Downtown, at the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral, surrounded by protest. Perhaps I am easily overcome, but my sincerest expression of belonging was represented in tears, three, four in number, but lingering on my cheek.
I was caught unawares by my surroundings, but I was not unprepared. Yesterday I was at this very same location participating in a press conference organized by Pope Shenouda in official church protest against the recent decision of the Supreme Administrative Court to compel the church to grant and sanctify second marriages following divorce. Finding the ruling contrary to the teachings of the Bible, Pope Shenouda stated in no uncertain terms that the church would not honor this ruling. He criticized the judiciary for interfering in religious matters which legal and Islamic precedent dictate should be left to the church. He stopped short of calling for the direct involvement of President Mubarak, but made it clear this was an act against the Coptic people and their faith, setting a stage of challenge between the church and state.
Following the press conference I had opportunity to interview many bishops of the church, among them Bishop Kyrillos of Nag Hamadi, who had attended an emergency session of the Holy Synod along with 82 other bishops from Egypt and around the world. At Arab West we have been following the events of Nag Hamadi, in which six Christians and a Muslim policeman were gunned down outside a church following the celebration of Christmas mass. Bishop Kyrillos was at the center of this incident and surrounding controversy, and I sought to arrange an interview with him. Not only would it be valuable to hear his version of the events and the current climate in the area, I also wanted to speak to him of peacemaking – what must be done to bring divergent parties together, and who might these parties be?
I was hardly expecting this opportunity, but having invested much ink and many prayers over the difficulties experienced in Nag Hamadi, an interview with Bishop Kyrillos represented the best opportunity to learn directly about the incident. Moreover, it was a chance to build a relationship with the central regional Christian figure, and possibly, humbly, be able to participate in the restoration of religious relationships in the area. How, I might ask him, have Christians responded since the murders? What can be done to show love and forgiveness in the midst of tragedy? How is the church preparing people to think and act in the spirit of Jesus? What would this even look like? Somewhat fearful that these questions are not being considered in Nag Hamadi, but with little evidence either way, here was a chance to hear from the source.
The series of coincides continues. At the press conference I met a friend who studies with me at a Coptic Bible Institute, who was also present on behalf of his media. Learning from him that he has cultivated relationships with many bishops which he would be willing to share, I phoned him that evening to ask for the bishops phone number. Late in the morning we connected, he remembered me from our brief encounter, and we set an appointment for 4:00pm. The next day he would return to Nag Hamadi, over eight hours away by train.
Not yet finished from cataloging and writing about the press conference I dropped matters in order to prepare for this interview, and shortly thereafter returned to the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral where he resides when in Cairo. Not sure where to find him I inquired of those who seemed official, who sat me and my two colleagues from Arab West in an office and told me he would join us soon.
Alternately, we were told he was upstairs resting. We also heard he had not yet even arrived at the Cathedral. Yet everyone told us he would be present at Pope Shenouda’s weekly lecture given every Wednesday night at 7:00pm. In Egypt one should be used to waiting, so we sat patiently, made occasional inquiries, and hoped for the best. Meanwhile, the bishop’s cell phone had been switched off, so it was impossible to alert him we were there.
In the bishop’s defense, I arranged this interview in Arabic, over the phone, and the bishop himself is elderly and from Upper Egypt, known for a dialect all its own. I may have gotten the time wrong, or he may have been waiting for us in an entirely different location, or even just elsewhere in the Cathedral. It is best never to assume you have understood things correctly as a foreigner.
At 5:00pm someone came to talk with us who seemed as official as those from whom we inquired earlier. Still, he represented himself as one with connections, so after a while he returned and told us the bishop was not around, but that he would attend Pope Shenouda’s lecture and perhaps we could see him there. Disappointed, but also completely unsure this gentleman had any sounder information than those we spoke to previously, it at least gave us the excuse to leave the room and inquire elsewhere for the bishop’s whereabouts. Yet he made an odd statement that seemed out of place – we needed to leave the sitting room we were in for security.
On our way into the Cathedral we noticed dozens of signs that were not there the day before. Each one expressed support for Pope Shenouda from different personalities or dioceses, or else expressed protest at the decision of the court and commitment to live by Biblical teaching. It seemed strange, for why were these not posted earlier for the press conference? They certainly were produced, assembled, and displayed very quickly thereafter.
As we exited the sitting room we received our answer. The signs formed a corridor defining a space for an emerging demonstration. Naguib Gabraeel, a well known Coptic lawyer and human rights activist, was delivering an impassioned statement to the television cameras, and leading vociferous chants in support of Pope Shenouda and the church’s stance against the judicial ruling. Yet at the same time, only twenty or so demonstrators were gathered behind him echoing his chants of protest. Twenty people still made quite a scene and a lot of noise, but I cynically wondered how this would be displayed in the newspapers the next day. Would the press play it up to be larger than it was?
Of course, to be remembered is that we were only here by coincidence. Still, it was an opportunity to experience in person the passion held by many in the Coptic cause. Yet, with pause – does twenty people represent ‘many’? I stayed on the outskirts but within the throng. To be fair, the number was growing, but to jump ahead in time, but the time we left around 6:30pm the active demonstrators numbered only around seventy-five, while the passive crowd around them was perhaps between five and seven hundred, attentive, but definitely not engaged.
I am not a man of protest, for good or for ill. I have great respect for pacifistic civil disobedience, but have not joined in demonstrations of any kind, to know of their ilk.
In these matters, then, my judgment is limited, or, being yet virgin perhaps I experienced the events of the day more fully than seasoned activists, like Naguib Gibraeel and those behind him, who know how to put on a show. If a show it be, then it was one which unnerved me completely. After all, this was a Christian protest.
Christians, like all citizens, should have the right to protest. When angry they, like all humans, can easily respond in kind. Given the enormity of the issue – judicial rulings seeking to manipulate sacramental marriage practice – a protest can be seen as completely justified. Active participants, however, displayed their anger, frustration, perhaps even contempt for the decision rendered against them. Simultaneously, they heaped praise and adulation on Pope Shenouda, celebrating him as their champion. Slogans chanted fidelity to the Gospel, as this is at the heart of the remarriage debate. Yet fidelity to the Gospel was absent from conduct, especially concerning passages commending the poor in spirit and commanding prayers of blessing for those against you. Instead, there was hero worship – “Pope Shenouda is the Athanasius[i] of the 20th Century”. There was disparaging of government concerning the president – “Mubarak, why are you silent?” and the judiciary – “Oh judge, where were you during Nag Hamadi?” There was even evocation of martyrdom – “We received this religion from our fathers; we will give it to our children even at the price of our blood.”
I have written about this wondering at the nature of Coptic protest before, but this time, I was on the inside. The anger felt rawer, the lack of grace more appalling. Yet, strangely, hinted above through confession of cynicism, a different response touched me more deeply. It was the sense of manipulation that stole even the sordid glory from this occasion.
By all accounts Naguib Gibraeel was playing to the cameras. Surely protest organizers must be ringleaders, and Gibraeel is sincere in his beliefs and care for the Coptic-Egyptian cause, if theatrical in his methods. Yet a protest, to be real, must draw on the pinched nerve of the community. Even if manipulated, or for a better word – organized – a rally cannot be sustained unless the crowds assemble and join in.
As hard as the sloganeers chanted, the troops did not fall in line. Hoisted above the throng on the shoulders of supporters, they took turns chanting from their composed poetry with the active crowd of seventy-five repeating their couplets. The hundreds more gathered around listened, watched, turned away, and though they filled the allotted square, they hardly filled the protest. Some were drawn into the chanting, others began to chant but then lost stamina. It was rather sad.
I have a desire to believe the sincerity of people in their words and actions. Even in those with whom I disagree can be found virtue if behind their cause they are pursuing good. Dramatics aside, these protest organizers were seeking to aid the Coptic cause. Yes, they were manipulating the news, even if flailing in manipulating the passion of those around. I am of a different sort, but I can recognize, through effort, that their hearts are good.
Until, that is, a source within both church and security circles confirmed my fears that this was a game. He offered me a scoop: The president has already decided to intervene in this matter and suspend the judicial ruling against the church. He is simply waiting until the Copts protest sufficiently so that he can be seen as coming to their rescue. Behind the scenes, I was told, he communicated this to demonstration leaders, who were giving the president what he needed. By the morning, the crisis would be over.
This source represents himself as being well placed; he has been correct previously and at other times he has been less so. On this occasion, however, his words met my impressions and the two became bedfellows. As I wandered through the crowds this was my one thought – insincere manipulation.
Incidentally, the next morning there was no announcement. Perhaps the source was off base; perhaps the demonstration just wasn’t good enough. Either way, the impasse between church and judiciary stands, but how many people really care? By reading our press review you can get the impression that this is consuming Coptic attention. By reading our report on the press conference you will see that Pope Shenouda almost never holds one. This is big; why then was the protest hollow?
It may be that Copts have so little experience in political participation having been – according to your favored interpretation – marginalized or self-isolated, that they did not know how to protest. The ringleaders ably followed a script; the average Copt knew something was going on. The result, though, was a fizzle. Indeed, in many of the protests implemented by disgruntled Egyptians, who are equally – according to your favored interpretation – marginalized or self-isolated, the picture, though I have only read of these in the news, is of a toddler frustrated he cannot yet say or do all that he knows is within him. Thus he flails, kicks, and starts, but to little avail. It is a stage of growth, cute when occurring in your own scion, but melodramatic otherwise.
The melodrama, mixed with manipulation and the absence of mercy, gave me heartache over the state of Christians. Yes, this ruling is against them, but they seem to be imitating in the wrong direction. Their proper object did indeed conduct a high profile demonstration of protest against the-powers-that-be in the ancient temple. As stated earlier, in doing so Christians are within their rights.
Yet are they within the spirit of their faith? Here, I am reduced only to questions, knowing neither the culture of demonstrations nor the culture of Egypt. What, though, would a proper Christian protest look like? How can the Coptic community stand up for its rights with courage and conviction, yet at the same time call down blessings upon their temporal adversaries? Can love and protest co-exist?
Following the murders at Nag Hamadi certain Christians filled the streets and smashed windows and vandalized cars. Following the protests at the Cathedral certain Christians looked to attack and overturn the automobile belonging to a Coptic member of the People’s Assembly, Nabil Luka Bebawi. He had appeared at the protest but is widely disparaged by Copts who see him as a traitor to their cause through his support of government policy.
By and large, Copts, like most Egyptians, are peaceful people who desire the absence of violence. Protest, however, usually draws on negative emotions and frustrations, and can easily lead to contempt and destruction. When Copts have protested, their conduct is generally salubrious, if sputtering. Incidents like the above are against the norm, but the manner of demonstration, lacking a widespread group commitment to love, enables the excess.
Politics, protest, or prayer? Surely there is room for all three. The proper mix, the proper spirit; may they, ideally in conjunction with their co-citizen Muslim brothers and sisters, find the proper way.
To view our video taken from the event, with translation, please click here.
[i] Athanasius (293-373 AD) was one of the greatest bishops from the See of Alexandria, and one of the central figures of Christian history for his role in defeating the Arian heresy. He was also celebrated as an Egyptian national hero for his role in resisting the political and religious machinations of the Roman empire and Byzantine church.