The newly chosen pope of Egypt’s Coptic Christians assumes his leadership in a country ruled by the first Islamist regime in modern history. Is it possible to fulfil the challenge of integrating the Christian community in the political and public sphere without becoming involved in politics?
From the very beginning Pope Shenouda was unlike any other pope. It was his political activity that drew most attention and most criticism. Despite the controversies surrounding many of his political choices, he remained a widely respected national figure, described by intellectuals as a multifaceted and wise man.
It is unfair to make any comparison between the new Pope and Shenouda. Pope Tawadros assumes responsibility in a turbulent climate. He will be the first Pope to deal with an Islamist regime in Egypt's modern history, which puts him in an unenviable situation and it will require him to be extra vigilant yet extremely decisive. In the meantime, the relationship between the state and the church will probably remain ambiguous.
On the one hand, the ruling regime might seduce the newly chosen Pope to take part in the political game in hope of dividing the civil bloc opposing it and to gather the whole Coptic community under one leadership. This would make it easier to satisfy or abort its demands and to give itself a better room for manoeuvrability, whether it is in terms of criticizing the Church for a role it was invited to play and cannot relinquish or in terms of defending the regime's religious reference.
Pope Tawadros should avoid falling into this ambush. This ill-defined relationship between church and state has turned considerable numbers of Christian youth against Shenouda, accusing him of siding with the regime at their expense, which was later translated into Coptic protests against the Church’s involvement in politics. This anti-church attitude was highly apparent when Shenouda urged Copts to refrain from demonstrating during the revolution and was subsequently emphasized when he hosted some Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) generals following the Maspero Massacre.
On the other hand, complete papal withdrawal from the political landscape is unlikely and impossible for a number of reasons.
First, there is a fine line that separates what is religious from what is political in Egypt. Many of the Coptic demands are religious ones that fall under the category of citizenship rights - for instance, persistent Coptic calls on the government to issue a common law governing places of worship. These calls always meet with a deaf ear on the part of the state. Definitely, the pope, as religious leader, will push as hard as he can for the issuance of this law.
Second, his complete withdrawal might aggravate the marginalization of Copts. There is nobody that apprehends the Coptic worries and can defend their interests better than the church. This fact is manifested in the constituent assembly in which the church has representatives. The task of church representatives is to make the Coptic voice heard as an integral part of the Egyptian fabric. Their mission is not only to guarantee that principles of citizenship will be respected, but rather to ensure the right of Christians to refer to their biblical teachings when it comes to issues related to personal affairs and to head off any attempt that might jeopardize the Church such as imposing supervision on Coptic donations. The latter two points require the contribution of clerics, not liberal parties, due to their religious nature.
Another thorny issue that will determine the future course of the Pope is the wave of sectarian violence. During Shenouda's era, the Church accepted reconciliatory meetings and compensations for any attacks against Copts. What if the surrounding environment became more hostile to Copts, particularly with the notable rise of Jihadi militants? How far can the Pope go without provoking a further backlash against Christians? Will Pope Tawadros opt for taking legal and judiciary procedures against the perpetrators? Are the security forces willing to implement ANY court decision? Can he withstand attacks of fanatic Islamists for not resolving problems the old way? Regretfully, the regime always looks upon Copts as a faction that can be soothed. What will be its reaction if the Pope adopts escalatory steps in resolving sectarian tensions?
In a recent televised interview for CBC channel, Bishop Bakhomious, former Charge d’Affairs, hinted at President Morsi’s unfulfilled vows regarding the appointment of a Coptic vice-president and advancing Coptic representation in the Cabinet. It is urgent that such notions measures are taken by the regime to pacify Coptic concerns. On its way to a healthy democracy, Egypt must promote an inclusive culture where each citizen has a voice in the government (3). Principles of citizenship and rule of law are the only means for achieving this. Thus, the regime’s future test won’t only be confined to its stance vis-à-vis the pope, but its will to lay down strong pillars for a functioning democracy.
Moreover, Pope Tawadros will eventually encounter the challenge of containing Diaspora Copts attempts to impose external solutions for Coptic problems. Their efforts are viewed with suspicion and are often regarded by Egyptians at large as external plots to divide the country. Egyptian Copts share one standpoint, tackling their problems on national soil.
For this to happen, the role of Tawadros should be encouraging Christians to join civil parties that represent their respective political ideologies. Simultaneously, he should disapprove of political parties based on religion or exclusively open for Copts. If he succeeded in this mission, he will partially pass the burden to political parties and civil society groups, which entails targeting Coptic problems from a multidisciplinary approach.