Has the Coptic Church failed the Revolution?
By: Sherif Rizk
It’s not often that you hear Copts arguing against their much-beloved spiritual leader, His Holiness Pope Shenouda III. The blind trust in His Holiness’ guidance of the church has been unwavering and inspiring at times, as the embattle community rallied around its pontiff to protect him from harsh criticism and false rumors. But it has come to the attention of many Copts that the octogenarian primate has distanced himself from the revolution that swept Mubarak out of office and, even worse, has seemed to vouch for the rule of the deposed Mubarak instead of the impending change that is coming. Now, His Holiness may never have said those words since January 25th, but the Pope’s public support of Mubarak and his supposed successor Gamal are still very fresh in the minds of disgruntled Egyptians. Even to this day, the Pope has been reluctant to call Copts, weary and anxious of change for the worse, to the streets to join their Muslim counterparts. This comes despite the overwhelming scenes of national unity that have often defined the spirit of this revolution, and with the memory of the Alexandria Bombing on New Year’s Eve gradually receding into the distant existence of the past.
The question on many people’s minds is clear; why has His Holiness been so reluctant to promote the revolution in the eyes of his flock, and why hasn’t he spearheaded the push for building a secular and civil Egypt? Has the Coptic church failed the revolution? Is it fair to say that the church has disconnected itself from the voice of the streets?
I have never agreed with the political role that the church has placed on itself in society, and especially the political role that the Coptic church has given its aging pontiff. While it’s true that the church plays an important political role in Egypt’s society (and will continue to hold this role should democracy come to Egypt soon), the leadership of the church should concern itself with the spiritual matters of its flock and not involve itself in the politics of the country by attempting to sway the outcome of the country’s leadership. Copts should learn to vote for those whom they think is best for themselves and the country, not necessarily who their spiritual leader advocates for. However, one must sympathize with the position of the Pope; after witnessing decades of religious persecution aimed at his own people, and at times even at himself, the Pope has learned that it is better to trust he who you know more than he who you don’t know. But while this adage may have been true of Mubarak’s era, that same mentality is no longer applicable to this new Egypt in construction.
I had hoped that His Holiness would take a position similar to his Muslim counterpart, Dr. Ahmed El-Tayeb, in supporting the revolution and distancing the religious institutions from the running of the country. However, it should be noted that I do not agree with Dr. El-Tayeb’s stance on Article 2 of the Egyptian Constitution; the establishment of a civil state should be free from the interference of any religious institution, regardless of the size of the institution or the size of the adherents of said institution. It is important to note that the position of Grand Imam of Al-Azhar has been appointed by previous executives; no doubt a method of controlling the religious teachings that are disseminated throughout the country’s mosques. As Egypt moves to liberalizing its political and social institutions on all levels, Al-Azhar will certainly not be immune to such shifts, and indeed this move has great support from within the Al-Azhar circles for the election, rather than the appointment, of its Grand Imam. However, to place a singular religious institution in control of the primary source of legislation of a multicultural country is simply incompatible with the principles of a civil state, regardless of how democratic and transparent the election of Al-Azhar’s executive is. Egypt cannot depend on two independent, contrasting judicial systems on the national level; it must move to choose one that must take into consideration the popular will of the people, while respecting the rights of those who do not want to abide by a particular or any religious code. Countless philosophers have argued for the importance of placing the civil, secular state above the interests of religious institutions in order to ensure the fairness and equality of all members of society, and one need look no further than the US Constitution to see how important this is to enshrine equality in a government’s affairs. Therefore, Dr. Al-Tayeb’s stance, albeit well-intended to safeguard the values of Islam in the new Egyptian society, are selfish and do not take into account the considerations and interests of Copts or Egyptians in general.
So, when one compares His Holiness’ stance on the revolution to that of Dr. El-Tayeb’s, it may seem that the Coptic church’s tame stance has failed the revolution. However, Dr. El-Tayeb’s stance may also be doing the same, or at least setting up the new constitution to fail the revolution in the same manner. It is here that we find the ultimate truth about the most fundamental need in the future of Egyptian society; the time has come for Egyptians to realize that the disconnect between spiritual and political life is an absolute must for the peaceful existence of the future Egypt. Perhaps it is this aspect of reality that one will have to grapple with a lot since it will require, as Antonio Gramsci once said, an internal revolution from each one of us.