Coptic Community in Transition: report released
This report is the result of a research visit to Cairo made by Kari Vogt and Nelly Van Doorn, January 16th - 25th, 2013.
The primary aim of this visit was to research the condition and the main themes of debates, in particular legal themes, as brought up by Egypt’s religious minorities, especially the Coptic Christian communities that are around ten percent of the entire population of around 85 million.
Our special focus was the largest denomination, the Coptic Orthodox Church (or Coptic Church), which is headed by a pope who traditionally represents his community in official interactions with the government. Furthermore we spoke with representatives of the Coptic Protestant churches. Relying on our research network that we have entertained since the 1980s, we interviewed several high ranking leaders of the Coptic Church, including the Pope, as well as several leading Christian and Muslim politicians.
While the entire country is going through dramatic changes after the revolution of January 25th, 2011 that brought down President Mubarak, the Coptic Orthodox community had to deal with the death of Pope Shenouda III on March 17, 2012. The challenges awaiting his successor, Pope Tawadros II (elected November 4th), are daunting as he faces manifold internal and external struggles. Inside the Church, debates rage about the position of laity and personal rights matters such as the strict rules concerning divorce and the ever-growing Coptic community that now lives in Diaspora. As for the external challenges, economic and political upheaval affects the Copts as it does the rest of society. On top of these problems, Copts face a society that is increasingly controlled by Islamist agendas, a newly designed Islamist-inspired Constitution with several articles that holds numerous potentials for infringements on their rights as equal citizens, and ongoing incidents of sectarian violence against Coptic lives and property. “The vision for the future is not so clear,” Anba Pachomius, Metropolitan of Bohaira, Matrouh, and North Africa, (and formerly the interim pope) said expressing the reality that Copts cannot predict what Islamist groups will do that will affect the Copts; “Changing and more strained relations with Muslims have been imposed on us. The working vision of the Islamic movement today is not clear” (Interview January 22, 2013). “Every day we see steps being taken backwards,” observed Anba Thomas, Bishop of El-Qusiyeh and Deputy Secretary of the Holy Synod; “A theocratic regime allows little space for those who are different. However, we are not into politics but in the business of defending people's rights.” (Interview, January 17, 2013)
Egyptian society is in transition. After sixty years of autocratic rule the change to democracy is complicated. Especially, as Dr. Shahira Mehrez pointed out, because the state educational system is not only dismal (a recent report ranked Egypt number 139 on a list of 144 countries), but has fed several generations narrow-minded materials with a focus on rote learning. In spite of the dismal state of education, the younger generation that represents more than fifty percent of the population will not accept a return to the Mubarak era and desires to be free and speak up (Interview January 20, 2013). Using Bishop Pachomius’ words: “The desire for democracy is real; after the Revolution you can’t tell anybody what to do” (January 22, 2013). This reality is present inside the Church where it influences the relationships between Church authorities and lay members, as well as outside where it colors the relations between the Egyptian people and the political establishment. Yet, the current government that is dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood apparently falls back on the same methods of repression and suppression that led to the downfall of Mubarak.