The Pope and The State: A Present of Discomfort (Part II)

As the Coptic church marks the 40-day remembrance of Pope Shenouda III’s death, it’s important to reflect on the uncomfortable state of affairs that he dealt with during his time on the throne of St Mark.

For more than 40 years, Pope Shenouda dealt with a state that was oblivious to the plight of its minority Christians, but was still expected to stay in line with the rest of the country's religious and non-religious authorities for advancing the state's agenda. (Source: AFP/Getty Images)

The “flash point” where the Pope and the Head of State clashed heads was arguably in the lead-up to the 1971 Peace Treaty between Egypt and Israel. Knowing that the treaty would draw the ire of many Arabs, Sadat sought as much support as possible to shore up his plan to make peace with Israel. Sadat turned to Pope Shenouda, asking him to accompany him to Tel Aviv to make a statement to the Arab world that Egypt’s Christians – the largest Christian minority in the Middle East – supported their president. Pope Shenouda’s disapproval of Sadat’s plan highlighted two things: his adamant belief that Egypt should not involve itself with Israel until the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ended, and his protest to the increasingly dictatorial steps that Sadat was taking during his time as president.

Sadat was perhaps the most controversial president Egypt has had so far. He was heralded by many as the “Hero of the Crossing” for his so-called “victory” during the 6th of October War (many would argue that his inability to maintain military supremacy not only amounted to a technical defeat, but could have also brought Israeli military presence into Cairo itself). However, his political policies drew much criticism. Domestically, he was releasing Egypt’s fundamental Islamists from prisons to fight the growing tide of dissent in the universities coming from socialists who preferred his predecessor’s (i.e. Nasser) policies. The result may have worked in silencing dissent, but Sadat ultimately unleashed a pack of vicious dissidents who not only ultimately killed Sadat, but continue to haunt Egypt’s security and safety to this very day. However, the most endangered group was Egypt’s Coptic Christians. They were singled out by the Islamists as ‘Kafirs’ – or infidels – and began a campaign aimed at driving them out of Egypt or, even worse, killing them. The result was, unsurprisingly, an increased wave of attacks against Christians, and a sharp rise in Coptic Christians exiting Egypt to live elsewhere. Shortly before Sadat was assassinated in October 1981, he rescinded his approval of Pope Shenouda’s enthronement as Pope (as required by a 1957 law) and placed Pope Shenouda under house arrest in the Natroun Valley at St. Bishoy’s Monastery (the same monastery where Pope Shenouda is now buried). Sadat assigned a council of bishops to run the affairs of the church in the Pope’s absence, though Copts still recognized the legitimacy of Pope Shenouda as Pope and strongly protested Sadat’s interference with church affairs.

But this was Sadat’s era. After his death, Mubarak came and things should have looked up. Right?

Mubarak: Liberator, or Oppressor?

Much has been said about Mubarak’s role in ‘protecting Egypt’s minorities’. For years, Mubarak put out this line as one of the major selling points to solidify his legitimacy to Western regimes. But was it true? Was he even trying to protect Egypt’s Christians, but failing at it?

Perhaps, in a moment of reflection on the past, Pope Shenouda sought to employ a different strategy with Mubarak. Instead of using his influence to lash out against the President, the Pope sought to use that influence to support the president and use that influence to get benefits for the embattled Christian minority: mainly security, but other things such as national holidays or, at the very least, no state interference with the Church’s affairs.

From Left: Pope Shenouda III, Former Egyptian President Anwar El-Sadat and Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in an undated file photo.

But there was little of that during Mubarak’s reign. Firstly, Mubarak did not rescind Sadat’s house arrest of Pope Shenouda until the fall of 1984 – approximately 3 years after Sadat died. There was some progress made in attempting to stabilize the state’s relationship with the Copts by declaring Coptic Christmas (on January 7th of every year) a national holiday, in addition to the friendly press releases made on special occasions directed at the Pope. But the security issue remained a pesky one, and Egypt has flared up with sectarian tension and violence from time to time over the years.

In the last 10-12 years of Mubarak’s reign, sectarian tension reached an all time high. The El-Kosheh Massacre in late-December 1999/Early January 2000 was perhaps one of the most serious incidents, marked by a lack of security involvement and, at times, even police participation in action against Christians (at least such claims were made). This massacre left tens of people killed and hundreds injured, and the Upper-Egyptian village was rocked by general fighting that made tensions across Egypt very high.

The lack of justice was an insult not only to Coptic Christians, but to the Egyptian justice system. The trial was prolonged and ultimately resulted in the acquittal of those charged without bail a month before their sentencing. Pope Shenouda, in a rare lambasting of the state, publicly rejected the verdict and called for an appeal.

Unfortunately, El Kosheh was not the last episode of sectarian violence. As the years progressed, more and more attacks occurred under Mubarak’s so-called ‘security regime’, and not-so-surprisingly, these attacks were aimed at Christians on their special holidays with the aim of causing maximum physical and emotional damage. Most recently, it came to light that Mubarak’s last minister of interior, the reviled Habib El-Adly, personally ordered the explosion of a car bomb outside of a church in Alexandria, Egypt that caused the death of 21 people on January 1st, 2011. If this was the case, one must wonder: will time reveal to us that Mubarak and his cronies were the ones behind most, if not all, the attacks on Coptic Christians in the past two decades or so? Because, clearly, security was not an important item on Mubarak’s agenda for the Copts.

The scene outside the Two Saints' Church in Alexandria, Egypt moments after a car bomb killed 21 people and injured 70 others on January 1st, 2011. Angry Christians clashed with an angry Muslim mob and security forces who were trying to control the situation. (Source: AP)

Final Thoughts

Pope Shenouda sought to employ a strategy of cooperation with the state. It was a risky move, but having seen the damage caused by Sadat’s policies, he sought to work with the state to improve the situation by trying to convince the state that happy and safe Christians would be beneficial to the government’s legitimacy to the West. In my opinion, it ultimately backfired because Mubarak manipulated that relationship to hold Coptic security for ransom, keeping his policies and his stranglehold on power the main priority above all else. Ultimately, his plan to hold Coptic security in exchange for Coptic support for his presidency was the reason Copts have lived in fear for the past two decades. The unfortunate aspect of this plan is that despite the fact that the plan of cooperation with the state failed, there was no way to back out of it because it could mean the same result that happened with Sadat. If Pope Shenouda publicly undermined Mubarak by specifically humiliating him, Mubarak could have removed what minimal security he had for the Copts and, even worse, turned the country’s Islamists against the Copts to silence dissent. The result would have been an even more disastrous state of affairs for Egypt’s Copts.

But we see how the state, once again, seriously considers the Coptic populace’s approval of the state, and that this is not just some historical anomaly (as hinted at in my earlier blog post). Perhaps this hints at the notion that Egypt’s Coptic Christians hold something valuable to the state: is it political power, or economic clout? Is it true that Egypt’s minority Christians constitute only ~10% of Egypt’s population, or is it substantially more than that? Is the state trying to disenfranchise a powerful voting bloc by causing dissent within this bloc to prevent them from acting as a unified bloc?

Stay tuned….

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