Copts of Egypt: Pope Francis, Al-Azhar, and the reality of sectarianism on the ground

The Pope’s meeting with Al-Azhar this week may create goodwill at a high-level, but on the ground, the situation for Copts is different.

Mariz Tadros
26 April 2017
Coptic Christian at mass in Cairo

A Coptic Christian at Easter mass in Cairo, 2017. PA Images. All rights reserved.

Pope Francis’ scheduled visit to Egypt this week comes at a critical time: the country has witnessed a number of terrorist attacks and the authorities have announced a three-month state of emergency. 

During his visit, the Pope is expected to meet with Sheikh El Tayeb, the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar – a university and mosque in Cairo and one of Sunni Islam’s most powerful and influential centres for learning and issuance of religious opinions. According to Catholic news sources, “the Pope’s trip will likely focus largely on inter-faith dialogue and Catholic-Muslim relations – especially in combating Christian persecution.” 

Along similar lines, a spokesperson for the presidential office said Egypt hopes the visit will cement a “spirit of tolerance and dialogue” among followers of different faiths and further isolate extremism and terrorism. Pope Francis will also meet with Pope Tawadros II who resides over the largest Christian population in Egypt (roughly ten percent of the population are Coptic Orthodox, with less than one percent comprising Catholics and Protestants). 

This resumption of dialogue between the Vatican and Al-Azhar, and the thawing of a long freeze in relations between the two, is also broadly significant in its timing: Al-Azhar has recently warned of the dangers of Islamophobia in the West, while the Vatican has decried the persecution of Christians in the Middle East. This meeting between representatives of two of the world's most powerful religious institutions helps challenge ideas that religious pluralism is threatened by a power struggle between Muslims and Christians. 

It also creates goodwill that may in future prove to be invaluable in forging bridges and common understandings around key issues.

The Vatican, the Egyptian authorities and even Western governments are counting on Al-Azhar which has described itself as “the beacon of moderate Islam” to crowd out Islamist militants and in the process contribute to more inclusive, tolerant societies. But can Al-Azhar achieve this? 

Religious authority and legitimacy tend to be more fragmented than this implies, and seeped in power dynamics that can seldom be reduced to textual exegesis or official declarations by Al-Azhar, notwithstanding its influence.

Indeed, the view from below looks very different to that from the top. 

“We are a Muslim state”

"The view from below looks very different to that from the top."In late February 2017, a major international conference hosted by Al-Azhar concluded with the issuance of an important declaration affirming Muslim and Christian religious institutions’ commitment to the principle of equal citizenship.

Yet on the ground, in the village of Kom Al Lofi, in the Upper Egyptian governorate of El Minya, the practices of two Al-Azhar sheikhsSheikh Ahmed Mohamed, an employee of the local mosque, and Sheikh Abdel Gawad, the Imam – suggest a very different take on citizenship than that espoused by Al-Azhar.

In an interview with the official mouthpiece Al-Ahram newspaper, both sheikhs categorically opposed the right of 500 Christian inhabitants to have a church in their village, suggesting that the route to social harmony is for the Christians residents to forgo the idea altogether.

Sheikh Ahmed said that as Copts comprise 7.3% of the village, “their numbers do not allow for the construction of a church.” When the journalist asked if 500 people do not have a right to their own place of worship he responded: “We are a Muslim state (Dawla muslimah) and if there was a pre-existing church we would not object to prayers taking place, but why call for having a church now when we need to unite, not cause the occurrence of strife and this is strife caused by the media!” He suggested that groups outside the village must be inciting this call for a church because the Christian residents are too poor to contemplate constructing one themselves.

When the journalist questioned how the Muslim majority would be harmed by a church being constructed in the village, given that there are ten mosques, Sheikh Ahmed said: “It is not right and it is not conceivable because our religion is against the construction [of the church]. This is a Muslim state and it has been unacceptable from a security point of view since a long time ago.”

Christians in Kom Al Lofi used to worship in a building that they used as a church but they were prohibited from doing so by the security forces several years ago in response to opposition from local residents and members of religious movements. Since then, families have travelled for miles to worship at churches in other villages.

In recent months, religious hardliners in these other villages have also objected to visitors worshipping in their local churches. In August 2016, security forces promised to reopen the building in Kom Al Lofi to allow Christians to worship there but they have sought the approval of the inhabitants and religious hardliners in the village – which has been repeatedly denied.

Copts have not been silent spectators to the escalating sectarian situation.

On 11 April 2017 – two days after suicide bombers attacked churches in Alexandria and Tanta – local authorities allowed Christians to worship in the building in Kom Al Lofi, but they were met by other residents who threw stones at them. Security forces intervened and arrested the perpetrators, but two days later, on 13 April 2017, the houses of three Christian residents were torched by people in the village in retaliation for their worship in the local building. (The local sheikhs told the Al Ahram newspaper that the Copts had burnt the houses themselves to attract attention).

Copts in Kom Al Lofi have not been silent spectators to the escalating sectarian situation. Rather, last week they issued a widely-publicised declaration calling on the state to protect their constitutional right to worship and rejecting any informal mediation by so-called local leaders or any deal that would treat them like second-class citizens. While they held puritanical Salafi hardliners and the Muslim Brotherhood responsible for fomenting anti-Christian sentiment, they also rejected on this occasion the authority of local sheikhs to determine what, when, where and how they should worship.

Legitimacy is the eye of the beholder

In February 2017, ISIS released a video communique that was then removed (presumably by YouTube) – though a copy remains. Critically, this video not only speaks to the “infidels” (in this case, the Copts, specifically) but also addresses Muslims, declaring that the Pact of Umar is no longer binding and therefore Muslims have an obligation to kill Copts.

The Pact of Umar refers to a 7th century agreement between Christians living on land conquered by the Islamic army (in what is modern-day Syria) and Umar Ibn el Khattab, the Second Caliph. The Pact assures Christians of the right to protection conditional upon the observance of numerous rules. For centuries this Pact served as the religious precedent for conditions governing the role and status of non-Muslims in Egypt – along with many other majority Muslim contexts – until it became a modern nation-state and it was gradually replaced with citizenship.

In its February 2017 video, ISIS declared that Copts do not qualify for protection as per Umar’s Pact because they have failed to comply with the requirement that they show subjugation and reverence to Muslims. In doing so, ISIS is in effect drawing on Islamic sources to legitimise its position.

One response to this is to argue that ISIS’s engagement with Islamic scholarship should not be taken seriously as the movement represents an aberration from Islam.

Indeed, ISIS’s religious interpretations and practices have been considered unrepresentative of Islam by a large cohort of distinguished religious scholars. But ISIS has presented an interpretation of religion that is sufficiently convincing and appealing to some people – and to deny this would be to bury our heads in the sands, according to Ahmed Abd Rabo, an expert on Islamism.

Abd Rabo astutely argues that whether official Islamic authorities (such as the Egyptian Ministry of Endowments) acknowledge it or not, ISIS and other militants do draw on some religious texts and history which condones the killing of non-Muslims and this can only be countered by presenting a contending religious vision and project.

Beyond the Pope-Sheikh dialogue

So what can we hope for, in terms of a Vatican-Al-Azhar dialogue contributing to religious pluralism? Religious authority and legitimacy are dynamic, fragmented and ever- changing.

First, those who endorse dialogues between such leaders as a way of prompting religious pluralism may need to rein in expectations. The truth of the matter is that religious authority and legitimacy are dynamic, fragmented and ever-changing. Attempts at homogenising religious discourse are likely to backfire, and the appeal of ISIS’s references and interpretations of religious texts is not going to die out soon.

Second, if Al-Azhar is perceived to be responding to any external pressure to reform its internal. university curricula – and especially if this is perceived to be associated with the influence of the Catholic church – this will almost certainly only elicit a backlash. It will empower hardliners to challenge Al-Azhar on grounds of loss of independence.

Finally, let us not make the promotion of equality among people of different faith (or no faith) subject to what lies in the Pandora's box of contending interpretations, readings and framings. Citizenship needs to be premised on substantive democracy, equality and rule of law.

In other words: if an independent inquiry were to be established to hold to account the perpetrators of sectarian violence in the village of Kom Al Lofi, and one of its findings is that a variety of actors, including the religious leaders in the village, have contributed to the circulation of rumours and incitement of hate speech against the Christians – they should be held to account by the rule of law like anyone else.

We should not have to wait for the head of Al-Azhar’s position on equal citizenship to trickle down to local sheikhs for justice to be upheld.

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