This year Abba Seraphim celebrated the Nativity Feast on Christmas Eve (24 December) at the Chatham Church. In his address Abba Seraphim spoke of the angelic proclamation of Peace on Earth, which he noted has always been elusive, “It seems almost alien to the natural condition of man and since the beginning of time, enmity and strife, whether domestic or between nations, has brought death, division and desolation in its wake.”
He especially addressed the current problems in the Middle East, “This year of grace we celebrate the Lord’s Nativity when the ancient biblical lands are more than unusually unsettled. That little town of Bethlehem and the Palestinian territories cry out for justice. We deplore the aggressive establishment of settlements by an intransigent Israeli state, but who can condone the charter of a corrupt and bloodthirsty Hamas which calls for the killing of Jews ? In Egypt we have seen the disappointment of a peaceful Revolution, which overthrew a corrupt regime, only to fall captive to narrow religious zealots who seek to promote their own interests rather than the common good. Blood has been shed and we may expect that more will follow, because in that divided society there can be no peace. Most of all we grieve for our brethren in Syria, torn apart by unspeakable savagery.”
With regard to the Syrian crisis, he felt that the current Coalition government, which prides itself on its promotion of civil liberties, equality and justice, both at home and abroad, has shown incredible short-sightedness in its response to the threat to Christian communities in the Middle-East. By supporting the so-called National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, which has been proved to be dominated by Islamist elements and financed by external regimes, our government has “effectively abandoned all possibilities to promote dialogue with both sides and has allied us to those who are destroying the significant Christian minority which has been there since apostolic times. Unlike Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, I cannot consider what he regards as Mr. Cameron’s “overtly Christian tone” in his Christmas address as being anything more than hollow words, when government policy doesn’t merely show casual indifference to the fate of our Christian brethren in Syria, but actively undermines them.”
Cardinal Keith O’Brien, Catholic Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh, recently spoke out against government plans to double overseas aid to Pakistan to more than £445 million, without requiring any commitment to religious freedom for Christians. The Cardinal has said that conditions should be attached to any aid payments requiring a definite commitment to protection for Christians and other religious minorities, including Shia Muslims.
Writing to the Cardinal, Abba Seraphim told him that he believed this was a fair requirement, as the Coalition government,”appears to give little prominence to the plight of Christian minorities abroad, which is disappointing. Following the papal visit last year I had some hope that Pope Benedict’s message was being listened to by the government. Indeed, many Christians here felt that His Holiness was speaking for us all when he addressed issues about the role of Christians in our society and the need for the government to consider them.
After the bombing of the Coptic Church in Alexandria in January, many people were surprised and disappointed at the tardiness with which our government responded, especially when forceful statements about the Christian minority in Egypt were being made by other world leaders. One fears that the Prime Minister’s concerns when he visited Egypt recently would not have included the plight of the Christian minority.
Mr Cameron recently warned that time is running out to to halt the consolidation of the Gadaffi regime following the revolution in Libya. In this case we have pressed for financial, economic and political sanctions to protect the civil rights of the protesters against an iniquitous autocracy. We recognise that we cannot intervene directly in the affairs of other sovereign states, so we use other means at our disposal to apply pressure for change or reform. Sadly, we have done very little to support Christian minorities in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan, where British forces and finance underpin the current governments. I am also concerned that recently President Karzai has instigated severe measures against Christian converts and that we have not intervened politically to prevent this.
The assassination in January of Salman Taseer, Governor of Punjab, and more recently of Shahbaz Bhatti, the Minister of Minorities, both of whom campaigned bravely for a change in the Blasphemy Laws, shows an intolerance towards Christianity which is alarming. Were it a matter only of secular civil liberties one feels that our government would be quick to speak up and demand action, but for some reason religious liberties seem to be unfashionable at the present.” He expressed gratitude for the Cardinal’s example.
Today’s Daily Telegraph also published a letter from Abba Seraphim under the heading “Disregarded Christians” publicly expressing his support for the Cardinal and making many of the above points.
In the light of David Cameron’s visit to Egypt, Abba Seraphim reflects:
I am very pleased to see the Prime Minister has made it a matter of urgent priority to support the current Egyptian government. I hope he will not fail to address the need for the new constitution to give full equality to all Egyptian citizens, with particular consideration to the way in which Christians have been increasingly marginalised over the last three decades.
Since 14 February, when the Egyptian Constitution was suspended, a Constitutional Review Committee has been charged with the responsibility of formulating a new one which will then be submitted to a referendum. It must be a matter of some concern, however, that already fifteen human rights organisations based in Egypt have made protestations about the choice of Judge Tarek El-Bishry as the chairman of the committee. The judge is well known as a leading proponent of political Islam and it is feared that he is unlikely to be sympathetic to the formation of a new constitution with a secular character.
In 1980 the late President Sadat amended the constitution by adding what is now the second article, which stipulates “Islam is the religion of the state and Arabic its official language. Islamic jurisprudence is the principal source of legislation.” This was introduced to appease the Islamicists but it proved fatal both for national unity and for Sadat himself, who was soon after assassinated by the very people he had hoped to appease. Western democratic governments have been quick to hail the recent Revolution but unless it redresses this key issue of inequality the Christians of Egypt will remain at risk. By repealing the second article Islam will suffer no loss to its dignity but will more likely gain the respect of others. A willingness to sacrifice unfair pre-eminence in order to share the rights it enjoys with the disenfranchised has always been the distinguishing mark of civilised and respected governments. During the recent Revolution there were many instances of true national unity with Copts and Muslims working together peacefully and selflesssly for the common good and it was this spirit which earned universal admiration.
“Al-Ahram” newspaper, hitherto the voice of the previous regime, is currently sponsoring an on-line poll to test public opinion on the question of Article 2. Both sides are encouraging their supporters to make their voices heard but this cannot be the authentic voice of democracy as it is not capable of expressing a universal voice, nor is it subject to any adequate supervision to ensure its impartiality. The only poll which is capable of expressing the common mind is a free referendum but even then, the fear in the mind of many is whether the question will even be asked?
The Grand Iman of Al-Azhar, Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, recently warned against any attempt to change the second article of the Constitution, saying it was “not open to change or update. It is among the state constants and any attempt to meddle with it can lead to sectarian strife.” He gave added force to his declaration by asserting that it was “not a statement” but “it is Al-Azhar’s stance.” It is to be regretted that the Sheikh feels it necessary to retain this constitutional carbuncle, something which respected rulers such as Mohammed Ali and Gamel Abdul Nassar never sought to impose, because it undermines the very concept of national unity and is the root cause of sectarian strife.
Egypt is currently a country without leaders but there are many who will aspire to lead a country that is fundamentally tolerant and capable of offering enlightened leadership to the whole region. It is to be hoped that among them will be those who will exhort others to demonstrate their patriotism; not by a narrow desire for hegemony over minorities but by an enlightened vision of national unity that will respect diversity and seek to harness the good will and loyalty of those who have been unjustly sidelined, downtrodden and persecuted when they should have been embraced as brother Egyptians. If this is the outcome of the Revolution, Egypt will earn the respective of all free nations and its people will prosper, but if the Sheikh of Al-Azhar’s blinkered parochialism wins the day, the flame of freedom in Egypt and the whole region will be quenched for at least another generation.