A revolution before daybreak: Coptic Orthodox Pope, Tawadros II

Pope Tawadros II has realised that the revolutionary spirit in Egypt cannot be suppressed. His answer has been to create a system in the Coptic Orthodox Church that is more open minded and accessible than it has ever been in nearly two thousand years of existence, says Nelly van Doorn-Harder.

The 25th of January anniversary of Egypt’s revolution, Tawadros II, who became pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church this past November, did not send out his usual uplifting message to the believers on Twitter. Instead, after a day of business as usual, he addressed the believers via television. When asked for coping strategies for the current political and economic upheavals, he advised that Egypt’s Christians turn off the TV, take a rest from the news and focus on prayer since “God’s promise is alive and He will preserve our country.”

That day and the days following, there has been little to celebrate. Egyptians are ruled by anger, discontent, and disappointment for what many consider to be a failed democracy.  In addtion to pro-democracy demonstrators, on the 25th of January, thousands of soccer fans hit the streets in anger when 21 defendants were sentenced to death for their alleged role in last February’s soccer riots, which left 79 fans dead in the town of Port Said. Many say these 21 are the scapegoats of a failed security system; the government did nothing to protect the fans. By Tuesday, January 29, more than 50 people were killed: most of them in Port Said, some around Tahrir Square.

The fabric of the revolution is unraveling. Egypt has a new constitution that many Egyptians consider to be so heavily influenced by Islamist ideas that it ignores vital parts of the population: women, liberal Muslims, and religious minorities. The country is reeling in political and economic upheaval. President Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, comes across as isolated and incompetent. He is believed to take his orders from the Brothers highest leader, the murshid. In the midst of chaos, religious ultra conservatives, the Salafis, keep insisting that only the strictest form of Islamic law can save Egypt. They claim that this strict set of laws will uphold “the purest ethics and ideologies” as symbolized by a ban on alcohol, the segregation of the sexes and the imposition of Islamic dress.

Egyptians see their society becoming polarized between Muslim conservatives and the rest. The Salafis are illiberal at heart and consider Muslims of other mindsets, as well as Coptic Christians, to be unbelievers. Although democratically chosen, the new Islamic regime comes across as profoundly theocratic. Egypt’s Christians--Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants--are all in the same boat.They fear that the regime’s ultimate goal is to take the country back to a time were differentiation based on religion was enshrined within the Islamic state.

Tawadros did not base his advice to close the door and wait out the storm on pure theological reasoning. He takes his clues from history. He is not the first Coptic pope to start his reign in a time of profound chaos; in the past, Copts have survived similar periods of extreme duress. Tawadros must continue to be a spiritual leader for the Copts who have left Egypt, and for the millions who’ve stayed.

The charismatic Pope Cyril VI (1959-1971) became the leader of the Church when it was in the midst of utter internal chaos; lay people and clergy were at each other’s throats, while the wealth of the entire community was decimated by Nasser’s revolutionary decisions. Muslim politician Dr. Shahira Mehrez recounts that in those days her father who hailed from a family of landowners,was so afraid of Nasser’s decrees that he did not dare watch television and eventually died of sheer stress.

During the time of Tawadros’ predecessor, Shenouda III (1971-2012), incidents of inter-communal strife increased. During his forty years in office, there were at least twenty- three clashes that can be classified as massacre; more than twenty people were killed at one time. Especially when President Sadat (1970-1981), in an attempt to court radical Muslims, re-instated the Shari’ah as one of the legal sources of Egyptian law attacks on Christians increased. Sadat famously called himself “a Muslim president of a Muslim country.” The Pope and the President collided head on, and Shenouda ended up being exiled for an extended period in a remote monastery (1981-1985). Shortly after the Pope had left Cairo, the President was murdered by the same group he had been flirting with.

Even after the long autocratic rule of Pope Shenouda III (1971-2012), the Coptic Orthodox Church is much less polarized than it was during the 1960s. Shenouda  expanded the Church and gave Copts a renewed sense of identity. At the same time, he was the sole voice speaking on behalf of the community, vis-à-vis the government, and he was not very democraticly-minded. A host of excommunications reveal a tendency to quell dissenting voices.  But outside the papal residence, the quest for justice and freedom during the early days of the 2011 Revolution resounded within the Church as much as in the streets; especially among the youth.

Metropolitan Pachomius of Damanhour, who served as interim pope, was keenly aware of this reality and in his view: “The desire for democracy is a movement all over Egypt. After January 25, 2011, you can’t tell anybody what to do anymore.” Coptic legal scholar Mina Khalil has found the same trend among Copts in Cairo’s populous neighborhoods where all, young, old, rich or poor, clamor to speak their mind. 

Pachomius’ first move was to democratize the 1959 laws governing the election of a new pope. His second move was to withdraw Bishop Paula from Tanta, who represented the Coptic hierarchy, from the committee charged with drafting the much contested Constitution that in the view of many does not allow for freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and ignores the rights of women and religious minorities. The decision making process in itself was revolutionary as the Metropolitan consulted with all levels of his Church before carrying his suggestions to its highest body, the Holy Synod. Experts, scholars, journalists, and regular church members were invited to express their opinions. He asked the conference of seventy with whom he discussed the Coptic Orthodox stance concerning the new Constitution if the official Coptic representation should continue to work in the drafting committee or not. They voted “no” with an overwhelming majority and the Metropolitan offered President Morsi his Church’s resignation. Following this decision, the Catholic and Protestant churches followed suit and equally withdrew their representatives.

The new pope, Tawadros, used to be an assistant bishop to Pachomius. He followed his mentor in opening the often secretive halls of the Church. During an interview on January 24th, he told me that words such as democracy and revolution are not appropriate to describe this new wind in his ancient, hierarchicChurch. He calls it a “modernization,” a new policy that allows all Copts “to express their ideas and to share and participate in church issues.” In his view, they are all servants of the Church. He is a firm believer in delegating and team work.

As for the Church; his first priority is to create a transparent administrative system that protects individuals from the vagaries of nepotism and favoritism. This is not an easy task. Some articles in the much debated new Constitution underline the elements of authority within the Church that are problematic for its youth as well as for many other Copts.  Article 3 grants the Church prime authority in matters of personal status. In real life, this means, for example, that you can only marry in the Church. Most Copts are quite happy with this law as it prevents Islamic influence in what they consider to be a Sacrament. Those who seek a divorce are not happy though since the only two reasons the Church accepts for breaking up a marriage are adultery and conversion to Islam. These strict rules are equally followed by Egypt’s Protestants. In the twenty-first century, the Church’s strict stance creates what Pope Tawadros has called “a headache,” as it sends out a message that there is no freedom inside the Church.

The ideas laid out in article three of the Constitution in fact create a division across religious lines within Egypt’s population. As a result, Article 33 that claims all citizens to be equal before the law does not reflect reality. Even if not discriminated against openly, Copts know that forms of inequality are unavoidable in Egyptian society. Yet, they don’t quite know how they could fit into a state ruled by Islamic law. They fear a return to the time of segregation where Christians and Jews living in the Muslim empires could enjoy freedom in their own quarters as long as they remained separate.

Yet, in Christian eyes this is old news in a new jacket; the Church has prepared its members for years to face these kind of realities. The main guidance from above is that while rejecting violence, Christians should express their opinions and air their grievances to the authorities. The Church has long provided Copts with forms of civil assistance and, according to Metropolitan Pachomius, now more than ever the Church wants to take its position in society by building more clinics, hospitals and schools to help improve Egypt’s deplorable education system. To stop the tide of unemployment, plans are in the making for vocational training centers. 

Article 219 of the Constitution confirms to the Copts that the Islamic visions for future remain blurred; the article explains that the principles of the Shari’ah are “general evidence, foundational rules, rules of jurisprudence, and credible sources accepted in Sunni doctrines and by the larger community.” The wording shows that an Islamic law that seems fixed in fact remains unclear. Relying on jurisprudence allows the judge or any Muslim in a position of authority, including the “community,” inappropriate measures of power. Based on the legal school or specific interpretation they follow (it could be the one from the Wahhabis), there is the potential to criminalize certain acts, for example going out on a date. In the end, the balance between legislative, executive and judicial powers could disappear. So the churches are speaking up and encouraging all of their members to do the same.To add volume to their voices,, for the first time in history, they have launched an Egyptian Council of Churches that unites Egypt’s Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox Christians.

In the meantime, while the streets are still filled with protestors, a true revolutionary spirit seems to have taken hold of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Assisted by little armies of like-minded priests, bishops, monks, nuns, and lay people, Pope Tawadros II has started to create a system that is more open minded and accessible than it has ever been in nearly two thousand years of existence. He is following the advice of his mentor: he takes care of his people but does not impose his will. While organizing conferences and other venues to hear their voices, he sends them a daily tweet with spiritual words. Copts themselves avidly spread his words of encouragement. While Egypt’s leaders seem to be groping through the dark that engulfs the country, Tawadros encouragement appeared on many Facebook pages:

The night is short

The sun will rise again

Remain hopeful

The light will break through for Egypt.

 

 

About the author

Nelly van Doorn-Harder is Profeesor of Islamic Studies at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, USA. She has published on issues concerning women and religion, and minority cultures in Islamic countries.

Before moving to the USA she was director of a refugee program in Cairo, Egypt, and taught Islamic Studies at universities in the Netherlands and Indonesia (Yogyakarta).