The British Orthodox Church

within the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate

Observations on the Egypt crisis by Abba Seraphim

burning church

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.

Democratic legitimacy

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

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.”


Reflections on events in Egypt

An interview with Abba Seraphim

Q. How do you view the current demonstrations in Egypt ?

A. History shows us that all repressive regimes can only maintain a grip on power for a limited period of time. Like a volcano waiting to explode, the underlying tensions seeks a crack in the surface and then everything suddenly comes bursting out. No country can be totally isolated from its neighbours and the unrest we saw in Tunisia has spread to Egypt and its effect is already having an impact on other countries. I was impressed, however, by the calmness of the protesters in the early stages but the escalating violence and injury to people and property is now very alarming.

Q. Do you think that President Mubarak should go ?

A. I have already expressed my view that I believe the present government has lost its moral authority and retains power by electoral fraud and military repression. However, Tony Blair was right to remind us that President Mubarak is not Saddam Hussein, although he has presided over a corrupt and stagnant administration for three decades and a new generation of educated Egyptians have grown up who want to control their own destiny. It is not uncommon for political leaders to believe themselves indispensible and to try to hang on to power for too long but in truly democratic countries their term of office is limited by statute or they can be voted out. Egypt’s constitution provided for this but President Mubarak changed it and has now outstayed his welcome. Recent tragic instances have showed us that the Egyptian government was not ensuring the security of all its citizens and this has been a serious failure to fulfil a primary responsibility of government.

Q. Do you believe that America is still influencing events ?

A. Egypt has suffered from foreign interference for too much of its modern history and I am very conscious of Britain’s role in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which sadly did not put Egypt’s interests first. However, Egypt is a proud nation and they did manage to reassert their independence before American influence and patronage tied them into a rather too close alliance. America and its Western allies have been complicit in winking at the totalitarian nature of the Egyptian government and the human rights abuses in Egypt and by so doing they have also lost some moral stature. Efforts to push for greater democratisation have been too half-hearted and now seem to be an afterthought.

Q. Is there a danger that if Mubarak goes now things will descend into chaos ?

A. There are signs of that chaos already appearing with vicious street battles between warring factions, the absence of proper policing with widespread reports of looting and rape as well as the serious damage being done to businesses and the economy in general. All parties profess a devotion to national unity and to achieve this there must be give and take. I would hope that President Mubarak will complete his term and be allowed to go into honourable retirement. He has served his country for many years and is not without some achievements and by going peacefully he may regain some respect from his opponents. We may justly criticise him for his failures but I dislike the crude abuse coming from some quarters. If he goes early, then the Vice-President will assume power in an orderly way and he should invite representatives of all the leading opposition groups to play some part in the reconstruction which must immediately follow and to pave the way for constitutional change and free and fair elections before the end of the year.

Q. Is there a danger that the Muslim Brotherhood or other religious fundamentalists will be the principal beneficiaries of these changes ?

A. Although the Muslim Brotherhood has been a banned party, it nevertheless managed to field “independent” candidates and to gain 88 seats (20% of the total) in the 2005 elections. In the latest, 2010 rigged elections, they gained only one seat (0.2% of the total). Obviously, support is still there and it is something which needs to be faced. Currently the Muslim Brotherhood professes a commitment to greater democratisation and if a new Constitution can be brought in before the elections we have to trust that the majority of Egyptians will back that and it will serve as a safeguard against any form of extremism.

Q. Do you have any views about what form that Constitution should take ?

A. The 1980 amendment introduced by President Sadat, which states “Islamic jurisprudence is the principal source of legislation” is discriminatory and contradicts the aspirations of non-Muslim citizens. The rights of all Egyptians to practise their religion must be respected but no faith should be preferred over another if there is to be true equality. National unity cannot be achieved by preferring one section of society over another and this is the soundest way to ensure that religious extremists do not gain control.

Q. How should Coptic Orthodox Christians react ?

A. In all societies there will be diversity of opinions, so Copts do not form a monolithic block vote. We have seen instances of Copts standing guard over mosques during these demonstrations and I know of very encouraging reports of Christians and Muslims working harmoniously to protect their local communities. The Coptic Church has always encouraged national unity and that vision is symbolised in the old motif of the conjoined cross and crescent expressing that sense of Egyptian unity which was so strong in the early twentieth century. Copts have been participating in peaceful demonstrations and Pope Shenouda has always condemned any resort to violence.  I feel sure that Copts will be at the forefront of support for the wounded and the vulnerable during these difficult days. The shameful and degrading violence of the past two days is something which cannot be justified under any circumstances.

Q. What can those of us do who are not living in Egypt ?

A.  As Christians we know the power of prayer and it is always our first resort. We not only pray for our friends and relations caught up in events, but we pray for the victims of the violence and that the politicians and leading figures in Egyptian society will be given wisdom and guidance in their judgements and actions. At the present, most Coptic Churches in the diaspora are observing a time of prayer and fasting. It is encouraging also how many Christians of other traditions are telling us that they too are earnestly praying for a peaceful and just outcome. Egypt is a great nation and they are a proud people. We pray that out of these troubled times a long and lasting peace may result so that freedom, justice and tolerance may flourish.

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