North Africa, West Asia

Egypt: church and state

Should the Coptic church be involved in Egypt's political transition? Or in politics at all?

Mina Fayek
24 January 2014

In November 2012, Pope Tawadros II was ordained as the new head of the Coptic church after late Pope Shenouda III, who had been the head of the Coptic church from 1971 through till 2012. Many had high hopes for a new and fresh phase for the church. It didn’t take long before major reforms took place, such as the restructuring of the Holy Synod and the return of some theology professors, who had been excluded previously because of their controversial thoughts, to the Coptic theological college. Yet the most anticipation gatehred around the propsect of recasting the relationship between the church and the Egyptian state.

For more than 30 years the state has dealt with this church on the basis that it was the political representative of the Coptic community; a win-win situation given long-term political stagnation. The state vowed its loyalty to the Christian minority by allegedly protecting Christian establishments from radicals and extremists. Of course, there were ups and downs, yet the situation as a whole suited both parties. However, the discrimination against Copts in government institutions and the attacks of extremists on churches never ended. In fact, sectarianism kept rising, which demonstrated that the unspoken agreement between the two parties was rather counterproductive in its effects, only swelling the suffering of Copts.

In April 2013, when asked about the use of religious publicity in elections by Islamic parties, Pope Tawadros answered: “If religion enters politics, it (religion) becomes ‘polluted’... and this applies to any religion". For once, it appeared that the church was going to take a different stance and disengage from politics, which was was very promising. However that changed quite quickly. Eight months later, the Pope shockingly appeared in a video to urge people to participate in the constitutional referendum. Had he stopped at encouraging people to participate, this would have been understandable. However Pope Tawadros urged the Coptic community to vote ‘yes’ because a yes vote would bring “blessings and welfare”. The video was followed by a publication in Egypt’s flagship newspaper Al-Ahram of a hand-written article by the Pope emphasizing the call for a ‘yes’ vote. The Pope’s statement sparked widespread outrage on social media, and especially between those who believe in the January 25 uprising.

Evronia Azer, a member of the ‘No to Military Trials for Civilians’ campaign, wrote on Facebook: “This (church interference in politics) has proven to be a failed policy after everything the Christians have suffered from lately. Politics should be left to those who understand and are involved in it and the same applies to religion.”

Others compared, sarcastically, the teachings of Christianity with the Pope’s word. Bassant Maximus, a design student wrote: “Jesus said: let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’, but the Pope just added his touch to that, saying that a 'yes' will bring welfare.” Later she asked: “We’re not supposed to feel depressed yet with the battle of reforming the Church, right?”

Defenders would argue that the Pope was only expressing his opinion as a citizen. Indeed the Pope, as a citizen, has every right to do so but what effort did he make to confirm that this was indeed his personal opinion and not that of the head of the Coptic church? The answer is none. In fact, he expressed his opinion within a religious discourse that promised, “blessings and welfare.”

“When mosques were used in political publicity we denounced that, now we made the same mistake”, said Karim Momtaz, a 24-year-old software developer. “The Church can participate in drafting the constitution and encourages people to participate but it should not influence people’s choices”, he added.

Fr. Matta El Meskeen (Matthew the Poor), a once prominent monk who had disagreed with Pope Shenouda’s strategy towards the state, wrote a book titled “The Church and the State”. In his book, Fr. Matthew laid down a foundation for the relationship between the Coptic church and the state, as well as the role of clergy. He wrote:

"The church ought to give full freedom for the Christian citizen in fulfilling his national duties so it doesn’t become responsible before the state for any dereliction committed by its children.”


“The church should not order its clerics to discuss [publicly] any but ecclesiastical topics so it would not be questioned before a temporal authority.”

At one point, the teachings of Fr. Matthew tackled the concepts of liberation theology, which emerged in Latin America amid the revolutions of the 1970s and 1980s, to oppose the propinquity of the church to corrupt regimes, in addition to a redefinition of the role of the church in society.

Hopefully, as his students return to the Coptic Theological College, his legacy and teachings will be perpetuated. As for now, it’s promising to see that the Coptic youth have reacted to the Pope’s actions. Even my pious and devout friends who have always defended the church are expressing displeasure with the stance the Pope took with regards to the constitution.

This is one change the revolution of January 25 facilitated that can’t be undone.

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