There’s an old saying that goes “you can’t teach old dogs new tricks”.
It seems to me that the saying also goes “you can’t teach old churches new ideas”.
The Coptic Orthodox Church, considered one of the most ancient and celebrated apostolic churches in the world, has recently been undergoing some major growth milestones in Canada. To name a few milestones, the Coptic Church in Canada was recently visited by its patriarch in September 2014, established two new dioceses in Canada, and has seen a steady growth in its population due to an influx of Copts leaving a tumultuous political situation in Egypt since 2011.
However, one of the most significant changes recently seen is the growing relationship between the Canadian Coptic Orthodox leadership structure and the Conservative Party of Canada. In recent years, the Conservative Party has notably tried to lure the Coptic community by implementing various empty measures aimed at them. For example, the federal and provincial Conservative Party has long been recruiting members of the Coptic community to run for riding nominations, with the aim of putting Canada’s first Coptic MP or MPP in office. In some situations, this recruitment effort happens under the guidance of some church leaders, in addition to various implicit efforts to support one candidate over the other.
However, the main problem with these new developments is the utter disregard for the concept of political neutrality by some church officials. Church officials, by closely entwining themselves with members of a particular party, are not only disregarding the diverse political opinions of their congregants, but are also showing a misunderstanding of how the Canadian political system works.
Old Politics in a New Country
In Egypt, it is understandable (and even predictable) that Coptic church officials would come out in support of a particular candidate or political entity. The intricacies of the Egyptian state make it so that religious officials are expected to support the rulers of the land. Although one may disagree with that type of relationship, the legal system in Egypt somewhat mandates that religious officials be in compliance with certain government standards.
However, in Canada, the system is entirely different. The country is not run by one ruling faction or party that holds perpetual reign over us all. It is run by democratic institutions that are open and transparent, despite their imperfections. There are no legal obligations on church officials to be in line with ruling party policies and positions.
Thus, when one looks at Church officials’ attempts to cozy up to the ruling party of the day, it is obvious that they are doing things the same way things are done in the motherland. They are attempting to gain the favour of the ruler of the day, supporting him and his policies blindly, and building him up as some sort of saviour and protector of us all.
But perhaps the saddest part of all of this is the clear exploitation taking place. The Conservative Party, perfectly aware of the undying loyalty of the Coptic leadership, makes empty promises and grand gestures to pander to a populace foolishly convinced by their false politics. The Conservative Party, time and time again, will make a gesture here and there to dazzle the Copts, whether it’s a photo op at the Coptic Cathedral in Markham, ON or through statements issued during times of celebration (or during times of hardship).
An alternative explanation to this is that the Coptic leadership is entirely aware of how the Canadian political system works, and understands that Stephen Harper and the Conservatives will not rule forever. In that case, they would be knowingly engaging in politics on behalf of an entire institution – an institution that is made up of thousands of people, with different opinions on what policies should and should not be implemented. To engage in politics on behalf of all those people without having an open consultation process is undemocratic.
I guess what I’m trying to say to my church officials is this: if you want to engage in politics on behalf of the entire congregation, be prepared to face some differing opinions, and the consequences of supporting one party over another.