In the Coptic church’s history, two statistics are examined by almost any surveyor of history: the duration of the pope’s time on the throne, and the president(s)/ruler(s) during that time.
This goes towards highlighting a very persistent pattern in the long story of Coptic existence in Egypt: the role of the pope has extended to something beyond the spiritual leader that was imagined by the early church fathers. For the past several popes, one hallmark feature of their legacy has been the relationship with the rulers of the time, and how that relationship defined Coptic existence at that time (i.e. whether it was good times or bad times for Copts).
It seems, however, that newly selected Pope Tawadros II will be the first to break the mold in that regard. Though it is far too early to tell at this point how he intends to break that pattern, one thing is clear: he is the first pope to recognize that his role in the church has become far too political, and recognizes that it needs to be re-defined.
“The most important thing is for the church to go back and live consistently within the spiritual boundaries because this is its main work, spiritual work,” the bishop said, and he promised to begin a process of “rearranging the house from the inside” and “pushing new blood” after his installation later this month as Pope Tawadros II. Interviewed on Coptic television recently, he struck a new tone by including as his priorities “living with our brothers, the Muslims” and “the responsibility of preserving our shared life.”
This is all great and important stuff, but we need to recognize two important consequences of such a shift.
First, and perhaps most importantly, is that the church must follow up on this claim by relinquishing its role as the intercessor between the Copt and the state. This is especially true for Coptic youth who are “the future of our church” (as Pope Shenouda III once famously heralded). These youth are disillusioned and frustrated by the stifling effect that church leadership has had on their political participation and integration in social life in Egypt and abroad. If Pope Tawadrous II truly intends to lead this shift in church leadership, then let him take note that his main priority right now is gaining the trust and admiration of disillusioned Coptic youth.
The most important thing is for the church to go back and live consistently within the spiritual boundaries because this is its main work, spiritual work
Secondly, an important consequence to take note of is the new responsibility this puts on every self-proclaimed Coptic activist in the world (which, admittedly, includes myself). The authority to advocate for an entire population does not rely on some arbitrary appointment by any parish priest or bishop, nor does it come from perceived self-importance: it relies on your effectiveness in speaking for our embattled minority, your efforts in including others in your efforts without alienating anyone, and your determination to get rights that have been only a dream for far too long.
Make no mistake that the Coptic church (and its clergy) will still play a major role in driving this process forward, but it should not be as the only speaker on behalf of all Copts. As the newly selected Pope Tawadros II settles into his papal throne (which has undoubtedly become an uncomfortable political hot seat over the past few months), I hope that he looks to these humble recommendations with approval, and works towards restructuring the Church’s priorities in a manner that could set a positive tone with his congregation as well as the Islamist-led state of Egypt.