A large, rolled-up Arabic rug lies hazardously across the front entrance of St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox church in Kensington, London. Ahead, smiling and embracing, groups of men and women trickle out of a community room as various people tidy away plates in the narrow galley kitchen inside. Squeezing through the kitchen, one can reach a small but crowded wood-paneled office at the back of the church, and a small side-door leads into the congregation area. Father Antonious Thabet is deep in conversation with one of his parishioners, barely visible behind a cloud of incense smoke that lingers in the air after the morning service.
A woman wielding an iPhone rushes over to Father Thabet’s wife as she sits comfortably on one of the pews. It is opened to a Facebook page showing a still from Maria TV, Egypt’s first television station with an exclusively female, niqab-clad staff. “My friend asked me if this was them [the anchors] from the back,” the woman says incredulously. “I said no, it’s them from the front!”
The Coptic Church in London provides comfort for the UK’s Copts, preserving their religion, community, and culture. But it is also far from home.
Egyptian Copts—who constitute 10 percent of the population and are the largest Christian community in the Middle East—are haunted by a growing sense of alienation from their home country. This can be attributed to both an intensified Islamization of Egyptian society as well an increase in emigration of their community to the West. The Coptic Church in London provides comfort for the UK’s Copts, preserving their religion, community, and culture. But it is also far from home. Ask Father Antonious’s wife for her opinion of Muslim Brother and Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, and she waves her hand in the air: “Oh, he’s in God’s hands.” For the community abroad it may be, as blogger Salam Moussa puts it, “not so much that they left Egypt as that Egypt has left them.”
On 4th November 2012 The Copts elected their new pope, Tawadros II, a former youth leader. At home and overseas, his election provides a significant source of hope and reassurance in the face of other influences chipping away at their community. Many onlookers unfamiliar with the Coptic ritual of selecting a new pope—in which a small, blindfolded child picks one of three names as voted for by the Coptic clergy—found the method bemusing. Marko Jako, a Coptic journalist living in Egypt, told The Majalla that “the Church is a light for the world by being an example. The transparency of papal elections was motive to think: why can’t all elections be this way, with the applicants competing without any violations or using dirty methods and all accept the result?”
When push comes to shove
Emigration of the Copts from Egypt to the West has occurred for over fifty years, but has increased in recent times. The exact number of Copts now living in Egypt is contested, as the figure could conceivably affect the status of Christians under the new constitution that is currently being drafted. While official statistics issued by the Egyptian government estimate the community’s population at 5.13 million, the Coptic Church estimates the community at fifteen to eighteen million out of Egypt’s eighty-five million people. However, a significant decline in their population over the years means that even those who consider that the numbers are exaggerated admit that the diminishing presence of the Copts in Egypt is a legitimate concern. A strong Christian presence in Egypt puts pressure on the Islamists to enact egalitarian principles and many believe that a drastic reduction of the Coptic community could be detrimental to the democratization of the country.
Numerous reasons exist for the steady exodus. Both Muslim and Christian Egyptians frequently cite economic hardship as the predominant cause of their immigration to the West. The first significant waves of emigration occurred in the early 1960s, when immigration policies of Western countries such as the US and Canada were much more favorable to non-Europeans. Aside from the underlying economic problems, sectarian strife in Egypt has also pushed some Coptic families to migrate from their villages to the city, though some doubt that sectarian grievance is a main cause of immigration to the West. Saïd Shehata, a Coptic expert on Islamic Movements in the Middle East and Europe and lecturer in Middle East politics, told The Majalla that fissures between the religions have existed for years: “Sadat tried very hard to divide the Christians and Muslims—mainly through discrimination—but couldn’t.”
However, the weakened security that followed the ouster of Mubarak and the rise in religious fundamentalism in Egyptian society—more specifically, the formerly suppressed Salafism (a conservative strain of Islam)—signify new challenges. These issues coincide with an increasing intensity and number of attacks against the Coptic community, including one on New Year’s Day 2011 when a car bomb exploded outside a Coptic Orthodox church in Alexandria, killing at least twenty-three and injuring at least seventy-nine. In May 2011, sectarian violence in Cairo killed twelve people; in October of that year, twenty-seven people including twenty-six Copts and one Muslim man, died during fighting with the security forces after a protest march in Cairo over the burning of a church—a highly significant turning point for Copts known as the Maspero demonstrations. As the Coptic journalist Marko Jako says, “Emigration of Copts to West wasn’t started by recent violent actions, but these actions gave more motives to those who were hesitant about immigration to take the decision, especially after Maspero.”
Religious divisions and differences in their views about the application of Sharia law between the ruling Muslim Brotherhood party and their extremist Salafis coalition partners are being cited as a cause of the trouble. The trend is not only a concern for Egyptian Christians, as Jako says: “This growing role scares the majority of Muslims too, maybe as same as minorities. Once I heard discussion between a Muslim and a Christian years ago, the Muslim told the Christian that if radicals took control, ‘You will be treated as infidel, but for me I’ll be treated as apostate and beheaded.’”
Many believe Morsi should be stronger in his condemnation of religious extremists…he has so far failed to act in a decisive manner
Human Rights Watch has recorded “growing religious intolerance” and sectarian violence against Coptic Christians in Egypt. However, it also notes a failure by the Egyptian government to effectively investigate and prosecute those responsible. A sense of solidarity permeated Muslim and Christian relations in the early days of the uprising against Mubarak’s presidency and it was thought that this would endure. “The first few weeks of the uprising saw people of all religious backgrounds standing together for one cause, but unfortunately because the foundation wasn’t there that didn’t continue,” Shehata laments.
Many believe Morsi should be stronger in his condemnation of religious extremists, and that he should be working hard to define mainstream Islam as being separated from these acts of violence. However, he has so far failed to act in a decisive manner. In the wake of the riots that erupted across Egypt and the rest of the Arab World over an anti-Islamic film, the Economist published an article, “Morsi’s Moment,” on 22 September, in which it stated that “Muhammad Morsi . . . has seemed a lot keener to express sympathy for the feelings of those who sought to trash the American embassy in Cairo than to upbraid them for their riotous behavior.” It added that condemning the acts “would cause Mr. Morsi trouble with his extremist Salafist coalition partners.”
The National Development Party (NDP) fared no better, as Jako points out: “The NDP is trying to show itself as protector of Copts and minorities against the Muslim Brotherhood, but actually both are two faces of same coin.”
Mourad Mohamed of the Freedom and Justice Party, which has strong links to the Muslim Brotherhood and holds nearly half of seats in Parliament, recently told Al Jazeera: “I feel sorry for these instances and we are condemning them and we cannot accept these instances, at the same time we see these as symptoms of a dictatorship that was prevailing due to the previous regime, the Mubarak regime and Sadat regime where democracy was absent.”
The response from a Coptic bishop in Egypt who also appeared on the program reflected the mounting frustrations over what appears to be inaction on behalf of the government: “I think there is a big difference between rhetoric and seeing actual action . . . Many months into the presidency of the current administration but we haven’t seen any real positive proactive policies of citizenship building.”
According to Jako, that sentiment was also voiced by Egypt’s new Pope: “Last week, members of the Freedom and Justice Party visited Pope Tawadrows II to congratulate him . . . during the talk they asked him about what he [would] like to see in Egypt, [and] he replied, ‘I want to see freedom and justice.’”
President Morsi insists that Egypt is open to Muslims and Christians, yet little is being done to curb the religious extremism or promote inclusion in today’s Egypt. Copts are not reassured by Morsi, who was notably absent during their Pope’s recent enthronement but who is regularly seen holding talks from inside mosques. “He stresses about going every Friday to a mosque to preach; this is his aim, even he said that ‘I am president for all the Egyptians’—but he is not,” Father Antonious said.
This has led many Copts to question whether Morsi’s loyalty to his own faith is stronger than his oath to his countrymen. “We are all Egyptians, the majority is Muslim and that is fine, but he should reach out to everyone,” says Shehata. “His actions are not encouraging. He is contradictory. He doesn’t show any signs of helping Christians. He hasn’t shown enough for the Copts to trust him. He should distance himself from the Muslim Brotherhood as a group. He should focus on the economy.”
A new pope and a new constitution
Mahmoud Ghozlan, a member of Egypt’s Constituent Assembly who is tasked with drawing up the new constitution, said on Ikhwanweb that Islamists were “keen to meet demands advocated by all factions and components of society, especially Egypt’s Copts.” Coptic Journalist Jako also sounds positive: “The last elections showed that [the] Coptic community is an important number in the political equation, and there are many qualified people who can help,” but he adds that “Egypt, as ever, is managed hierarchically, so it depends on the top authority.”
Saïd Shehata points out that “those drafting the constitution are Islamists.” On Al-Jazeera, Mohammed Mourad stressed that one of four of Morsi’s advisors is a Copt and said, “We need to give a fair chance for all Egyptians to get up into the hierarchy.” However, Copts fear the Muslim Brotherhood’s focus on the umma (the larger Muslim community), and their promotion of an Islamic nation over an Egyptian nation would leave them second class citizens at best. They are also concerned that the Brotherhood has reneged on previous promises. “The plan to make a Copt a vice president was a huge disappointment. They very quickly recanted and that didn’t go ahead and vice presidents turned into advisors,” remembers Shehata.
Today, in Egypt and abroad, the Coptic community still looks to their Pope for guidance. In his new role, Pope Tawadros II has trod a fine line between advocacy and quietism in the political sphere. He has approved Article 2 of the draft constitution on the role of Islamic Sharia in the state, which stipulates that the “principles of Sharia are the main source of legislation”—a subject of intense debate after Salafis vied to have the word “principles” omitted from the text. However, he has also said that he hopes the constitution-drafting body will be able to unite all Egyptians and has “absolutely rejected” imposing a religious state, advocating instead the principles of citizenship. “In almost in every interview I watched and read he says that justice is must be carried out, and the treatment of every situation has to be according to the law. If he succeeded in this point only, that will be great change for all Egyptians,” says Jako.
Most Copts agree that the Pope, who is “absolutely liked by most people” according to Shehata, should not take an active role in politics. Due to the marginalization of their community, however, Copts were forced to consult the church over state bodies for many years. “In my opinion, the church should not be involved directly in the political issues,” says Jako, although he hopes that in “being an example of tolerance and listening, modesty and accepting different people will be motive for others to replicate the model.”
Saïd Shehata believes the Pope should engage Copts in political life: “In the church, the biggest challenge is to engage Christians to become important actors. The Pope is symbolic figure; he has a big role to play to encourage Christians to have hope and participate—but not to lay out a map.”
So what does the future hold for Copts in Egypt? If things continue the way they have been then, as Jako says, “the future looks dark.” Yet, he also notes a positive aspect of the revolution in that “people have become more able to think, and criticize.” Shehata supports this, saying, “An average of nine to ten million Christians in Egypt are educated and would be willing to take a political role.”
Father Antonious, however, is firmly against the church playing a role in politics: “The word ‘politics’ comes from ‘politika,’ meaning ‘cheating,’” he says, “so this is politics—lying, showing something untrue. This is not Christianity.”
Many elements have contributed to the reduction of the Coptic community in Egypt. While some believe the future lies in the hands of god, others are convinced that the future of the Copts lies in their own hands. Ultimately, it may prove to be a true test of both faith and will.