by Yasmine El-Geressi and Maria Asaad
Archbishop Angaelos was enthroned as the first Coptic Orthodox Archbishop of London, having served as General Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom since 1999. He is widely recognised for his extensive advocacy work, and as a result he was conferred the honour of Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire by The Queen for ‘Services to International Religious Freedom.’ He specialises in initiatives relating to international religious freedom and development work, and is a member of, and chairs, numerous local, national and international bodies dealing with these matters. He is founder and convener of the Asylum Advocacy Group which works closely in partnership with the All Party Parliamentary Group on International Religious Freedom or Belief.
In an interview with Majalla, Archbishop Angaelos discusses the history of the Coptic Christians, the targeting of places of worship in Egypt by Islamist extremists, and what the current regime is doing to address it.
Can you talk to us about yourself and your journey to becoming the first Coptic Orthodox Archbishop of London?
My Journey was a slightly long one. I was born in Egypt to a Coptic family and we migrated to Australia when I was 5. I lived there, was educated there, did all my studies, worked, and then went back to Egypt to join the monastery. I was there for 6 years and served as private secretary to the late Pope Shenouda and those 6 years were a great learning experience. Then his holiness sent me here in 1995. I served for 4 years as a monk priest and then in 1999 I became a bishop. We have two types of bishop in the church; we have diocesan bishops who are responsible for a region, and the non-diocesan, called general bishops. As a general bishop, I was assistant to the Pope and his diocese. This was considered the papal diocese and it continued for 18 years under Pope Shenouda and then currently under Pope Tawadros. In November 2018 I was enthroned as the Archbishop of London which means that this is now an independent diocese. It has been an exciting journey.
Although the Coptic Church has millions of faithful in Egypt, 10% of the population, and an increasing worldwide presence, most people outside of Egypt know very little about it. Who are the Copts and what important role has the Coptic Church played in Christian history?
The word Coptic is confusing. If we are speaking about Russian Orthadox or Greek Orthadox, it would be very evident. Coptic just means Egyptian. So, Coptic Orthadox just means Egyptian Orthadox. It is the indigenous Church of Egypt. Christians have been in Egypt since the 1st century. St Mark, the writer of the second gospel, started preaching Christianity in Egypt in about 55AD and since then we have had an unbroken presence of Christian life and witness in Egypt. So, we consider ourselves an indigenous people.
Coptic Christians represent about 15% of the population currently, so about 13 million, with about 10% of Coptic Christians being outside of Egypt. Of course, there are major contributions historically that the church has made to Christianity as a whole, whether it is the ecumenical councils in the 3rd, 4th and 5th centuries, teachers like Athanasius who was one of the great fathers, Cyril or the Monastic movement. Any monk or Nun you see in the world today has their origins in the desserts of Egypt because St Anthony from Upper Egypt established Monasticism in the 4th Century in Egypt and so whenever I see anyone who is in order of any Monastic movement in the world, I feel an immediate connection. And of course, Martyrdom. The Church of Egypt has suffered an incredible wave of Martyrdom throughout its history and it continues to now as well. Our calendar starts in the year 284AD, which was the beginning of the reign of Emperor Diocletian, because under Diocletian we suffered the greatest wave of Martyrdom. We lost sometimes hundreds of thousands where troops would walk into a village or a city and kill everybody because they were Christian. Having said that, we have never taken up arms and we have never been violent. Even until now we see attacks on Christians. Just this morning someone sent me the video of the 21 martyrs in Libya who died some years back. There was a great sense of resilience and dignity but also the reaction from their families, from the church and from the community, is one of resilience, strength and forgiveness. I can only think that that is the reason that the Coptic Church is still there because we have always lived this very strong faith that is focused just on our actions and not the actions of others. So how do we react to injustice, how do we react to violence, how do we react to martyrdom, it has always been with a sense of love, dignity and strength, but also forgiveness.
Churches and mosques have been the target of terrorists in Egypt and Christians have suffered a long chain of murderous attacks by extremists. Yourself and many others in the Coptic Christian community have expressed forgiveness in the face of horror and fear. Where does that forgiveness come from?
It can only come from our Christian faith. The message of Christ himself seemed quite mad to most people because it spoke about forgiving your enemy and even loving your enemy. It spoke about not striking back. Even when he was on the cross he asked for forgiveness for those who wronged him. So that is really where it comes from. Even when we had the attack on over 100 churches and places of worship in 2013, there wasn’t a single act of retaliation. I always say to people that there was no memo that went out from central office that said don’t react but it was just the instinctive, natural, organic reaction of Christians. And even when Muslims came out to protect the churches, and they did it out of love, the Christians were saying no go back to your homes because if we lose churches we can rebuild them but we don’t want to lose lives. I really believe that when you address hatred with love, or anger and violence with peace and forgiveness, it breaks it. You can’t fight on your own, so if someone is trying to fight against you and you are not fighting back then they have just got to stop at some stage.
How would you rate the government’s response to the terror threat?
There is crime everywhere. We have seen horrible terrorist attacks in Egypt but also throughout the Middle East, in Africa, here in Britain, throughout Europe and in the Western world generally. I don’t think that we can expect any government to totally eradicate crime. What we do expect governments to do is to have a robust reaction when it comes to crimes being perpetrated and holding people to account because when you don’t hold people to account, what happens is that there is almost an acceptance and people have a sense of impunity, and they feel that if someone has gotten away with it they will do it again and they may make it a little but more effective, and so you get a sense of lawlessness. What we have seen in the past couple of years now is a greater implementation of a legal and an investigative process in Egypt where people are held accountable and I think that is really where it lies. There must be a proper robust investigation, trials, and then when people are seen to have perpetrated crimes, whether it is against Christians or anyone else, they need to be held to account and that will be the sign of a successful and safe community.
Targeting places of worship is part of ISIS’ tactical plan to divide the Egyptian population. How have Egyptians responded? Are they united in the face of this threat?
Of course there have been attempts to divide the community and Islamists have attacked Christians but they have also attacked Muslims and I think that for most Muslims they have seen through that and they have realised that Muslims who do not buy into the same very narrow understanding of what Islam should be that is held by the Islamists, are just as big of a target as Christians. I think that most people in Egypt have seen through that and have realised that it is important for us to honour one another, for Christians to be able to live as Christians and for Muslims to be able to live as Muslims, while at the same time protecting each other’s rights in a community and a society that should be based on citizenship.
Of course there are some that are manipulated and two of the greatest influences are poverty and illiteracy. It is very easy to manipulate someone economically if that person is in need, or ideologically if that person doesn’t have a full understanding and there is no greater ideological manipulation than religion because it can be very badly abused. And so we have seen the manipulation of people who are vulnerable and that makes the crime even worse. So, we are not trying to help people’s vulnerability and bring them out of it and make them safer, we are using the vulnerability to a greater cause, and I think that makes it tragic. I think those two areas really do need to be addressed and an awareness that a healthy society can only be one that protects every citizen regardless of who he or she is or what he or she believes because then that makes us all equal and makes us all equally able to defend protect one another.
Do Copts have religious freedom in Egypt?
We take religious freedom. There are so many levels to religious freedom. Can we worship in churches? Yes. Can we build churches? No always, and that’s a problem. It is being fixed now, there are changing laws on decrees. Believe it or not you had to get a presidential decree only a few years back to renovate a church or fix a church, not even build.
Is that the case for other places of worship in Egypt?
In Egypt mosques aren’t regulated and even when there was an attempt by the current government to say lets implement a law for religious buildings, there was significant rejection of that because many people saw it as an Islamic country so therefore mosques should not be regulated, yet churches are very heavily regulated. So that is an issue and it is being addressed. The vast majority of churches we built in the past decades are built totally illegally because there was no way no build them legally but now there is a process of licensing these buildings. I really don’t see why the building and use of religious premises, a safe space like this, would affect anyone, would cause anyone anxiety. Surely if people pray it is a good thing, if people live a life of righteousness it is a good thing. So, in that context there is still work to be done.
There are of course unwritten laws. So, when you look at the presence of Christians in high ranking positions in Egypt, there are very few. I think the first dean of a university was only appointed sometime in the last few months and that is throughout Egypt. When we look at high ranking roles in the public sector, again very few. So, what happens is that Christians take themselves out of the public sector and go into the private sector. They enter the private sector, they become very successful and then they are accused of taking all the money in the community but that is only because they didn’t have a way of showing their full potential in the public sector. I think there are obstacles to being a Christian. Some of them are a matter of policy but many of them are a matter of culture and I think that will take a long time to overcome. It needs a very robust and intentional process to say to people that we want a nation built on citizenship, on individual rights, but also individual responsibilities and in that context we then take out the religions element from making rules and apply them to individuals. In Egypt whether you are a Christian or a Muslim you are a believer and you take your faith very seriously and unlike in the Western culture where we can very simply separate life of faith from daily life, in the Middle East and in Egypt they are one of the same. So, to be able to live organically as a Christian Egyptian means you need to have rules that enable you to do that just as you would if you were a Muslim Egyptian.
As President el-Sisi enters his second term, what more do you hope he will do to improve conditions for Egypt’s Coptic community?
As the President enters his second term, I think there needs to be a very strong focus on creating a more robust political system where next time around there is an opposition and there are candidates and there are alternatives so that even when there is a victory, at least it looks better.
I think President el-Sisi has done the best he can, he came into a situation where Egypt had been pretty lawless for a few years after the first uprising in 2011 and there were challenges and waves of Islamism that not only affected Christians but Muslims too. The first attack straight after the uprising was not on Christians, it was an attack by Salafis on Sufi shrines. It wasn’t an attack on Christians at all, like we saw on the Sufi mosque in Sinai only a few months ago. So, I think that environment proved very challenging and I think the president did the best he can but we also know that a nation is more than a president. You can have a very well-intentioned individual but it needs a government, an administration, it needs so many people around that can then spread the vision and so I think there needs to be a focus on process and on systems and on building a society that focuses on individuals and citizens.
What were your impressions of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s recent meeting with Pope Tawadros at the Cairo Coptic Church?
I wasn’t there but it seemed to be a very good meeting. It seemed to be very amicable. We have thousands of Coptic Christians working in Saudi Arabia and we know that they are cared for and we have some of our own clergy who go to look after them. So, I am hoping that as we see a very new approach from Saudi Arabia in lots of areas and that it will be time for significant change. Being such a significant power in the Middle East and amongst Muslim majority nations that change will have a ripple effect throughout the region and throughout those states and hopefully present a better way of doing things.
Can you talk to us about the Coptic community in the UK?
We have around 20,000 faithful here in Britain served by about 20 churches. The community here is quiet young, we have only been here for about 40 years and the vast majority of our community tend to be medics because the main way for Christians or Muslims coming here is through the membership neural colleges. Of course, we have had entrepreneurs and highly skilled migrants coming and we have people coming through various smaller schemes but it is not one of our larger communities. The vast majority of Coptic Christians outside of Egypt would be in the United States, Canada, Australia and then throughout Europe. I am very blessed to be serving this community here because I feel that it is a very healthy community and I feel that it is a community that is very integrated into British society and British culture. We have wonderful second and third generation young people who we are proud and who are living as contributing members of this community and society. I think as a church we are also very open and we have very good relationships economically with a broad spectrum of the Christian church here in Britain. We also have very good interreligious relationships, whether it is the Muslim community, Sunni and Shia, the Bahai community, and across the other faiths as well. I do think that it is important for us to be integrated and to be part of the community while maintaining our own identity and integrity but it is a matter of infusing some of what we are but also learning from what is around us.
What do you believe are the prospects for Copts in Egypt and abroad?
We are a faithful community so I see a continued Christian presence in Egypt as much as that offends some. The Christians in Egypt represent 80% of all the Christians in the Middle East. It is a shocking statistic because we have had an almost complete emptying of Christians from places like Libya, Iraq, throughout Syria and Palestinian territories. So, I feel Christians in Egypt will continue to live faithfully. The church is still full, the monasteries are visited. Copts abroad are independent, integrated to their current settings but also very connected to Egypt and I think that is a very healthy dynamic for a healthy future.
With Coptic Easter just around the corner, could you talk to us through the celebrations that happen around this time of year?
Easter for us is a very special feast, the feast of the resurrection of Christ. It is pre-empted by a week of prayers so the Sunday before is Palm Sunday where we commemorate the entry of Christ into Jerusalem. It is a major feast as well. Then throughout the week before the feast and the resurrection, Holy Week, we commemorate the steps of Christ through that week and it is quiet an intense week of prayer. We would have morning and evening service as normal churches do and on Good Friday there is an all-day service. That is all with the backdrop that Christ has risen so we reflect on the suffering and passion knowing that Christ has risen.
The one thing that I love and respect is that with people of other faiths, people of other religions, we can celebrate each other’s joy while not celebrating each other’s feasts. So I don’t expect a Muslim or a Bahia or a Hindu or a Sikh or an Atheist to believe in the resurrection of Christ but I would expect him or her to rejoice with me in my joy just as I would rejoice with him or her in their celebration. That is what communities are about. It is about us having our own identity while at the same time being able to interact with others in a respectful and genuinely loving way that shows our shared humanity as the image and likeness of God.