By Magdi KhalilClick here to read the Arabic version of this article
His Holiness Pope Shenouda III, the 117th Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of the Apostolic See of St Mark, is a remarkable religious leader who is acclaimed both domestically and internationally. Courage, determination, love and ecumenism are the distinctive traits of his ministry as well as his own extraordinary character.
These qualities were not only recognized by his nation, but by the international community as well. It comes as no surprise then, that the Pope has served as head of The Middle East Council of Churches more than one term, a President of the World Council of Churches, has received several international awards including the UNESCO Prize for the Promotion of Tolerance and Non-Violence in 2000 and the Gaddafi’s Award for Human Rights in 2003.
His Holiness has also been awarded four honorary Doctoral Degrees in Theology; three from American Universities and one from a German University. During his papacy, the Coptic Orthodox Church has exceedingly expanded worldwide, and the Pope has made many visits to cities around the globe where he was received with joyful enthusiasm and great appreciation.
The Pope’s devotion and commitment to Egypt is a well-acknowledged fact. When he said that “Egypt is not a homeland where we live, but a homeland that lives in us,” the Pope was talking from the heart. His genuine, profound and unshakable patriotism inspired those words that others continue to quote.
On the regional level, the Pope has always been interested in Arab causes, and in whatever issues affected the life of Arabs, and this sincere interest has rightfully earned him the title of “The Pope of the Arabs.” Last but not least, Pope Shenouda possesses outstanding gifts as an intellectual, a poet, an experienced politician and a charismatic speaker in cultural and political circles; all of which are exceptional qualities in the history of Alexandria’s popes.
This powerful religious leader, who has authored more than a hundred spiritual books, is also known for his sense of humor and positive outlook. It comes as a shock when, for the first time in his long history of public work, the Pope was distressed to the point of tears on October 26th during one of his regular Wednesday sermons at St. Mark Cathedral in Cairo.
So, what brought this remarkable man to the point of tears? More than one reason, actually:
• The Pope has witnessed several violent episodes against the Copts, starting with the infamous Suez incident in January 4, 1952, where members of the Muslim Brotherhood movement carried out a barbaric attack on a number of Copts, setting victims on fire, dragging them in the street and dumping them in a church before they set it on fire as well.
Unfortunately, this shameful incident marked the beginning of a trend of excessive violence that tainted the past five decades, ending with the recent destructive riot that took place in Alexandria on October 21st. According to the Ibn Khaldun Center of Development Studies, there were more than 120 violent attacks against the Copts starting with the Khanka incident on August, 9, 1972 and ending with the recent Alexandria events.
Those attacks included, among others, horrible massacres such as al-Zawiya al-hamra incident where 200 Copts were killed, al-Kosheh where 21 Copts were killed and the abu-Korkas church were 13 Copts were killed.Throughout these long years, the Egyptian media’s coverage of such incidents was mostly misleading, portraying the attacks as “unfortunate incidents”, with ambiguous headlines such as “sectarian sedition”, “a mutual fight”, a “conflict between Copts and Muslims”, “a clash provoked by both sides” and “acts of violence carried out by extremists from both sides”.
Not once did they state the obvious: that these attacks were instigated by one side, and constituted a criminal activity that can be considered a collective terrorist act. Mr. Galal Amin, author, and Professor of Economics at the American University in Cairo, was possibly irked by this deliberate deception when he wrote the following words: “Sectarian sedition is a term that does not tell you who was the attacker, who is the victim of the attack, and who should answer for the whole incident.
It also implies that the two sects share equal responsibility, which is not the case here, the Muslims and the Copts are not simply two religious sects, they are a majority and a minority, and since the majority has power over the police force, the government, and the media, it is reasonable to say that it should also be held accountable for maintaining security, bearing more responsibility for that aspect than the minority.” There is no way for this crisis to be resolved if we can’t even portray the situation honestly, and discard the customary deception and cover-up.
• The loss of Coptic lives and possessions, as the issue of Coptic security was turned into a political game; one that is being carelessly tossed back and forth amongst the Muslim Brotherhood, the ruling party and the security agencies.
• The appalling hypocrisy of the Egyptian media that praises the Pope effusively when he defends the Palestinian cause, and turns viciously against him whenever he makes the slightest attempt to touch on the subject of Coptic suffering. Some of those newspapers have even sunk as low as provoking readers against the Copts, claiming that they are to blame for the Muslims’ current crisis with the world.
• The subjugation of the Coptic population – millions of individuals with a rich legacy and great potential are being regarded – or rather disregarded – as a mere security issue, to be manipulated at the whim of security agencies: from spreading vicious rumors, setting off riots, sneaking provocative material to the tabloids to serve their own agendas, implanting spies to keep track of the happenings in the Coptic community and particularly in the places of worship, to blocking governmental decrees, showing blatant bias towards converts, impeding Coptic civic action, etc.
• The hundreds of bitter complaints the Pope receives from his afflicted flock, and his inability to stop the injustice, cruelty and persecution. No one can imagine the pain this can cause.
• The lack of justice that has clearly manifested during the last three decades where the system failed to address properly the cruelties committed against the Copts, and the victims’ cry for restitution and justice that went unheard. The inadequate court verdict concerning “al-Kosh” incident is proof enough, and the Pope’s painful disappointment can be clearly heard in this succinct comment: “We will appeal to God.” Justice cannot be carried out in the absence of a fair investigation to identify the real perpetrators and the ones working behind the scene. It is both sad and strange that the Egyptian State, despite its numerous resources, has failed to conduct such an investigation.
• The exceeding fanaticism that has infected a good part of the society, and has shown its ugly face countless times over the years. The common Egyptian citizen is not shying away from violence when it comes to confrontation with Copts, and the underlying current of violence that is ready to erupt at the slightest provocation is a true reason for alarm. The bleak warning that the Egyptian street is turning into a “major Jihad movement” is not so far from the truth. A deep-seated hatred towards the “non-Muslim” other seems to be feeding that frightening propensity for violence.
• The government won’t allow the Pope to do more than calm his people and curb their anger in the aftermath of those incidents. To quote Mr. Refaat el-Said: “they want to turn the church into a ‘lightning deflector’.” Meanwhile they adamantly refuse to give the Pope the chance to relay his people’s suffering. If he happens to overstep those boundaries and make “inconvenient” statements, the media retaliates with accusations of “interference in State affairs,” among other outrageous claims that aim to disrepute him.
• The angry voices that have been yelling for him to offer an apology for an incident that happened behind closed doors, despite the fact that an unbiased investigative committee has yet to prove that an offence was committed in the first place. At this point, it seems that the raging mob was fed false information, as the General Attorney declared to al-Ahram newspaper that there was no theatre play and no crowds to watch it in the church. On the other hand, no one ever pays much attention to the small and big transgressions that offend Egypt’s Copts and demean Christianity on a daily basis, whether in the media or through the popular spiritual books written by al-Shaarawi, Kishk, Omar abdel-Kafi, Zagloul el-Nagar, Mohamed Emara, and others that have left a deep impact on the young generation of readers. It is truly shocking that, in some instances, the destruction and massacre of peaceful Copts inside their churches, homes and businesses was only met with total silence. So who should be the one to apologize? And who should be put on trial?
• The deception and scheming that is typical of the government’s dealings with the Pope through its official delegates. The government serves its own agenda, and has no qualms about putting words into his mouth, or giving promises that they have no intention of keeping.
• The lack of concern shown by the regime for vital issues such as national unity and equality that are based on citizenship rights. Not surprising since the regime’s interests lie elsewhere: power and fortune, and the vital issues mentioned have no place in that scheme.
• The allegations that the Pope’s life is in danger and the rumors about a “fatwa” (Islamic ruling) to terminate his life, all of which are part of the blackmail and intimidation techniques meant to curb his active involvement and subdue the Coptic community, with no regard to the devastating economic and political repercussions of such rumors.
• The past harassment that goes back to Sadat’s days when the late Egyptian president issued a presidential decree to exile the Pope to the Monastery of St. Pishoy, imprison eight bishops, twenty-four priests and about 1500 leading Coptic lay figures. Later, President Mubarak released the detainees, but strangely did not terminate the Pope’s exile for more than three years. The echoes of the past can still be felt in our present time, and while the Pope’s freedom is not restricted, he is operating under an “invisible” siege, and his actions are being constantly scrutinized.
• Gestures of peace and unity have sadly failed to achieve their purpose and the hundreds of Iftar parties in the month of Ramadan that host Muslim and Christian figures did not help to forge ties of national unity or bridge the ever-widening gap.
• The society’s extreme reaction when a Coptic citizen commits a mistake or an error of judgment that affects a Muslim, at which point an “individual” incident can easily turn into a riot, while collective acts of violence are committed against the Copts. We can not reasonably expect that all Copts will maintain an ideal behavior at all times, and mistakes are bound to happen, but the danger lies in the fact that many Muslims have the tendency to jump in blindly to back up their affronted “brother,” and the Coptic population ends up paying a heavy price for the wrong done by a single Coptic citizen. The long years of struggle, the heartache and the pent-up frustration must have overwhelmed H.H. Pope Shenouda on that particular Wednesday.
He must have been wondering about his relationship with the State, what choices were right, and what went wrong, and whether the time has come to think of a new strategy for the future. The Coptic community needs to review its current situation in the light of several new facts:
1. The Status of the Copts continues to deteriorate to the extent that the international community classifies them as “a trapped and persecuted minority.” The Copts face more challenges with each new day.
2. The World is changing; inter-relationships and mutual engagement are features of this new age. We should make an honest and radical reassessment of the old beliefs about foreign interference and unwanted influences. What would be the point of having a United Nations, international organizations, and civil society and human rights associations if they are constantly relegated to the sidelines? There are moments in every nation’s life where the opportunity for a historical change presents itself, those moments are rare enough and should not be wasted in favor of old sayings.
3. Tackling difficult challenges was the mark of a number of international religious leaders: the American advocate of civil rights Martin Luther King, Bishop Makarios in Cyprus, Bishop Tito in South Africa, Pope John Paul II in Communist Poland and Patriarch Sufeir in Lebanon. Their life experiences are worthy of a careful study that would surely benefit the Coptic Church in its present struggle.
4. As an international Christian figure, Pope Shenouda might in fact be the most equipped to expose and fight international terrorism. After all, he – along with his people – are bearing the burnt of its attack, and still live in the midst of a region that serves as its breeding ground. Pope John Paul II who was originally from Poland, and who lived there when the country was in the total grip of the communists, effectively helped to bring down communism. Likewise, Pope Shenouda can play a significant role in the fight against terrorism, in cooperation with Pope Benedict XVI who is well aware of the threat this phenomenon is posing, and with the help of enlightened Muslims who have also suffered its painful repercussions.
Magdi Khalil is a political analyst, researcher, author and Executive Editor of the Egyptian weekly Watani International. He is also a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, London, a free-lance writer for several Arabic language newspapers, and a frequent contributor to Middle East broadcast news TV. Mr. Khalil has also published three books and written numerous research papers on citizenship rights, civil society, and the situation of minorities in the Middle East.