Bishop Thomas: THE TRANSFORMATION OF A NATION

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His Grace Bishop Thomas is the Coptic Orthodox Bishop of El-Quosia and Mair in Southern Egypt. He is the founder and leader of the Anafora Retreat and Training Centre. His Grace has received three prizes for his work on human rights and freedom of speech: the 1999 Freedom House Prize from the United States, the 2006 Stefanus Prize from Norway, and the 2012 Bjornstjerne Bjornson Prize from Norway.

Bishop Thomas contributed the following essay to our historic book ‘Free the Copts’. ‘Free the Copts’ was released a week prior to the 30th June 2013 revolution.

THE TRANSFORMATION OF A NATION

Throughout the course of history, Egypt has contributed to almost every civilisation in the world through its applications and implementations of chemistry, architecture, mathematics, astronomy, writing, and papyrus paper—just to name a few examples.

Although the land of Egypt can be considered large by area, much of it is desert and people are forced to live on only six per cent of the whole area of land available. It is these boundaries of geography and climate that push people into small communities and villages to survive and flourish. Consequently, the Nile has created its own importance and relevance to the people living off it. Egyptians have lived and continue to live with this paradox: the life of the Nile surrounded by the bareness of the desert.

Each civilisation in Egypt’s history has endured this paradox of superiority and inferiority—past greatness and present depravity. This grand history has given Egyptians two important guiding principles:

inclusiveness and a strong sense of identity.

Ancient Egyptians had their own special ideology in dealing with religious conflict, tolerance, and coexistence. Ancient Egyptians would embrace a particular God while honouring a number of other deities at the same time. Right from the beginning they considered themselves religious people, no matter which god they worshiped. Religion in Egypt had always been and continues to be the cornerstone of the Egyptian identity. In pharaonic times, many great achievements were developed in and around the temple, and it was considered a house of life where people received their education, learned essential skills, developed a philosophy of life, and built a sense of community.

Nevertheless, Egypt was strongly influenced by foreign invaders and outside powers, who found Egypt to be an attractive location for various empires. This resulted in frequent wars, conquests, and invasions over the centuries, which have left their mark culturally, socially, religiously, and politically on the Egyptian identity. New concepts and perspectives brought in with these foreigners, which were embraced and adopted, added new dimensions to the Egyptian worldview.

After the conquests of Alexander the Great, Egypt came under the influence of the Greco-Roman civilisation. It was only then that Egyptians began to experience the process of becoming part of a larger political body. Egypt was exposed to the new religion, culture, and traditions of the Greco-Roman people, and struggled to maintain the uniqueness of its own civilisation. The Egyptian people’s adaptability and acceptance of the new culture caused a merger between the Egyptian and Hellenic civilisations. This led to the extraordinary cosmopolitan environment, which we now know as the city of Alexandria with its libraries, schools, great thinkers, and philosophers.

When Saint Mark came to Alexandria in 52 AD and introduced Christian philosophy, Christianity became an important partner in the development of Alexandria’s openness to various philosophies. The city became a home for Christian, Jewish, and Greco-Roman culture.

Even though the presence of differing religious ideas sometimes resulted in conflict, the philosophies enriched one another and helped lay the foundation for a concept of coexistence and tolerance in a harmonious manner.

In the seventh century, however, Egypt entered a new era with the Arab conquests. A new culture arrived with a different language, way of life, religion, and political identity. The concept of coexistence that Egyptians had learnt before now helped them cope with these new changes brought on by the Arab conquests. As they adjusted to becoming part of another political and cultural body, they also had to struggle to keep their own Egyptian identity. A conflict arose between the need for coexistence and the preservation of Egyptian identity, in the face of Arabism. This process of Arabisation began to change Egypt’s language, customs, and culture. Furthermore, a process of Islamisation began taking place, completely changing the ideology and practices of Egyptians and Christians alike. This process is still ongoing in many ways, and it is continuing to reshape the Egyptian identity, culture, and political ideology.

All aspects of society that had to endure these stages of change were able to keep a small sense of pride and belonging in their own beliefs. But we can see the unique characteristics of each group shift towards a more Arab influence as the pressure to conform increases for the Egyptian people.

There were three distinct groups of people who cemented this process of change. The first group was the initial wave of Arab soldiers who invaded Egypt. These soldiers began to rapidly infiltrate Egypt, as they realised that Egypt had an untapped reservoir of wealth and prosperity, which they exploited when they decided to stay in Egypt and marry the Egyptian women. These soldiers then brought in their Arabian cultures, religion, and political philosophies, which greatly impacted on the Egyptian mentality and way of life. Over time this group started influencing a wider range of Egyptian society as their numbers began to grow.

The second group of people who reformed Egypt’s landscape were the Egyptians who converted to Islam through force, pressure, blackmail, or coercion.

The third group chose to reject the Islamisation of Egypt and held fast to their beliefs, along with their true Ancient Egyptian heritage. They were forced to pay for keeping their religion and identity. These people are known as the Copts. This term was derived from Egypt’s pharaonic name Ke-Pe-Tah, and was translated by the Greeks into Egyptos, which the Arabs then pronounced as Gept. Arabs in Egypt used this term, Gept, to refer to the original Egyptians as a whole, and then used it to refer to Egyptians who remained Christian. The Copts carried with them many legacies that were distinct from Arab traditions, such as the old Egyptian language, calendar, culture, and art.

This heritage is not only an important part of Egypt’s identity, but it also represents a valuable era of ancient human civilisation. Therefore, Copts feel the world should take responsibility to conserve this heritage, because it carries a unique message and meaning for all humanity.

The Copts had to endure three distinctive yet complex processes during the Arabisation of Egypt. First, they had to try to find a delicate balance between their Egyptian heritage and identity, while trying to integrate in a rapidly growing Arabic culture. For instance, they had to try to maintain their Coptic language, while learning to use the country’s new official language of Arabic. Second, they had to balance their loyalty to their Egyptian heritage and culture, while trying to accept the realities of being part of the Arab world. Third, they had to carefully balance their right to express their Christian identity, while being immersed in an Islamic environment. This pressure to conform to the Islamic–Arabian environment, history, and culture is one which has been passed down from generation to generation and remains a strong part of the Coptic struggle today. Although collectively these struggles continue to be a source of conflict for the Copts today, the political climate and demand for democracy and state autonomy has opened the door for Copts to hope for a more accepting and tolerant Egypt.

On 25 January 2011, the people of Egypt began to protest against the rule of former President Hosni Mubarak. Their demands included basic human rights, freedom, democracy, and social justice. A majority of people in Egypt were delighted by this new turn of events, and the famous Tahrir Square in central Cairo was filled with many people expressing the hope for transformation. People from different backgrounds—men and women, Christians and Muslims, rich and poor—united with one another to change society. The chance to create a new and better Egypt kept them in Tahrir Square for 18 days as they demonstrated for an idealistic yet essential dream of democracy.

Over a year has passed since Mubarak resigned his post, yet an old but familiar struggle has re-emerged in Egypt—a struggle in which a few wish to establish a religious state based on Islam. It can already be seen that Egypt is undergoing many transformations, and the society appears to be drifting towards two larger groups with two very different visions. One group is working for the establishment of an Islamic state, and the other is working for an open, civil state. A few observers say that the protesters who took to the streets in January 2011 have not achieved their objectives or even reaped the rewards of their struggles. They also say that these youth have opened the door to other more extremist forces to take power. However, despite the empowerment of Islamist movements in parliamentary and presidential elections, the spirit of those Egyptians working for an open, civil society is still strong. The fire of freedom and equality is in the hearts of many Egyptians, and it will not be put out easily.

The Coptic community has aligned itself with those who are striving for a civil and open society—those who hope for a real transformation of the nation in three crucial aspects of society.

The first aspect involves the transformation or evolution of a hierarchal Egyptian society into a more democratic one. The country must be transformed from the rule of one authoritative dictatorship into the rule of a democratic government. Egyptian society needs to move towards a system based on a constitutional government that empowers all. To do this, the society should be transformed from its grass roots so that it can practise democracy in its true form. This will take place at home in the family and even at work, and will involve allowing everyone the right to express themselves freely without intimidation or suppressing the expression of others. This will not happen overnight, and it will also have to be linked to the reformation of the educational system. When society learns to live by the rules of democracy, democracy in politics will inevitably follow. Democracy is not just the rule of the majority, and its application extends to more than just a political system. It is a philosophical change that all levels of society must embrace. It also means accepting the responsibility to guarantee that every individual in society has the freedom and ability to express themselves and their ideology genuinely and with equal opportunity. If democracy starts by working inside people’s hearts, then it will carry over and flow into the people’s government.

The second aspect is the transformation of a male-dominated society into a society based on gender equality and advancement. Because Egyptian society is currently dominated by patriarchal rule, it is the responsibility of those same men in power to provide the opportunity for women to take their place as equal members in society.

Egypt also needs to create a number of programs that empower and educate women, while also informing men about the benefits of giving women equal opportunities. Just as before, it is vital that a reformation and adjustment of the schooling system and educational curriculum is implemented as soon as possible in order for this change to take place.

The third aspect that needs to change is the transformation of a religiously intolerant society into a more open and accepting one. Today, everything in Egypt is subject to religion. Politicised religion is creating a deep segregation in society, even for people holding the same faith. The distance between the open minded, the moderates, and the radicals is rapidly widening. This anticipated transformation towards a society of openness and tolerance will provide an ideal atmosphere that respects the spirituality of the individual without the backlash of vindication. These conditions will encourage cultural expression along with a harmonious and peaceful atmosphere.

The process of transformation in Egypt will need to continue for some time. The Coptic community remains an active partner in this process as it shares the responsibility of spreading peace and creating harmony in the Egyptian society. It is the Coptic community’s responsibility to preserve the roots of Egyptian culture and heritage, while remaining faithful to the philosophy of openness and peaceful coexistence.

Bishop Thomas

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