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“Most important is … that the Church, as an institution, serves the community,” Pope Tawadros II told reporters after he was named the 118th pope of Egypt’s Coptic Christian Church in November 2012. Since his ordination, the pope has ‘served the community’ by pursuing an active political role.
Following the 25 January Revolution in 2011 that toppled President Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s Christians – estimated at roughly 10% of the country’s 90 million people – experienced uncertain times. Mohamed Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood, had won the presidential elections in June 2012, and Islamist parties dominated the parliament. The country was still in the grip of political and social unrest.
Moreover, a church attack that killed 23 in Alexandria on 1 January 2011 had shocked the Coptic community and stirred up tensions between Copts and Islamists. Following the attack, Copts clashed with security forces and accused the regime of discriminating against minorities and of inadequately protecting them from Muslim extremists. In an interview with AP shortly after his ordination, Tawadros showed awareness of the political challenges. “We must and will actively take part in any national dialogue in which we see a benefit for the nation,” he said.
Tawadros was born Wagih Sobhi Baqi Soliman on 4 November 1952. He studied pharmacy at the University of Alexandria, before joining the Wadi Natrun monastery in 1986 and studying theology. He became a priest in 1989. He was ordained by Pope Shenouda III in 1997 as Bishop Tawadros, which is the Coptic name for Theodore.
The history of the Coptic Church goes back to the first century AD, when, according to tradition, St Mark founded a church in Alexandria. The church separated from the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches following the Council of Chalcedon in 451, in a theological dispute over the divine nature of Jesus.
Tawadros entered the political arena in July 2013. When then-General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi announced the removal of Morsi in a televised address, Tawadros was at his side, together with the Muslim leader Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayeb. In the years since, the pope has been an outspoken backer of al-Sisi, now president. For instance, ahead of al-Sisi’s visit to the United States for the United Nations General Assembly in September 2016, he called on Copts in diaspora to rally in al-Sisi’s support.
The pope has also faced an internal debate on his watch. Reformers have repeatedly called for extending the grounds for divorce, which were limited in the Coptic Church to adultery and changing faith. A new Church law, approved in March 2016, has stipulated that impotency, sexually transmitted diseases and a separation of 1-3 years are also grounds for divorce. Domestic abuse, a demand by many young Copts, has not been included. At the same time, the Church has imposed stricter rules regarding who can marry in the Church, such as extending the minimum engagement period to six months and an obligatory course for the couple, Copt George Seif told Fanack.
While Copts were generally relieved that al-Sisi had removed the Muslim Brotherhood from power, the Church’s support for the regime has also drawn criticism. Wael Eskandar, a political activist and Copt himself, is one of those critics. “The pope is compromising his role as a spiritual leader for administrative gain,” he told Fanack, explaining that the pope refuses to speak out against wrongdoings by the regime.
One example is the pope’s comments on the Maspero demonstrations in October 2011, when 28 Copts were killed in clashes with the army. In two separate interviews, the pope first refrained from calling out the army and later insinuated that the Muslim Brotherhood was responsible for dragging the Copts into the violence.
Besides, when in May 2016, a Christian grandmother was stripped naked and dragged through the streets of Karm village in the southern province of Minya by a Muslim mob, the pope did not voice strong condemnation. Instead, he called for self-restraint and warned against using the incident “to ignite sectarian strife”.
Bishop Makarios of Minya did speak out, saying the police responded inadequately and suggesting that if the assaulted woman had been a Muslim, authorities would have dealt differently with the case. Incidents like these suggest that Tawadros is willing to go a long way in order to stay close to the regime. The best example of the ‘administrative gain’ the pope could be seeking is the new church building law, approved in August 2016.
Church building has been a sensitive issue for decades. Based on legal codes from the 19th and early 20th centuries, building approvals were granted in an arbitrary fashion and were vulnerable to discrimination. The new church building law was intended to end such arbitrary approvals, and is viewed by the Coptic leadership as a step forward. However, rights groups have criticized the law, with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) saying in a statement that the law “reproduces the status quo”.
According to the EIPR, imposing a law solely on church building, without including other houses of worship, is discriminatory in itself. Moreover, as per the law, the authority over permits for church building and renovation legally falls under the administration and security apparatus. In that sense, what was the problem in the first place, has now been legally codified.
Eskandar calls the pope’s “unconditional” support for the regime “a horrible political bargain”. “It’s giving support without any guarantee of anything in return, effectively disempowering the Copts in Egypt.” To an extent, Eskandar understands the predicament of Copts in Egypt. He believes the Coptic leadership is “stuck” in a fear that dates back to the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, when a series of Islamist attacks were carried out, and “there was no alternative between Islamists or the regime.” He sees a different Egypt today, however. “It is not binary like that anymore, there are alternatives.” The pope should “fight sectarianism, whatever regime is in power.”