A new future for Egypt’s Copts

By Idris Tawfiq

Tomorrow a box will be placed on the altar of Saint Mark’s cathedral in Abbasiya containing three pieces of paper. On them will be the names of the three men chosen by a complicated electoral college as eligible to be the next Pope and Patriarch of the Coptic Church. Bishop Raphael, a 54-year-old former aide to the late Pope, Bishop Tawadros, a 60-year-old auxiliary bishop to the acting head of the Coptic Church and a monk from Alexandria, Father Raphael Ava Mina, aged 70, are the names from which the new pope will be chosen. In tomorrow’s ceremony, a blindfolded child will put his hand into the box and take out one of the three names. This man will be the new Pope.

Egypt’s Coptic Church is one of the oldest Christian Churches in the world, claiming descent right back to the Gospel writer, Saint Mark.

Even after Islam had come to Egypt in the year 642 AD the country remained predominantly Christian for the next two hundred years, proving quite categorically that people were not forced to convert to Islam at the point of a sword by Arab armies. In fact, the truth is quite different to what some mischief makers from outside Egypt would have us believe. Christian and Muslim have lived together in peace in this country for fourteen centuries.

How could it be otherwise? One of Prophet Mohammad’s wives (PBUH) was a Coptic Christian and the mother of his son Ibrahim. Muslims and Christians in Egypt have walked under the same sun and drunk water from the same Nile since Muslims first came here under the leadership of Amr Ibn Al-As. In fact, the mosque he built in Fustat, the oldest mosque in Africa, sits in an area of Cairo which contains numerous churches and a Jewish synagogue.

The voices of fanatics are to be found in every place and in every religion. Those who would deny Egypt’s Coptic Christians a full and vital share in the life of this nation are forgetting their own history and their own faith. Islam and Christianity must not only co-exist peacefully together, because that is the teaching of their respective creeds, but they must live together as friends.

Fanatical groups, both inside and outside the country, have tried over these last eighteen months to divide Egyptians in any way they can. One of their cleverest ploys has been to try and set Christians and Muslims against one another. They have done this by sowing seeds of fear and, unfortunately, many Christians have been so alarmed by their talk of the so-called threat of Islamists that they have left the country. Their departure is a sad loss for Egypt, which is as much their country as it is anyone else’s.

We are living in changing times. Egypt has changed and there is no going back to the old days of corruption and dishonesty in government. The Revolution of January 25, inspired as much by the aspirations of Christian youth as by Muslims or by young people of no faith at all, called for a new Egypt in which freedom, dignity and social justice would be available to all her sons and daughters, regardless of their belief. Since then we have lived through difficult times. With the election of Dr Morsi as the first ever democratically elected civilian President, many see a window of hope and opportunity for the country.The problems facing him, though, are immense and there are many who are still suspicious of his motives and the hidden agendas of the Muslim Brotherhood which backs him.

New times, though, call for new ideas and new leadership. Let us be honest and admit that, just like Al-Azhar’s leaders had done, the leadership of the Church in Egypt had allied itself closely with the former regime. Even in the final days before the now jailed former president was removed from office, both Al-Azhar’s leadership and the leaders of the Church were silent in calling for him to step down, even though young people of both faiths were falling dead as martyrs in such a cause.

There are many reasons for this. Religious leaders, on the whole, tend to be older men who are cautious of and resistant to change. Being close to the former regime was perceived as one way of shielding people from the excesses of a police state. As we have seen in Syria in these last months, the Christian Churches there are led by very old men and they have been reluctant to break with the Assad regime lest the forces of that regime be brought to bear on them.

Here in Egypt, the Church has also faced a number of problems in recent years. These have included the onslaught of secularism in society, the calls for divorce to be allowed in the Church and for there to be a greater say for individuals in the Church’s decision making process. One of the ways of combatting such dissent was to encourage Christians to steer clear of the political process and to look, instead, to the Church’s leaders to protect their best interests.

History will show whether or not that was the wisest course to follow.

Times, though, have changed and Egypt now looks very different to what it did eighteen months ago. The man who will lead the Coptic Church into the future has a heavy weight on his shoulders. Of course, he must protect the interests of Copts. If there is discrimination against them, he must strive hard at every level to combat this. If Egypt’s Copts do not enjoy full rights within the country then this is against the Constitution and must be resisted in every way by all Egyptians, of whatever faith or of none.

Let us hope, though, that the name pulled out of the box on Sunday will be a man of vision who is able to see beyond the short-term and look, instead, at the wider picture. This election is important not only for the Coptic community, but for the whole of Egypt. There is an opportunity before us all for a new era to begin, an era of friendship and cooperation in which the voices coming from outside Egypt will have no role to play.

How exciting it would be if all of Egypt’s citizens used this week as the opportunity to extend a hand of friendship to their neighbours, regardless of their religion. Mischief makers have done their best to spread fear and suspicion in many of Egypt’s towns and villages. The tribal behaviour which this has prompted is not a part of either Christianity or of Islam. People of faith do not kill one another.

Let us not forget that people of faith have more in common with one another than with the secular voices that would do away with faith and religion altogether. It would be well for Christians and Muslims to remember this during these days of transition. Have we so soon forgotten those chants of “One hand together” that were heard throughout the days of January last year? “One hand together” is, after all, the sentiment of most Egyptians, who have no time for fanatics.

In congratulating the Coptic Church on its proud past, we can all pray that it is sent a wise leader, a man of reconciliation and of peace, to guide its faithful. May he prosper and live many years and may his leadership benefit all of Egypt’s people, inshallah.

British Muslim writer, Idris Tawfiq, teaches at Al-Azhar University. The author of nine books about Islam, he divides his time between Egypt and the UK as a speaker, writer and broadcaster. You can visit his website at www.idristawfiq.com and join him on Facebook at Idris Tawfiq Page.