Pope Tawadros II of Alexandria, Christmas mass, 2014. Abanoub Ramsis/Demotix. All rights reserved.My joy at Pope Tawadros’ statement “If religion mixes with politics, it will become corrupted” in April of 2012 has almost faded from memory. All the enthusiasm I entertained for the newly ordained Pope and high hopes of him starting his reign on a clean slate with regard to the church’s role in society, have been crushed. All I feel now is disappointment, distress, to the point of pain at times.
Following numerous political statements made by the pope, on the morning of Christmas Eve (January 6),I promised myself not to watch the mass at the cathedral on television, as usual, but to attend mass in my local church.
This decision was made after the last statement the Pope released about the Maspero massacre, which took place in October 2011, in which he accused the Muslim Brotherhood of “luring” Coptic youth to clash with the army - contrary to what we witnessed three years ago.
Unfortunately, as I was checking my twitter feed on Christmas Eve, I read the news that President Sisi had visited the cathedral during the mass to wish the Pope and the Coptic community a merry Christmas. This visit was welcomed because apparently it was the first of its kind in modern Egyptian history. But what happened after is the reason I spent the whole evening completely disconnected from the mass.
After Sisi’s entrance, prayers in the cathedral were stopped and he was given the pulpit to deliver his speech in front of the altar. His speech was 'sweet talk' about how “we (Muslims and Christians) are going to build our country together” and that “we will love each other”. As if it were as simple as that. He didn’t attend the mass; it was a quick grand arrival and rapid departure. However, Sisi’s gesture, of course, was met with applause and loud cheers of “we love you Sisi” by the attendees.
Reactions to the incident varied, some warmly welcomed it, others felt dismayed by the interruption of the service. As for me, throughout the whole night I couldn’t help but contrast two parallel images in my mind.
The first was of the families and friends of the Maspero victims being hushed for screaming and shouting in grief against military rule back in 2011, while they were mourning their beloved during the funeral and the following Christmas mass (some were even kicked out of the church for doing so). And the other was of what had just happened in the very same cathedral.
I was exhausted by the comparison. To mourn the unjustly massacred and raise your voice against oppressors is unwelcome in the church and considered inappropriate in the house of God. But to interrupt prayers and let politicians speak during a mass is deemed very appropriate.
This is quite ironic considering that this very same politician is part of a ruling power that is responsible for the numerous injustices we have witnessed over these past four years and are still witnessing today, including injustices towards the Coptic community itself.
However, what took place at the cathedral on Christmas Eve was not the only shock for me. In a phone interview Bishop Paula of Tanta, a member of the 50-strong committee that drafted the 2013 constitution, referred to Sisi: “As the angel appeared proclaiming the birth of Christ, we see Christ (Sisi) appears in church on the day of the birth of Christ”.
In another interview Makary Younan, a renowned priest known for performing exorcism, claimed that the bible has prophesied Sisi. He told the interviewer: “I said on air that President Sisi is sent from heaven…We have a prophecy in the book of Isaiah that says God, in their (Egyptians) distress, sent them a protector and a savior”, he added referring to Isaiah 19:20. The protector and savior according to him here is, of course, President Sisi.
Not only is the Coptic Church doing what Islamists were formerly blamed for: mixing politics with religion, it is also asking the youth to turn a blind eye. A few days after Christmas, the official Facebook page of the Coptic Youth Bishopric posted a photo questioning the intentions of those critical to the clergy and whether their posts were really for “the salvation of the reader” or just for “stumbling others”. The post also hints that no one should criticize the pope, bishops or priests and vilifies such actions as mistakes. So instead of holding the wrongdoers accountable, the church is asking everyone to remain silent under the pretense that criticism would “stumble” others. Ironically, the comments were mostly critical of the post itself.
I ask myself repeatedly: shouldn’t the church always stand by the oppressed, the poor, the tortured and the wronged? Shouldn’t “the people of God (who is love, according to biblical teachings)" be outspoken defenders of human rights, social justice and dignity (the values of the Egyptian revolution) for His creation? Isn’t this the true meaning of love Christians are obliged to present for everyone, regardless of what repercussions they might encounter for the sake of holding onto these principles? It is sad that we see the Coptic Church stand in opposition to all these values; choosing the oppressor over the oppressed.
For the time being, the dream of a Coptic Church that stands for human rights, denounces injustice and engages in spreading the values of equality and freedom has been deferred. But outside the walls of the Coptic Church there are others that will set examples for the role of a living church: the church of Moses, who stood up for his people against tyranny and humiliation;
The church of Matta El Meskeen, the Coptic hermit who warned against the proximity of the church to the authorities; the church of Oscar Romero, the Salvadoran bishop who struggled peacefully along with his oppressed people against a military dictatorship and paid for it with his life.
Only after I remembered the existence of such churches, did I start to enjoy Christmas again.