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Joachim Schroedel {*}

Radical Change at a Difficult Time

The Situation of Coptic Christians in Egypt


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 5/2008, P. 264-268
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    Egypt has the largest Christian minority of all Muslim shaped Arab countries. The up to eight million Copts live to a large extent in peaceful neighbourhood with their Muslim neighbours. But in Egypt an Islamic-Christian dialogue is very difficult.


On 3 August the Coptic patriarch of the Orthodox Church, Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of the Chair of Saint Mark, Shenuda III celebrates his eighty-fifth birthday. The already for many years sick "Pope of the Copts", who still regularly gives his Wednesday audiences and beyond that by lively, although increasingly limited journeys to North America, Canada and Australia visits his perhaps 10 million fellow Christians, faces with his church great challenges. In the thirty-seventh year of his reign there are inner-church but also public speculations about a successor.

Since 1971 Pope Shenuda has in a very authoritarian but equally effective manner been leading the Orthodox Copts, the largest non-Muslim section of the population (about eight percent of the population) in Egypt. Although he - compared with his predecessor Kyrillos who is venerated like a Saint - does rather badly in the population, he has succeeded in keeping relatively stable the relations to the majority of the total population of Egypt, the Muslims.

But in September 1981 (Shenuda was then just 10 years in office) this development was not foreseeable. The Pope of the Copts demonstrated most sharply against the increasing Islamization of Egypt. In 1977 he had called a four-days fasting, in order to demonstrate against a proposed law which had intended sanctions for apostasy from Islam.



When in spring 1981 the then President Sadat came on a state visit to Washington Shenuda called upon the about 100.000 American Copts to demonstrate.

That led to Shenuda's "exile" into his home monastery Amba Bschoi from September 1981 to January 1985. His monastic father, Matta Maskin, said at that time to "Time Magazine", "Shenuda's election was the beginning of the problems. The intellect replaced the inspiration, planning superseded prayer. In the first years I have prayed for him, but I see that by his behaviour the church goes from a poor to a catastrophic state."

The great leader of one of the oldest Oriental Churches has quite obviously reoriented himself. The calls to boycott or demonstrations are replaced by calls to peace between the religions. The sentence increasingly heard in the last decade, "We are Egyptians and there is no difference between Christians and Muslims", is also personally often demonstrated. Thus, at the invitation of the oldest Rotary club in Cairo, Pope Shenuda and the Grand Sheik of the El-Azhar University, Sheik Mohammed Tantawi yearly meet in Ramadan for an "Iftar" (Fast-Breaking) and underline the national identity of all Egyptians and their desire for peace; Religion - so is demonstrated - admittedly is not a private matter, but the two traditions, Christianity and Islam, were both ways of life and faith supporting the state.

The in recent months more frequently mentioned and by the public well observed phenomenon of the conversion of Muslims to Christianity (according to Islamic Sharia law and Egyptian law conversion is absolutely prohibited) is actually completely concealed by the church leadership. A priest who is a friend of mine told me it anyway amounted only to about 80 conversions a year. But also they are prohibited and are outlawed by the Society of Muslims. Conversion is apostasy from the true faith - according to Sharia law this offence carries the death penalty.

It is doubtful whether Shenuda is still a "fanatical leader, as the Coptic intellectual Milad Hanna claims. However, it is clear that he has (become) such a strong personality that at present after Shenuda another hierarchy can scarcely be seen. Admittedly, personalities such as the Youth Bishop" Anba Moussa or Anba John, who is working in the Curia, are constantly mentioned as possible successors to Shenuda, but in the public they remain rather in the background. A strange parallel: also the soon 80-year-old president of Egypt, Husni Mubarak, is without a real pretender to the throne.

From a European perspective Egypt is a country of tourism, of dreams, of vacation; from an economic point of view one of the low-wage countries closest to Europe. The German-Arab Trade and Industry Chamber has more than 2000 members. And yet it is also a land where terrorism is flaring up from time to time and a threshold country.

Egypt's gross domestic product grew in 2006/2007 again by 7.1 percent, compared to 2000/2001 a doubling. Nevertheless, wage and price levels have completely been thrown out of joint: A teacher may earn about 600 LE (about 80 euros), a charlady with a foreigner often earns twice as much, but the prices now even also of the basic food, which are all state-subsidised (for instance bread and oil), last year rose by 50 to 70 percent. About true bread shortages also Western media report, riots against the government, such as on 6 April, increase and worry thoroughly.

Egypt's increasingly difficult economic situation hits the lower and middle class, which covers about 90 percent of the population. In the majority of the population no social difference between Copts and Muslims can be seen. As "union born of necessity" Copts and Muslims rather move closer together.

Thus the common need may have become a stabilizing factor in the relations between Christians and Muslims. As a social phenomenon, however, the ruling class rather faces the problem to feel now an even stronger opposition. Not only the "Muslim brothers", which are often mentioned abroad, appear as opposition against the government and would certainly win 40 to 45 percent of the votes in free elections. The Christians too express heavy criticism, although unorganized and off the record (with one's hand in front of one's mouth).

In recent months for good reason the state leadership repeatedly announced democratization. The national radio station "Radio Cairo" rebuilds its entire broadcasting structure. Only a few months ago it would have been unthinkable to discuss about socially problematic situations; today also here a taboo no longer exists.

Only the person of the President is still protected and must not be criticized insultingly. But nationwide movements, as for instance "Kifaya (Enough!), which resembles a party but is meanwhile "regulated", can look into a future that wants to do without the old structures. Also Christians could become active here - together with like-minded Muslims.

And Christians and Muslims together look to the time after Mubarak, who on 4 May completed his eightieth year of life. Currently, however, the signs and the aspirations of many Egyptians do not go into the direction of Western democratization, although, for example the in spring newly founded Party "Democratic Front" (with a Christian woman as General Secretary) is allowed to work freely.



Many Egyptians favour Husni Mubarak's son Gamal (born in 1963), and one hopes that this young and dynamic man will tackle the much-needed social reforms. A democratization is regarded as problematic for this reason alone that with free elections in the country a situation could arise that is really not wanted politically - a turn to the Muslim brothers.

Besides the situation of the Christians in Egypt is objectively seen not bad, and compared to other Muslim countries with Christian minorities even quite positive. In 2000 the Tourism Ministry had called to take part in a pilgrimage "in the footsteps of the Holy Family in Egypt"; since 2003 Christmas on 7 January is a state holiday; in 2005 a Coptic private radio station was set up; there are a number of Christian press publications; Coptic religious education is a compulsory subject in public and private schools. "On Sunday (a working day in Egypt) Christian employees are entitled to a later starting-time in order to be able to take part in a church service before work. In the 20-million-city Cairo at least about 200 churches are open for it, which - unlike to some countries in the region - can be recognized as such from the street and which can - when they belong to the Western rite - let their bells ring" (Frank Van der Felden, Brennpunkt Ägypten, in: Philipp W. Hildmann, [Hg.], "Sie werden euch hassen ... " Christenverfolgung weltweit, [Argumente und Materialien zum Zeitgeschehen 59], Hanns Seidel Stiftung [2008], 76) (Frank Van der Felden, Focus Egypt, in: Philip W. Hildmann, [editor] "They will hate you ..." persecution of Christians worldwide, [arguments and materials to current events 59], Hanns Seidel Foundation [2008], 76).


Possibilities of the Christian-Islamic Dialogue

The media emphasize time and again how in recent decades a revival of faith had taken place in the Coptic Church. Starting from monasticism and under the spiritual leadership of great figures like Kyrillos VI, Mata Maskin and others, there were now everywhere Sunday schools and in many youth groups a living faith was again to be found. This is at first sight right; free days are used to come together in community centres, Egypt's Christians intensively use this opportunity - for then you can at last be "in privacy".

Admittedly, such a retreat into the minority area can also result in regarding the minority situation as the only practicable way in the face of the "Muslim world". On such occasions judgments are exchanged - and sometimes also prejudices. In the last ten years the Coptic Orthodox Christianity has rather withdrawn. A dialogue with others does scarcely happen. Two examples may illustrate that.

Although among all Christian Churches a clear consensus on the recognition of baptism exists the Coptic Church demands that those who convert to it are baptized once again. And since the Coptic Church does not know mixed marriages a Catholic woman for instance - even if she has demonstrably been a committed member of a Catholic parish - must once again be baptized before she is allowed to marry a Copt. That most priests then even insist on a baptism in the "old rite", that is by total immersion of the person to be baptized, verges on degradation.

The inner-Christian dialogue, which in the late sixties had just with Shenuda - then still as bishop without a diocese - begun so hopefully, does not include the rather very poorly trained clergy. So I myself have already experienced that a priest accused me I administered Communion in an "invalid" way, for I did not give the communion bread with a spoon from the cup. Strict adherence to the rite seems to be the guarantor of truth. In talks and queries it becomes clear: Holding on to the tradition is for many Coptic priests the only way to face up to the "other religion", namely Islam. For Islam often reproaches the "Western-moulded" Christianity for anyway having given up faith principles and Christian morality. The Oriental Christianity therefore feels compelled to hold on with particular consequence to the tradition. This applies to theological as well as pastoral issues.

Exactly here, however, are also the problems of the Orthodox Copts. Many turn to other religious communities, first of all to the Protestant churches, which are assembled in the "Synod of the Nile". Even if compared to the approximately 6 to 8 million Orthodox Copts the approximately 250.000 Protestants seem to be of little consequence, the turning away from the Orthodox Church or at least the indifference towards the rules and theological concepts is increasing.

In mid-2007 an alleged "Bishop" Maxim, who resided in a suburb of Cairo and called himself "counter-Pope" got himself much talked about. He announced reforms: the reform of the liturgy with an almost universal use of Arabic instead of Coptic, which is hardly understood by the young Christians, the reform of the marriage law and especially the introduction of the possibility of divorce, greater acceptance of premarital cohabitation and the like.

With it he met central points of critique of a large part of the Orthodox Copts. Just in the question of divorce the Church remains absolutely restrictive, since the "marriage annulment process" known in the Catholic Church does not exist. At the headquarters of the Coptic Patriarch in Abbasseia in Cairo there were at once declarations which lead to the result that this priest had got the consecration in America by false pretences and that it was therefore invalid.



Pope Shenuda said he would not give his view on that case, because this priest was "dead" for him. But the seething unrest among the Copts continues.

On 24 and 25 February 2008 the President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, Cardinal Jean Louis Tauran met in Cairo with Sheikh Abd al-Fattah Alaam and other senior representatives of Islam. The attempts of the Vatican for many years and the personal efforts of Benedict XVI towards the dialogue with Islam are well known. The fact that in February 2006 Benedict had sent his "Islam theologian" Mike Fitzgerald as Apostolic Nuncio to Egypt was not, as some journalists rumoured a "transfer to the desert"; on the contrary, for two years remarkable and also concrete as regards content dialogues have taken place. The since 2000 existing mixed Commission of scholars of the El-Azhar University in Cairo and theologians of the Vatican, which meets twice a year in Cairo and Rome, has through the Pope's initiative gained new significance. So the Muslim scholar Abdullah el Naggar confirmed the great importance of those meetings, as for instance in February 2007 on the issue of tolerance.


Old Wounds have not yet Healed

It seems clear: In the Christian-Islamic dialogue European theologians can talk with Egyptian Muslims about controversial issues relatively easily - they come from two completely different culture and language areas.

But the Egyptians - whatever their religion - are and will remain "fellow countrymen", who live under the constantly renewed directive that religion was only of secondary importance, the national identity was more important and its uniting force was stronger than all religious differences. So an explicit dialogue simply does not take place. On the contrary, "As Egyptian you can talk about everything - but not about religion!" This for European ears strange remark is everywhere to be heard.

Since it is simply not true that religion is only of minor importance in the relationship between the Egyptians, and since this assertion does not become truer by constant repetition, on both sides distorted images of the respective religion have developed. They are admittedly not taken as a theme in the talk with the other side, but - and this is worse! - 'off the record' (with one's hand in front of one's mouth) they constantly circulate in the respective own (Christian and Muslim) circles. In other words, the daily encounter between Egyptians of different religions is determined by not uttered prejudices, which are, however, covered by the kind Egyptian mentality.

If you speak to an Egyptians about the relationship of the two religions, Christianity and Islam, you will always get to hear with a happy smile that they were brothers who could not be separated by anything. In Egypt the relationship was without problems, apart from some "fanatics", who then certainly were not "real" Muslims (or Christians). Thus one rather evades any discussion about religion or remains with the superficially noted and stated "points in common", for instance with the sentence of a Muslims that after all Jesus was also a great prophet in Islam, and so forth. And of course, since 11 September 2001 the "inter-civilisation" dialogue is state-sponsored and wanted. That dialogue, however, mainly is the conversation among Egyptians of admittedly different religions who then give - with compulsive suppression of the differences - their view on "peace and social justice". Religion then must only serve as justification, in accordance with the motto that after all both religions wanted that.

But if you privately meet Copts you will massively hear how bad the situation had become, and also how bad Islam as religion was. What in the Christian-European Middle Ages was stated about Mohammed and Islam can today still be found in the thoughts and opinions of the majority of Orthodox Copts. In parts they seem to have survived the centuries completely and without reflection. They would never publicly say it, but an average Orthodox Copt assumes that Islam was a doctrine built on lies, and its founder just a "mendacious prophet".

It would probably come into no Orthodox Copt's mind to accept Islam as an independent religion - because in the thinking of just this Christian it would be the (late) capitulation to Islam. Admittedly, in assessing this for us hardly comprehensible attitude you have always to take into account that Egypt was the first completely Christianized country in the world and also remained so through more than 600 years. This wound is not healed and has never really been treated. It rather seems that the Egyptian Orthodox Christianity holds it open and willingly shows it.

So of course, also any deliberate aggressive attack by Muslims on Christians is interpreted in this direction: "The Islam" wanted to destroy the Christians in Egypt; there was not only an indirect oppression but also a direct persecution (in fact, the state law has with regard to the Christian Egyptians a partially different position: some professions must not be practised by Christians, the president must always be Muslim, etc.). Christians are for the most part not ready to a differentiating assessment of such infringements.

So the Orthodox Christian attitude to the question of a dialogue with Islam is not very different from the attitude of a strict Muslim, for whom his own faith is the "completion of religion" and for whom Christianity is therefore at least a deficient form of religion. In the course of the centuries the Scripture of the Jews and later of the Christians was falsified, until finally God himself revealed in the Koran the final truth.



When speaking of the Coptic Church one often forgets that about 250.000 Egyptian Christians are with Rome united Copts. In 1895 the Catholic Patriarchate of the Copts was reestablished by Pope Leo XIII. Especially under Stephanos II Ghattas (1986-2006) the patriarchate which was divided into seven dioceses became with its approximately 180 to 200 diocesan priests an important starting point for the relations of the Latin Church to the Copts. Since 2006 Antonios Naguib has been leading the Patriarchate.

Further churches united with Rome are the Greek Catholic Church, the Maronites, the Syrian Catholic Church, the Armenian Catholic Church and the Chaldaen Catholic Church. This small but not insignificant community is a kind of gateway for the Western Catholic Church. And just the intellectual centres of the Copts united with Rome can have a special bridging role.

The rites united with Rome run in Maadi a seminary for all Catholic rites, which teaches according to the classical Roman university and seminary programmes. The propaedeutic, philosophical and theological training of seminarians corresponds in all subjects to the usual Western level. To the curriculum belongs of course also knowledge of the religion of Islam. Who learns classical Arabic must also learn Qur'an Arabic. So the seminarians are directly concerned with the texts of the Koran and have professors who - as scholars of Islam - help them to build bridges.

Also the Western approaches of the interreligious dialogue are theoretically and practically learned. So you can rather assume that these theologians get an understanding of dialogue which corresponds to that of Western theologians. And the so trained future Egyptian Christian priests can in turn pass on their dialogue experiences to Western theologians resp. to the Catholic Church. Let us hope that this is also noticed by Rome.

For far more than 100 years the "Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy of St. Charles Borromeo" from Grafschaft (Sauerland) has run two girls' grammar schools in Egypt. In these schools about 1600 schoolgirls are in German curricula led to the German Abitur or to the school-leaving certificate for a technical college. About 55 percent of the pupils are Muslimas, 45 percent Christians. These schools, which are promoted by the Federal Republic of Germany, are "encounter schools" in the truest sense of the word. As school minister I've been for 13 years accompanying these schools and their pupils. Here the word "dialogue" is not only mentioned, but there is a practical and theoretical dialogue led with great intellectual honesty. Graduates of these schools are ferment in the Egyptian society and in some way guarantors for mutual tolerance and genuine common activities. For not by silence but by openness an acceptable coexistence between Islam and Christianity can also in Egypt become possible.


    {*} Joachim Schroedel is priest of the diocese of Mainz and since 1995 on behalf of the German Bishops' Conference chaplain for the German-speaking Catholics in Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Sudan and Ethiopia.


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