Events in Egypt over the past few days have both shocked and saddened, and as reports of continuing incidents and civil disturbance increase we pray fervently that peace and security may return to that land.
Revolutions are destabilising events and come in many shapes and sizes. The Egyptian revolution of 1952 was a military coup by the Free Officer Movement, which established the military regime which was to hold power for the next 59 years. It lacked democratic legitimacy and was both corrupt and venal. The 2011 Revolution, however, was a popular uprising more in keeping with the spirit of the 1919 Egyptian revolution in its embracing all sections of Egyptian society in a patriotic movement to restore freedom and justice. It is worth noting that initially the Muslim Brotherhood declined to support this uprising, but once it saw the rapid success of this momentum for change, it offered its support.
Much has been made of the overthrow of Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, but it is important to recognise that democracy is more than periodic recourse to the ballot box. Having achieved a narrow victory over his main rival on a turnout of just over half of the electorate, the new president might have endeavoured to use his position as a means of unifying and reconciling a fractured society. In his inauguration oath he swore to “respect the constitution and law, to take care of the people’s interests, a complete care.” Later, in an emotional speech in Tahrir Square he announced, “I came to you as I believe that you are the source of authority and legitimacy which is above all. There is no place for someone, an institution or for an authority to be above this. The people are the source of all authority, judge and decide, convene and insulate … There is no authority that is above this.”
Although he resigned as Chairman of the Freedom and Justice Party as he had promised during his election campaign, which gave him the opportunity to serve as president of all Egyptians, his concerns and sympathies proved to be narrow and sectarian. Sadly, it soon became clear that the electorate had actually installed the Muslim Brotherhood in office and that the real power lay with its Supreme Guide, Mohamed Badie, whilst Mohamed Morsi was merely the holder of the presidential portfolio.
During the first year of his presidency the democratic aspirations of the revolution were steadily undermined, culminating in his assumption of unlimited legislative powers without judicial oversight or review of his acts. After the Supreme Constitutional Court’s dismissal of the People’s Assembly for electoral irregularities, only the consultative Shura Council remained of a bi-cameral legislature, yet new legislation was still enacted, including the propagation of a new Egyptian Constitution. Having repeatedly clashed with the judiciary, attempts were made to intimidate the judges and to remove many of them through enforced retirement.
It was as a result of the steadily-growing domination of the Muslim Brotherhood in all areas of the state and society and the encouragement of their narrow vision and divisive social policies, that the popular uprising against Morsi ensued. It expressed the fears of the great majority of Egyptians that their aspirations for a free and just society, inclusive of all, was in danger of being lost for ever. It should be recalled that the National Socialist German Workers’ (Nazi) Party rose to power through democratic election, after which they consolidated their grasp on the state and cynically discarded the democratic process.
The role of the church
Since the Egyptian revolution of 2011 the religious leaders in Egypt, both Christian and Muslim, have consistently called for justice and reconciliation and both the Grand Sheikh of Al Azhar (Mohamed Ahmed El-Tayeb) and the Coptic Orthodox Church (under the late Pope Shenouda III; Metropolitan Bakhomios as locum tenens and Pope Tawadros II) have worked together to encourage national unity. Following the removal of President Morsi, Pope Tawadros appeared alongside the Sheikh of El-Azhar at the inauguration of the new interim president. Having eschewed political involvement since the beginning of his papacy, he made it clear that he was there to support “honourable people whose sole aim is the interest of Egypt and Egyptians, excluding no one, marginalising no one and excepting no one.”
Western governments have been quick to condemn the violence and loss of life and have called for dialogue. William Hague condemned “the use of force in clearing protests” and called on the security forces “to act with restraint.” As supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood are also armed and have been responsible for murdering soldiers in Sinai and armed attacks on police stations, restraint is required from all sides. Invitations to dialogue by Al-Azhar have been completely rebuffed by the Brotherhood, as have invitations by the interim President to reconciliation meetings.
Western media bias
It is disconcerting to note the clear bias of much of the Western media in favour of the Muslim Brotherhood. The use of emotive words, such as ‘coup’, ‘massacre’ and ‘legitimacy’, with the failure to report widespread violent attacks on churches, police stations, government offices and neutral cultural institutions, such as the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, lacks the impartiality one might expect from independence sources, such as CNN and the BBC; as does identifying all snipers as belonging to the army, when live news broadcasts clearly showed armed rebels firing guns. Despite its denial of bias, the Qatar-backed channel Al Jazeera depicts the Muslim Brotherhood in a sympathetic light and, according to one of the 22 staff who recently resigned in protest, “the management in Doha provokes sedition among the Egyptian people and has an agenda against Egypt and other Arab countries.” The Irish media, the Irish Times and the Sun in particular, recently relayed reports from the children of Hussein Halawa, the Imam at Dublin’s largest and most controversial mosque in Clonskeagh, who just happened to be inside the Al-Fateh mosque when it was cleared by the security forces. Headlines such as “Irish family held in Egypt jail hell. Holiday nightmare as relatives fear they’re tortured” hardly suggest impartiality.
Attacks on Christians go largely unreported
During President Morsi’s term of office, attacks on Christians became more frequent. Since his removal they have increased alarmingly with over fifty churches attacked, damaged or destroyed in the three days following the Brotherhood’s call for a “Day of Rage.” Vicious denunciations of Christians – now opprobriously labelled “crusaders” – and unrestrained assaults on their property and churches show the true nature of those who support the Muslim Brotherhood. There have been instances of soldiers and Christians lynched by the mob, who then proceeded to desecrate their corpses in the most disgusting manner, in much the same way as Private Lee Rigby was treated by his murderers on the streets of Woolwich. In many instances local Muslim communities have joined Christians in protecting their places of worship, clearly demonstrating that this is not a battle between Christians and Muslims but is a struggle against terrorism and fanaticism. In a recent interview with His Grace Bishop Angaelos on Al-Jazeera, after it was noted that “some Christians have blamed Brotherhood supporter for the attacks”, he was asked if he had any evidence about “who is attacking your churches”. His observations that these attacks, which appeared to be orchestrated and synchronised, and coming on the tail of “certain events”, with the rhetoric, incitement and reported attacks on individual Christians, suggested “some sort of connection”, showed more balance and perception than his interviewer.
In an official statement, the Coptic Church said that whilst it holds in deep appreciation the honourable, friendly States who understood “the nature of the events in Egypt”; it strongly denounced the falsities and errors propagated in the western media. “We invite the media to objectively read the realities on the ground, and to refrain from offering an international or political shield to the bloodthirsty, terrorist groups and all who belong to them. These groups are attempting to spread ruin in our land. We call upon the local and international media to offer the real image of what happens in Egypt faithfully and truthfully.”
The statement went on to say that it strongly stood by the Egyptian police, armed forces, and all the institutions of the Egyptian people in the face of the armed violence and black terrorism from inside and outside Egypt. It denounced the “assaults against the State and the peaceful churches, and the terrorisation of Egyptians—Muslims and Copts—that goes against all religious, ethical and human values. We absolutely reject any attempts to drag Egypt into sectarian strife.”
“If the hands of evil come to Egypt to kill, burn, and ruin; the hand of the Lord is there to guard, strengthen, and rebuild. We put our faith in Divine support, and are confident that it will help Egypt along this critical period, and take her to a better tomorrow and to the bright future of peace, justice, and democracy which this noble Nile people deserve.”
Traditionally the Holy Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Church meets in Cairo on the Eve of the Feast of Pentecost in plenary session. However, this year it has been cancelled at short notice and Pope Shenouda will remain in Cleveland, Ohio, where he has gone for routine medical treatment.
More Disturbing Events from Cairo
As Abba Seraphim had booked his flights some time ago he planned to go ahead with his visit. However, after a few weeks of relative calm following the Revolution, there were two recent incidents in central Cairo which give cause for concern. In one a female reporter from Coptic TV went down to Tahrir Square, where a group of young men surrounded her and attempted to rape her. When she desperately called for help a police officer arrived and shot into the air to disperse the crowd. The criminals took both his gun and his phone away and beat him almost to death. On the same day, the Ezbekia Police Station (near the main railway station) was burnt down following rumours that a police officer had killed a microbus driver. As a result of these incidents, which indicate a potential resurgence in violence, Abba Seraphim was advised against travelling to Cairo at the present and, acting on this advice, reluctantly cancelled his planned trip to Egypt. These incidents will probably not be reported by the European media.
Abba Seraphim asks everyone to continue in prayer for Egypt and especially for the Christians there.
In a recent interview conducted by Father Daoud Lamei, His Holiness Pope Shenouda clarified points in the Statement which he issued on behalf of the Holy Synod and commented on aspects of the Egyptian Revolution.
What was meant by a civil nation ?
A civil nation is defined as a non-religious and non-military nation.
You spoke of the valiant Egyptian army ?
Praising the army in the statement recalls a long history. While still a university student, I volunteered in the army and graduated from the school of Infantry in 1947.
Are you optimistic about the future?
I am not tending to talk about optimism but rather about hope in God. We are asked not to loose hope. This is an integral part of our relation to God. Our life, as well as the life of countries, abides not in the hands of people, but in the hands of God. There is no doubt, the authorities want good for the country whether on the internal level (unity, security and prosperity) or on the external level (events in surrounding Arab Countries, possible reactions of Israel…etc.). In these days, our priority should not be to put forward demands and exert pressure on the regime but to support the leadership to pass through this difficult phase and arrive to a safe haven.
Some people suggested that the church was a main beneficiary from the old regime, not knowing what we have been suffering from.
In a TV interview with Amr Adeeb, some 6 months ago, I mentioned that the problems of the Copts can be summarized in one word ‘marginalization’. Copts are marginalized from high official positions, syndicates, legislative councils, university staff…etc. Another main element has been the frequent violent attacks targeting Copts. We remember the El Kosheh assassinations (21 dead and no sentence has been made against anyone by the court), Abu Korkas (9 people assassinated inside the church and no one has received death penalty – according to the law), Dayrout (14 killed including children), the Alexandria church this year (30 killed, 90 injured), Omraneya Church (where we were unjustly blamed for the events) but we thank the Lord for having people released before the Feast of Nativity early in January.
On the other hand, I cannot deny that we had good relations with President Mubarak as a person. That’s why I see it a personal obligation of loyalty not to mention bad points but rather to remember the good ones. The problems we suffered were mainly due to those surrounding him. Now after the revolution, they have been apprehended and are being prosecuted.
At the start of the revolution didn’t you allow Coptic youth to join the demonstrations?
I had an interview at El-Horra TV Channel where I mentioned that our youth are generally peaceful and are not attracted to demonstrations. Also at the start of the revolution, things were not clear. It later proved to be a free and non-violent movement. Many Copts joined it in fact and many were martyred and wounded, some newspapers published names of 12 of those Coptic martyrs and the church did not object to their participation. On the other hand, we ask the Lord to give their families patience and we pay our deepest condolences to them. If I know their addresses, I would send personal condolences to each of them.
What are your views on educational reform in Egypt ?
I always ask myself a question: should education be only for earning, or should it help people to find a job? May be it is both. What is the point of educating people to become unemployed. I remember a funny story of a woman seeing her child studying and asking him to leave education and play soccer where he would find a better future.
I would personally encourage having quality vocational training starting at preparatory schools (7-9 grades) to have a higher professional vocational training at the secondary level. The university may also have an advanced degree on vocational fields. In fact, foreign investors in Egypt seek highly trained vocational workers. Not finding them they have to import them from other countries at higher cost. I recall some twenty years ago, the electricity generator at the monastery had a problem; one of our sons was a senior engineer. I asked him if he could fix it. He said, I apologize I am only engineer on paper but I have no real experience. We need people who have both theoretical and practical knowledge. Sometimes we import sophisticated medical equipment, and find no expertise to use it properly or fix it. This kind of training is very important and missing much in Egypt. This does not mean eliminating general education but having both.
On political parties, do you encourage Copts to work in politics?
The Muslim Brotherhood recently created the Wassat, Hakk and Adala & Gamaa parties. Are the youth of 25 January intending to create parties ? I have no idea. Would some tolerant people install non-religious parties? Of course those are in addition to the old classical parties. For us we cannot and it would not be to our benefit to install a purely Christian party. It would be described as radical and would have very few members. I encourage Copts to join their Moslem brothers in a party they would judge as tolerant and achieving their hopes. One should properly study the aims, agenda and members opf each party. In this respect we have to admit that we need to raise people’s political awareness.
Constitution amendments and Article 2:
I met with a member of the current committee and he said they would only amend the 5 articles previously decided and would not touch on article 2. The head of the committee publicly supported article 2, the Grand Sheikh of Azhar said it is an indispensable article, both the Salafists and the Muslim Brothers went in demonstrations to support that matter and they said that addressing this article may cause sectarian strife. I believe that at the current stage, it is difficult to oppose this article, especially for Christians. As a compromise I suggest the following, if it is essential to keep it, we may add a sentence “as for non-muslims, the commandments of their religion shall apply in personal statute and clergy matters”.
The church and being socially active in building the country:
The church may participate in social building and help the country not by vandalism and demonstrations. A couple of days ago I was visited by the Minister of Interior and I suggested that we rebuild and refurbish the neigbourhood police station at our expense. Likewise, HG Bishop Morcos of Shoubra El Khema is rebuilding and refurbishing two police stations there.
Copts were always criticized for being politically passive in their participation. On the other hand the head of the church is often criticized for interfering in politics.
There is a difference between being active politically and working in politics. For example in all elections I went to do my duty as a citizen by voting. As for Copts being politically passive, I must remark that most parties were not welcoming Copts among them and they were never allowed to go up the political scale except for a few well-known names. I encourage parties to give the chance to Copts and have trust. The behaviour of parties had a negative impact on both Muslims and Christians and this reflected in the extremely low participation in elections.
What is the fine line between being politically active and interfering in politics?
For example concerning Palestine, I gave my opinion and said that I would not go to Palestine except with the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar and this was highly praised by all authorities (except some few Copts) as a national act despite the fact that it was pure politics. The question is: should I be active only in matters that are supported by the government and show restraint in matters they reject? The church is giving its opinion in politics without working in politics. Yet for Copts, they are free to work in politics as they wish and they have to select the successful and right politics.
Should there be a revolution in the church to change things?
Unlike world politics that change from time to time, whether calmly or violently, the church uses a divine system that is described in the scriptures and detailed in the church canons. Copying the government system for the church is not acceptable by logic, religion and church canons.
As for the clerical council investigations for clergy, it was asked lately why they are not made public. In fact, those investigations are usually concerning financial, ethical or theological matters. We make the judgment public but do not give details of the investigations. The details are written in special memos and are signed and approved by the priest who is being judged. If anyone needs me to review his case, I may well request his file and review it.
President Mubarak had many problems because of those surrounding him? Can this happen with your Holiness?
Those surrounding President Mubarak were employees, but those around me are my sons and disciples. For example, Bishop Ermia, I knew him over many years, I consecrated him monk, then priest, then bishop and appointed him to the secretariat. Bishop Joannes is the same way. Another point is that those around Mubarak, may have found excuses for their mistakes: for example, they would support his son Gamal for the presidency so they would fabricate elections and possibly oppress people and so on…etc. Such an element is completely missing in the church. I would not recommend anyone to succeed me.
Spiritual lessons from the past 20 days of the revolution
Do not judge before the time. We do not know anything concerning the future. The Lord said: Do not care for tomorrow, tomorrow cares for itself. The future is in the hands of God not ours. There are many political actors: the Higher Council of Armed Forces, the government, the youth of 25-Jan, the individual demonstrations, financial problems, some Coptic fathers who want to rule the church…etc. We leave it all in the hands of God, knowing for sure that the church is in the hands of God not people.
We trust that everything will go well, not because of our own prayers: It is true that God gives us what we ask for and beyond what we ask for, yet He also gives abundantly without us asking. Maybe Joseph had his ultimate hope to leave prison and return back home with his father and brothers. He never thought of ruling Egypt or having pharaoh’s seal under his authority. God gives without us asking and beyond it. He just wants us to be pure of heart and as He said ‘Return to me and I shall return to you’. Every morning, while praying the Agpeya I meditate the words ‘grant us O Lord to please you’. It is indeed a grant from the Lord not an effort of us.
[Translated by Shenouda Mamdouh]
His Holiness Pope Shenouda III met with a small committee from the members of the Holy Synod on Tuesday morning 15th February 2011, and they released the following statement:
The Coptic Church salutes the honest Egyptian youth, the Youth of 25th January, who led Egypt in a strong peaceful revolution, in which precious blood was shed, the blood of the martyrs of the nation who were honoured by Egypt’s leaders and army, and also honoured by all the people and ourselves. We offer our condolences to their families and relatives.
The Coptic Church pays tribute to the valiant Egyptian army, and also to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces for what it has issued of official statements regarding the security of Egypt both internally and externally. We support its decision in dissolving the Peoples’ Assembly and the Shura (Consultative) Council, and its call for security to reign.
We all believe that Egypt must be a democratic and civil nation, choosing members of its parliament through free and fair elections, having representatives from all facets of the people.
We support all of Egypt in its fight against poverty, corruption and unemployment, resisting anarchy and destruction, and for the foundation of security and safety, the principles of social justice and national unity and the curtailing of corrupt and unlawful people.
The Coptic Church prays for the great Egypt, which has a glorious history and ancient civilisation. We hope that the Lord to keep Egypt safe and spread in it calmness, stability, security and prosperity.
Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of the See of St. Mark
& Head of the Holy Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Church
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