As people question the role of the church in religion, society and politics, Peter Tadros explores the idea of having a Coptic Political Party as well as His Holiness Pope Tawadros II involvement in the current political climate.
The last article I wrote on 2 August 2013 was titled ‘A Coptic Political Party? Why not? (http://www.auscma.com/?p=2135). In a nutshell, I was supporting both the churches public positioning, as well highlighting the importance and benefits of healthy independent Coptic civic participation in all affairs pertaining to the Copts, something which the Copts clearly lack in Egypt. As a result of the absence of Copts from the political and social scene, the Coptic Patriarch is seen as default leader of all Christians in Egypt; both spiritually and politically. This set up cannot be denied and has been the case for hundreds of years. In modern times many argue it is just a predicament that the Church finds itself in and that the hierarchy of the church do not wish for this to be the case.
In the same article I argued that a Coptic Political Party will also take immense pressure off the Coptic Church headquarters and that the church has many issues to deal with and should not be drawn into the dangerous and fluid political game that was playing out in Egypt at that time. Many quietly support the idea albeit cautiously.
Unfortunately since then we have witnessed further deterioration in the broader political discourse in Egypt as the majority of Egyptians have rallied behind former defence chief Mr Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi. The role of political parties and their development has taken a back step due to the instability caused by the Muslim Brotherhood.
Mr Sisi’s popularity has reached cult like levels not seen since Ramsis II. His popularity is probably envied by world leaders around the globe who carefully watch opinion polls to gauge their standing in their electorates.
Of course the former defence chief and Field Marshall had succeeded in winning over the admiration of millions of Egyptians following the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood’s former President Morsi. Since then sporadic terror attacks and low level insurgencies targeting the military , the police and of course Egypt’s Coptic Christians naturally result in even more support for Mr Sisi as they look to him to bring stability to the nation.
At times it can be easy for pundits, activists or journalists who are not in positions of authority or responsibility to engage in criticism or even misrepresent actions of leaders during these turbulent times. Some like paid journalists are simply doing their job and looking for a newsworthy headline.
The Coptic Pope, His Holiness Pope Tawadros II leads the largest non-Muslim minority in Egypt and throughout the North African and Middle Eastern region. During the short reign of President Morsi the Coptic Pope, who was himself only recently enthroned, voiced his concerns at President Morsi and the State several times and for good reason.
However, Pope Tawadros and the church in general has been the subject of unfair criticism and misrepresentation in some quarters. A recent example is a report from the Wall Street Journal dated 16 January 2014 titled ‘Egypt’s Coptic Church Takes Rare Foray into Politics’. The article describes the Church as an ‘unlikely’ and ‘new political actor’ quoting young Egypt based Coptic activists who felt uncomfortable with the role of the church without substantiating how the church was actually involved in the political process other than Pope Tawadros recommending a ‘Yes’ vote for the constitution. Does the mere endorsement of ‘Yes’ vote at a critical time in Egypt’s modern history render the Coptic Church as a ‘new political actor’ ?
More recently a media appearance by Pope Tawadros on Kuwaiti TV also attracted some criticism on social media. The interview was recorded in late February 2014. In the interview, His Holiness answered all questions put forward to him and as expected the questions on the gulf based TV channel were not entirely of a spiritual nature. During the interview the Coptic Pope praised the role of Mr Sisi and described him as a hero. He also shared his opinion on many issues from the Nile River crisis to the uprisings in the region and subsequent instability. A few activists went online to vent their frustrations as they were not pleased with Pope Tawadros’ views.
An article was then appeared on the Atlantic Council website on 31 March 2014 with a very similar title to the Wall Street Journal article mentioned above titled ‘Forays By The Coptic Church Into Politics Spell Trouble for Its Subjects’. This time the writer, Amir Beshay opens his article with a link to an amateur video which appears to show popular Egyptian pop-star Ehab Tawfik singing subtly ‘Taslim Al Ayadi’ which translates to ‘Bless your hands’ (referring to Egypt’s military and Mr Sisi) being performed at what appears to be a Coptic Church in France. The song is a popular patriotic song which attempts to unite Copts and Muslims whilst praising the Egyptian military. Beshay’s concerns regarding Pope Tawadros’ views were subtle compared to other pundits on Twitter. One activist said he would find it hard to walk into a Coptic Church again and another respectable academic tweeted that the church is facing a theological crisis. Beshay then proceeds to criticise comments made by Pope Tawadros in the interview with the Kuwaiti TV and refers to the issue of separation of ‘religion and state’.
Back to the pop-star Ehab Tawfik, many quickly commented negatively on social media again pointing out to the separation of church and state whilst others dismissed it as an overreaction. The first thing that crossed my mind when I watched that video (other than figuring out how they managed to get Ehab Tawfik out to their local church) is that we do not really know the circumstances or the full program for the evening at the church premises. Of course Coptic Orthodox Christians like most other Orthodox Churches are very traditional in their practises and usually do not allow non-Christian type music to take place inside the church. I then watched the video to the end and noticed that there were many other guests present including famous Egyptian actor Elham Shahen.
The reaction on ACM’s Facebook page to a photo of Ehab Tawfik singing near or in front of an altar attracted mixed reactions however the majority held the traditional view that it is not suitable and unorthodox with many suggesting a better venue should have been chosen for such an event. Others took the singing of such a song inside the church (or church premises) as a form of mixing religion and politics.
In all examples above there is a common theme. The mixing of ‘church and state’ or ‘religion and politics’. This argument is commonly used to not only silence Christians in the public space (as we see in the West) but to ensure they do not discuss any issue outside of the four walls of their church.
Islamist thinkers use the same arguments with Copts, in other words, the separation of ‘Church and State’ to criticise the Coptic Church yet there is no such separation at all in their ideology. The former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat went a step further and accused the late Pope Shenouda III of interfering with politics and placed him under house arrest for speaking out on Coptic civil rights.
In the West the argument of separating religion from politics is used to silence Christians and end Christian influence on laws and customs. All over the world Christians are becoming more reluctant to engage in public policy debates for fear of being ridiculed or ‘mixing politics and religion’.
Some Christians are overzealous in protecting their own personal image and would prefer that they and their church steer clear on any social issue which may bring their church into disrepute, especially on controversial issues of the day. They worship in their comfort zone and prefer to be cocooned within the 4 walls of their church and have minimal influence on the outside world around them.
There are many fair arguments for the separation of Church and State for e.g. a religion, denomination or church should not govern a nation, however separating the church from politics or Christians and politics is virtually impossible. Politics shapes our lives and is not just limited to governments and parliaments. Politics is unavoidable even for those who are not members of any political party. Politicians are law makers. Their decisions impact all of us and the environment that our children are nurtured in. Decisions made today could have negative or positive impacts for future generations.
Egypt’s Coptic Pope will always have an important role to play in Egypt in the public space. The Coptic Orthodox Church of Egypt is the oldest surviving institution in the nation. His Holiness Pope Tawadros is doing nothing wrong by accepting media interviews and discussing social and political issues, even if we may disagree with them at times.
Personally I do not see anything wrong with Pope Tawadros’ public endorsement of Mr Sisi. This is not a ‘Foray’ into politics as suggested. He criticised former President Morsi and he will criticise Mr Sisi in future if he fails to deliver as well and so will we.
Critical analysis of church hierarchy aside what will be the role of the emerging Coptic Diaspora in coming years? The academics, advisors, economists, lawyers, consultants, journalists and community leaders? I hope that they will use their talents and contacts in a positive manner and help influence Egypt for the better including calling for justice for past and ongoing crimes against Christians in Egypt, promoting democratic values, reviving the great Coptic-Egyptian culture or investing in Egypt.
Peter Tadros has participated in fact-finding missions and presented at many seminars. He features regularly in the media for commentary on Egypt and the plight of Copts, including regular radio interviews, print features, and television appearances. Tadros is one of the founding members of the Australian Coptic Movement Association.