Pope Tawadros expresses a “New Hope” for Egypt
During a recent visit (1 September 2014) to the World Council of Churches (WCC) headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland His Holiness Pope Tawadros II spoke about the historic contributions of the Coptic Orthodox Church, among them vibrant traditions of spirituality, theological studies and monastic life, “The Coptic Church is one of the main pillars of Egyptian society.”
He also expressed a “new hope for Egypt” with the adoption of a new constitution in the country and remembered the June 2013 revolution in Egypt where, he said, “Christians and Muslims with everyone else struggled together to end the dark regime. He spoke of the long history of peaceful social coexistence between Muslims and Christians in Egypt.
Recalling the attacks on Christian buildings in Egypt over recent years, Tawadros stressed that efforts must be enhanced to end violence perpetrated by extremist groups. “If they attack churches we will pray in mosques, if they attack mosques, we will pray on roads. We can pray in a country without a church but cannot pray in a church without a country,” he said.
He also expressed concern over migration of Christians from the Middle East and called it a “dangerous trend” which he said cannot solve problems faced by Christian communities in the region.
Drafting of new law on church construction
The three main Egyptian churches – Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant – have drafted a proposed new law concerning the construction of churches, based on the country’s 2014 Constitution, which stipulates that a new law for building churches in Egypt will be discussed when parliament’s first legislative session meets. Article 235 of the constitution says that “parliament, in its first session, has to issue a law related to the regulation of the construction and restoration of churches, in order to guarantee that Christians get the freedom to practice their religious rites.”
The prepared text mainly gives a precise definition of the church and its form, which varies according to each church’s doctrine. The document also describes buildings attached to churches and the services that take place inside them, such as the establishment of a medical centre or nursery. The draft also suggests that the criteria used for the construction of churches be aligned with those of the construction of private edifices. Furthermore, the text hopes that litigations be cancelled regarding the ownership of land on which churches have to be built.
The law, if approved, will force authorities to give approval or refusal of a request to build a church within 60 days. The absence of a response from the government will be considered a green light for the beginning of construction.
Several drafts have been presented to successive governments, the most recent in 2013, but all have been in vain. Until now, no law has governed the construction of churches. The legislative dispositions, in effect since 1934, make it extremely difficult to build churches in Egypt. A new church has to be authorized by a presidential decree, which is not issued until approval is given by the interior ministry. The ministry further adds rules which ban the construction of churches near schools, canals, governmental buildings, railway tracks and residential areas for security reasons. In many cases, the rigid application of these rules has prevented the construction of churches in cities and villages where Copts live, especially rural areas in Upper Egypt.
President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s Christmas greetings
In an unprecedented gesture, the Egyptian President, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, made a surprise personal visit to St. Mark’s Cathedral during the Christmas Eve Liturgy, to wish Pope Tawadros II and all Copts, a happy Christmas with many good returns. His joyful, beaming face brought on a torrent of applause from the congregation who kept on cheering: “We love you, Sisi” and “One hand.” He replied that he wished to interrupt the prayers no further, greeted a very moved Pope who thanked him warmly, and rushed out again amid resounding applause.
This is the first time that an Egyptian head of State has ever visited the Cathedral to greet the Copts; the tradition was that a top-ranking official would represent the State head. President Sisi’s visit left a widely appreciated feeling of comfort and joy.
Ethiopian Abune visits Pope Tawadros
His Holiness Abune Mathias I, Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, arrived in Cairo on 10 January on a six-day visit to Egypt in response to an invitation extended to him by Pope Tawadros II. This is the first visit the Ethiopian Pope, the sixth patriarch of the Ethiopian Church, has paid to Egypt since he was enthroned in March 2013.
“Our two Churches,” Pope Tawadros said during his meeting with Abune Mathias, “are tied together by the River Nile which also binds our countries together,” recalling the historical relations between the two churches. The two patriarchs exchanged souvenirs then Abune Mathias and the delegation accompanying him went on a visit to Old (Coptic) Cairo and the Hanging Church which has been recently renovated.
Abune Mathias presided over Holy Mass at the church of the Holy Virgin in Zaitoun, Cairo, the site of the manifestation of St Mary in 1968, which was sung in the Coptic, Ethiopian, and Arabic languages.
Patriarch Abune Mathias made several proposals for Orthodox unity to Pope Tawadros II. Apart from suggesting closer cooperation between Coptic and Ethiopian Churches Patriarch Abune Mathias recommended to organize a conference of Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches in Alexandria at the earliest. There should be cooperation in the areas of theology, monasticism, economic and social development. A special committee or council shall be set up for the same. Bishop Beeman was appointed as the coordinator for the conference. Patriarch Mathias also recommended that the conference should be organized as soon as possible within a limited time frame.
The Patriarch of Ethiopia also visited Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab of Eypt and discussed various current issues. He vwas later received by President al-Sisi in the presidential palace
Abune Mathias conveyed his appreciation of President’s Sisi reception of him and the delegation accompanying him. He stressed that the strong Egyptian-Ethiopian ties go back a very long time in history, are specially significant on the spiritual and religious sides, and that the Nile is one common blessing God has bestowed on both countries. President Sisi responded that Egypt will never stand in the way of the Ethiopians’ right for development based on the Nile waters, but stressed that the Nile was also the lifeblood of Egypt. It is very important to resort to practical and legal procedures in order to ensure both countries’ interests regarding the Nile, President Sisi said. Egypt is now in a new phase of reaching out to African countries, especially Ethiopia.