usra mughliqa' cells and resorting to acts of violence. 91 Copts, whose religious leaders
effectively aligned them with the army by supporting Morsi's ouster, will be an obvious target.

Beyond immediate day-to-day challenges, Egypt also faces the mighty long-term problems posed
by economic collapse and population overload and, on the horizon, climate change. These are
powerful stressors for any country, let alone one that is divided and lacking in resources. If
unaddressed, they are bound to have a social impact and exacerbate sectarian tensions.

Put together, these factors mean that the chances of finding a swift and peaceful resolution to
Egypt's crisis – and by extension, of anchoring the country in a new era of religious tolerance in
which the Copts can thrive – look poor. Pessimism is well-founded when one contemplates the
prospects for a constitutional outcome. A constitution that is strong, which not only defines human
rights and civil liberties in a national charter but also provides the legal teeth to defend them, is
remote indeed.

Firstly, a constitution would have to be negotiated and agreed by all the major groups, which hardly
seems possible when an influential bloc, the Muslim Brotherhood, has been forced from power after
winning the last elections and is operating underground.

91 usra = Arabic : family; mughliqa = Arabic : closed. System of groups and meetings devised by the
Muslim Brotherhood to mobilise followers.

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Secondly, for a secular constitution to emerge, Egypt would need a powerful middle ground, a
group of moderates that commands widespread support or respect in the population, to drive the
process. Yet the middle ground has been finding it harder and harder to have its voice heard; the
Tamarrud movement of young people, whose mass petition against Morsi led to his downfall, has
been sidelined. 92

Thirdly, a secular constitution would mean religious groups would have to forego, or reduce,
powers and privileges they have enjoyed for decades, if not centuries. For the Coptic leadership,
there is an obvious argument to offer as to why it should not make such concessions: the
community would look weak at a time when the 'other side' are deemed a threat.

Even if moderates were stronger, it is unclear what notion of secularism they would be able to
convey. The concept of secularism is a product of Western history (and even then, there are many
different flavours and forms) and it has only shallow roots in the Middle East. In this region, there
is confusion as to what secularism actually means when it relates to public displays of religious
worship, affiliation or convictions. Radicals, meanwhile, tend to view secularism as a tool of
foreign domination.

For secularism to make headway, Egypt's new leaders will not only need to understand the notion of
a public arena where all have rights but where religion plays no official role. They would also have
to embrace it and muster the skills, willingness and patience to explain to the public why it is so
important: a tall order in a country undergoing its second revolution in less than three years. The
goal should be a debate that leads to the definition of citizenship and identity - of all citizens as
equal before the state and the laws, not underpinned by religious affiliation or ethnicity, and a
nationality tied to the soil rather than to religion. A first step could be practical and visible, such as
removing religious affiliation from identity cards, birth certificates, driver’s licenses and
employment applications.

92 Tamarrud = Arabic : Rebellion

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Faced with a present that is grim and a future that is even grimmer, the response of many Copts, as
they seek guidance, may be to look into the past. Copts are steeped in the history of their religion
and are intimately familiar with its treasure chest of tips showing how their religion survived in
often-hostile circumstances over nearly two thousand years.

Seen through this prism, many Copts may be tempted to conclude that their cause has endured
throughout the ages not by throwing down the gauntlet to those in power, but instead by cutting
deals with them. Past accommodations have focussed on securing for Copts a special status that
protects them or on gaining respect and status through niches that demand high-grade skills. The
historical dealmakers have been the Coptic Orthodox Church, which has played the role of
intermediary with Egypt's rulers.

Yet there are disadvantages as well as benefits in dwelling obsessively on the past. If the Church
acts as interlocutor, this impedes the citizens from having a direct link with state institutions. The
consequence is that the 'special' status becomes in reality the status of a second-class citizen. When
a social division becomes enshrined by law and by religion, it also becomes formal, and thus more

“The notions that a distinctly Coptic identity exists, that Copts share a consciousness of their
ethnicity, and that referring to the Copts as a community is credible and meaningful, strike at the
core of the Egyptian national identity and, in turn, at the security of the Egyptian state,” says Paul
Sedra. 93

93 SEDRA Paul Class Cleavages and Ethnic Conflict: Coptic Christian Communities in Modern
Egyptian Politics. Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations Vol. 10, No. 2 Routledge (G.B.) 1999, pp.

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If Copts are tempted to look to history to provide them with a compass, they also have some useful
options in the XXIst century. These include grassroots work – charity work, awareness
programmes, bridge-building exercises in sport, education and also religion – that promote
awareness, tolerance and reconciliation. Civic education and dialogue are often overlooked, yet
they are significant feeders into the process that allows societies to evolve.

Copts may also find themselves drawing on the support and resources of their members abroad.
Organisations such as Coptic Orphans in the United States have been providing training for
education and the Coptic Medical Society UK has been assisting in healthcare. Other organisations
such as the U.S. Copts Association and the UK Copts have been vocalising the plight of Christians
in Egypt to a wider audience and seeking to influence international opinion.

A further possibility is to internationalise the crisis in Egypt. As the case of Northern Ireland has
shown, if religious conflicts become too entrenched for locals to deal with, it can make sense to
bring in outsiders to act act as intermediairies.

This is a strong option for encouraging dialogue, but only in situations where trust has failed
disastrously and the rift between communities seems superable. It is be earnestly hoped that Egypt,
with its rich tapestry of Coptic history and integration, never has to resort to this tool.

Page 49

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