From the very beginning, Pope Shenouda was unlike any other pope. It was his
political activity which drew the most attention, and the most
criticism. Despite the controversies surrounding many of his political
choices, he remained a widely respected national figure, described by
intellectuals as a wise and multi-faceted.
It is unfair to make any
comparison between the new pope and Shenouda. Pope Tawadros assumes
responsibility in turbulent climate.
He will be the first pope to deal
with an Islamist regime in Egypt’s modern history, which puts him in an
unenviable situation. This fact requires him to be extra vigilant yet extremely
In the meantime, the relationship between the state and the
church will probably remain ambiguous.
On one hand, the ruling regime
might seduce the newly chosen pope into taking part in the political game, in
hopes of gathering the whole Coptic community under one leader, making it easier
to satisfy or frustrate its demands and to give itself more room to maneuver,
whether in terms of criticizing the church for a role it was invited to play and
can not relinquish or in terms of defending the regime’s religious
Pope Tawadros should avoid falling into this ambush. This
illdefined relationship between the state and the church turned considerable
numbers of Christian youth against Shenouda, accusing him of siding with the
regime at their expense, which was later translated into Coptic protests against
the church’s involvement in politics. This anti-church attitude was highly
apparent when Shenouda urged Copts to refrain from demonstrating during the
revolution and was subsequently emphasized when he hosted some SCAF generals
following the Maspero Massacre.
On the other hand, complete papal
withdrawal from the political landscape is unlikely, in fact impossible, for a
number of reasons.
First, there is a fine line that separates religion
and politics in Egypt. Many of the Coptic demands are religious in nature
and fall under the category of citizenship rights. For instance, the
Coptic community persistently calls on the government to issue a common law for
houses of worship. These calls always meet a deaf ear on the part of the state.
Definitely, the pope – as religious leader – will push as hard as he can for the
issuance of this law.
Second, his complete withdrawal might aggravate the
marginalization of Copts. There is no body as aware of Coptic worries or more
capable of defending their interests than the church. This is manifested in the
constituent assembly in which the church has representatives.
The task of
the church representatives is to make the Coptic voice heard as an integral part
of the Egyptian fabric. Their mission is not only to guarantee that principles
of citizenship will be acted upon, but also to ensure the right of Christians to
refer to biblical teachings when it comes to issues related to personal affairs
and to turn away any attempt that might jeopardize the church, such as imposing
supervision on Coptic donations to the Church. The latter two points require the
contribution of clerics – not liberal parties – due to their religious
Another thorny issue that will determine the future course of the
pope is incidents of sectarian violence. During Shenouda’s era, the
church accepted reconciliatory meetings and compensations to resolve attacks
against Copts. What if the surrounding environment became more hostile to Copts,
particularly with the notable rise of jihadi militants? How far can the pope go
without provoking a further backlash against Christians? Will Pope Tawadros opt
for taking legal and judiciary procedures against the perpetrators? Are the
security forces willing to implement any court decision? Can he withstand
attacks of fanatic Islamists for not resolving problems the old way?
Regretfully, the regime always looks upon Copts as a faction that can be
soothed. What will be its reaction if the pope adopts escalatory steps in
resolving sectarian tensions? In a recent televised interview for CBC channel,
Bishop Bakhomious (former Charge d’Affairs) hinted at President Mohamed Mursi’s
unfulfilled vows regarding the appointment of a Coptic vice-president and
advancing Coptic representation in the Cabinet.
Such notions highlight
the urgent measures that should be taken by the regime to pacify Coptic
concerns. Egypt on its way for healthy democracy must promote an inclusive
culture, where each citizen has a voice in the government.
citizenship and rule of law are the only means for realizing this end. Thus, the
regime’s future test won’t only be confined to its stance vis-à-vis the pope,
but its will to lay down strong pillars for a functioning
Moreover, Pope Tawadros will eventually encounter the
challenge of containing diaspora Copts’ attempts to impose external solutions
for Coptic problems.
Their efforts are viewed with an eye of suspicion
and are often regarded by Egyptians at large as external plots to divide the
Egyptian Copts share the conviction that their problems must be
tackled on their national soil. For this to happen the role of Tawadros
should be encouraging Christians to join civil parties that represent their
respective political ideologies. Simultaneously, he should disapprove political
parties based on religion or exclusively open for Copts. If he succeeded in this
mission, he will partially pass the burden to political parties and civil
society groups, which entails targeting the Coptic problems using a
The author is a member of the Egyptian
Delegation to the Arab League as well as a Masters student of anthropology at