Written by Mohammed Abdul-Raouf
29 July 2009
Cairo -- Pope Shenouda III, the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt, believes that there is no common solution to sectarian problems that arise from time to time in Egypt.
"Every problem should be tackled in its own context and [according to] the environment in which it emerged and should be tackled by all relevant parties," he said.
In an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Pope Shenouda said, "With regards to sectarian problems, there is only a role for security forces whilst MPs and municipal councils are absent. After the security forces get involved, religious institutions also intervene in support of the security solution. After that, we attack religious figures and accuse them of being political."
The Pope denied that these were isolated incidents saying, "If isolated incidents are happening again and again they cannot be described as isolated incidents." He also expressed that not all problems are dealt with objectively; however he refused to name any parties that he believes are not impartial.
The Pope stated that Muslim-Coptic ties in general in Egypt are not satisfactory. "The Sheikh of Al Azhar is a good, merciful man and we have a good friendship and we meet on various occasions. But this does not necessarily mean that there is a good relationship between Muslims and Copts as well."
Sectarian clashes between Muslims and Copts break out from time to time in different parts of the country. The most recent conflict took place a few days ago in Al Minya (240km south of Cairo) after a number of Coptic Christians from one village tried to turn one of the houses into a church where they could perform their religious practices.
"There can be a good friendship and good ties between Muslims and Copts but when it comes to voting in elections, a Muslim will not vote for a Coptic candidate," said Pope Shenouda who added that this is a new issue. "In the Egyptian Lawyers' Syndicate, Makram Pasha Ebeid, a Copt, headed the Syndicate, and then it became customary that the representative would be a Copt. Then Coptic representation completely disappeared from Syndicates' administrative board." He added, "Coptic candidates were elected by Muslim voters, so what happened?" Pope Shenouda believes that the Coptic role in elections has weakened.
In reference to the controversy among opposition circles regarding the upcoming presidential elections, Pope Shenouda said, "I do not think that there will be a [power] bequeathal. It is efficiency and legal principles alone that will determine the election of the next president. If a person considers himself competent he can nominate himself, and whoever meets the legal criteria can enter the elections. Whoever the nation approves will win."
President Hosni Mubarak's fifth term in office will come to an end in 2011 and the presidential elections will be carried out in accordance with Article 76 of the Egyptian constitution that was twice amended in 2005 and 2007 when independent and opposition candidates were allowed to run for presidency in keeping with certain terms and conditions.
Asked whether a Copt could assume power in Egypt, Pope Shenouda III said, "This cannot happen because the majority is made up of Muslims and a Copt cannot rule and represent the [Muslim] majority."
Shenouda added, "The chance of any Coptic candidate [winning] in the elections is slim. If Coptic candidates aren't successful in parliamentary and Syndicate elections, how can we expect a Coptic candidate to succeed in the presidential elections?"
Pope Shenouda praised the way that the Egyptian government handled the crisis of Max Michel (Maximus I) who appointed himself as a patriarch. He said, "The Egyptian government took a strong position against him and took away his identity card and passport that listed this alleged title. I know him as he was one of my students at the theology college, but his opinions contradicted the Christian doctrine so he did not have any position in the church."
"When Maximus failed in Egypt, he took shelter in the US where he obtained the status of archbishop. However this does not mean anything to the Orthodox Church," said Pope Shenouda.
Asked about second marriages amongst Copts, Pope Shenouda said, "In Christian teachings there are no second marriages except under specific circumstances. When a court grants a Christian citizen a divorce, it should allow him to marry [a second time] and not force me to allow him to marry a second time."
Speaking about the status of expatriate Copts, Pope Shenouda said, "They are large in number and, of course, they all have different viewpoints so it would be wrong to generalize. I think that they should strengthen their links with the Egyptian embassies and consulates abroad." The Pope expressed his willingness to meet any expatriate Copts if they wanted to meet him and denied that there were disputes between them and the Church.