Pope Tawadros on the horns of a dilemma

Walking in the new Coptic leader’s shoes.

New Coptic Pope Tawdros (R) with candidates 390 (photo credit: Mohamed Abd El Ghany / Reuters)
New Coptic Pope Tawdros (R) with candidates 390
(photo credit: Mohamed Abd El Ghany / Reuters)
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 decisive.
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 reference.
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 nature.
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.
Principles of 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 democracy.
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 country.
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 multidisciplinary approach.