Arab West Report Middle East Published Articles

The Egyptian Family House: Early Structure and Activity

Heads of the religious discourse committee of the Family House
Heads of the religious discourse committee of the Family House

‘National unity’ has long been a part of Egyptian political discourse. Spun positively, it celebrates the equal contributions of Muslims and Christians as one people in the national fabric. Spun negatively, it is crass propaganda used by the ruling class to demonize Islamists and scare both Copts and international observers into supporting the status quo.

Experienced positively, national unity represents the normal everyday life of Muslim and Christian neighbors interacting with each other as people, with nary a thought of religious differences. Experienced negatively, national unity is little more than the hugs and kisses exchanged by top religious leaders covering over a potent sectarianism that too often lashes out at the religious other.

But until recently, national unity was only an idea, of which the substance or emptiness was determined by the speaker. In Egypt today this is beginning to change; national unity is becoming an institution.

The idea was born following the horrific October 31, 2010 attack on Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad, in which 58 people were killed and threats issued also against Egyptian Copts. The Grand Sheikh of the Azhar, Ahmad al-Tayyib interpreted this al-Qaeda sponsored atrocity within larger efforts he believed were meant to damage the religious unity of the whole region. He proposed to then-Coptic Orthodox Pope Shenouda to create an Egyptian antidote called the Bayt al-Eila or ‘Family House’, the necessity of which was further demonstrated following the bombing of the Two Saints Church in Alexandria in the first hours of January 1, 2011.

The Egyptian Family House was formally created as an independent national institution by cabinet decree in 2011, but the ongoing instability created by the January 25, 2011 revolution meant that little was initially done to develop it. But from the beginning the Family House was meant not to be a place of religious dialogue, said Dr. Hamdi Zaqzouq, the secretary-general, but of dialogue between the common people to strengthen their general relations. They will not discuss the differences of doctrine, nor seek primarily to solve any outbreak of sectarian strife. Rather, it is a comprehensive effort to reduce the causes of such strife, so as to revive the popular slogan of the 1920s national movement against British colonialism: Religion is for God and the nation is for everyone.

This article is based on an interview with Dr. Hamdi Zaqzouq and his secretary Muhammad al-Banna, on October 12, 2014. Please click here to read the full article at Arab West Report.


Orthodox Priest: Better to Abandon Christianity

If this quote is accurate, it is a terrible indication of the divide between the Coptic Orthodox Church and members who wish a divorce for other than adultery:

Orthodox priest Abd al-Masih Basit told Al-Monitor that the church would not interfere in politics and would not take any actions against Christian parliamentary candidates on the Nour list, as some newspapers had reported it would. Yet, he added, “The Nour Party considers the Christians infidels, and therefore, any Christian who participates in the party is giving up his dignity. It is better for those who have a problem with the church regarding the personal status laws — and who view support for Nour as a solution to amending those laws through parliament — to abandon Christianity.”

The context for the article is that election law requires all political parties to field a limited number of Christian candidates. The Nour Party is Salafi, an ultraconservative form of Islam that is described in quote. The article surmises the only way for Nour to attract any Christians is to appeal to a very specific segment — if sharia law is applied to all, Islamic divorce is far easier than Christian.

Abd al-Masih Basit is a very influential theologian and apologist in the Coptic Orthodox Church. It will be necessary to confirm this quote with him before assuming it is true, but if so, it appears he has his priorities in the wrong order. The church desires to control legislation on personal and family affairs, and the constitution gives it the right to do so.

But it would be a shame if the church is willing to sacrifice the faith of its members to preserve its power.


Translation: President Sisi at Christmas Eve Mass

Egyptian President Sisi talks next to Coptic Pope Tawadros II as he attends Christmas Eve Mass at St. Mark's Cathedral in Cairo

Last night on Christmas Eve according to the Coptic Orthodox calendar, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi became the first ever Egyptian head-of-state to attend the holiday mass.

His appearance lasted for about ten minutes, during which he gave a short speech. The video selection and translation is provided kindly by Paul Attallah.

It was necessary to come and congratulate you for the feast
I hope that I did not interrupt your prayers

Egypt for years taught the civilization to the whole world
and taught the civilization to the whole world
I want to tell you that the world is now waiting from Egypt
in these circumstances…

The people: We love you
Sisi: We love you too!

I thank you because frankly the Holy Pope will be upset!

It’s important that the whole world watch us: the Egyptians.
You noticed that I am not using another word than Egyptians
It could not be something different
We are the Egyptians
Nobody says: what (type of) Egyptian are you?
We are saying things
We are writing to the world a meaning
and we are opening a window of real hope and light to the people

I am saying that Egypt taught to the world all over the years civilization and humanity
Today we are present to confirm that we are able another time
to teach the humanity
and to teach the civilization once again.
Starting from here
For this reason, we cannot say but: we the Egyptians
We must be only Egyptians
Yes Egyptians

The people: One hand

Yes one hand
I want just to tell you
that with God’s will
we will build Egypt together
we will contain one another
We will love each other
We will love each other in a good way
we will love each other really
so the people can watch

I want to tell again
Happy New Year
and for all Egyptians
and for all Egyptians: greetings for the feast
Holy Pope: Greetings for the feast
Thanks and I will not take from you more time

It is certainly a historic occasion. Merry Christmas to all Egyptians.


Misrepresenting the Coptic Church and Politics


The debate is valid: What is the proper role of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the nation’s politics?

It is also an unavoidable debate. Once Pope Tawadros appeared with the Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar to back the popularly-backed military overthrow of President Morsi, he reasserted the church into the political scene.

The decision of the pope can be criticized, but in a recent article for the Carnegie Middle East Center, Georges Fahmi goes much too far. He writes:

With the election of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as president in June 2014, the Church has attempted to reestablish itself as the monolithic voice of Egypt’s Coptic community. But that role, too, carries risks. Rather than trying to unify Egypt’s Christians under its leadership, the Church should withdraw from the political sphere and allow Copts to defend their interests themselves by joining political parties and movements. The Church should focus on being an institution of civil society that defends universal ideals such as human rights and social justice, and on supporting developmental projects for both Muslims and Christians.

In the essay which follows, Fahmi does an admirable job of summarizing the recent history of the Coptic Church in politics. Within a limited political sphere, President Mubarak allowed Pope Shenouda to represent the Coptic community outside the realm of law. After the revolution Pope Tawadros spoke against a political role for the church, but increasingly found himself drawn in during the Morsi administration. Famhi helps the reader track with an often neglected sub-theme in the Egyptian transition.

But in his summary critique, he makes statements that do not completely gel with my understanding of the situation.

  • Though the church does invest much charity in Christian focused projects, it also benefits local Muslims. Surely it could do more, of course.
  • He recommends the church defend universal ideals, but would this not also be a form of political engagement?
  • Perhaps his wording is poor, but is the church doing anything to disallow Christians from joining political parties and movements?

The church has always presented its participation in the overthrow of Morsi and the backing of the roadmap as a national decision, not a political one. It backed the constitution and the presidential election, but did not back a specific candidate. Again, its decision to speak at all can be criticized, but the nature of its speaking does not represent an attempt “to reestablish itself as the monolithic voice of Egypt’s Coptic community,” as the author accuses.

Here is his evidence:

The Church’s support for the military’s 2013 intervention has given it a privileged position in the new regime, prompting the Church to try to revive the old pact it had with the Mubarak regime. And changes carried out by the state have helped the Church regain its position as the only representative of the Coptic community.

As the new political authority has tightened its control over the public sphere, youth movements, including the Maspero Youth Union, have lost their ability to mobilize. Coptic politicians have also lost their influence, as the new regime seems to see little role for parties; President Sisi has not held any meetings with political parties.

What sort of privilege does the author intend? Is the church any more privileged than the judiciary, or the police, or the administration, or other institutional bodies that backed the overthrow? And where is the evidence of the church’s intention to “revive the old pact”? One can guess at their internal desire, but the author confuses the conduct of the state with the approval of the church.

The Maspero Youth Union lost its ability to mobilize long before the overthrow of Morsi. But it says that despite initial uncertainty it has a good relationship with the church. And within the political parties, Coptic politicians are still quite numerous and influential. Yes, the public sphere has shrunk, and political parties appear marginalized. Yes, the church has not spoken out against this, but few have. This is a national issue, and not one to lay at the foot of the church.

So should the church take a stand? Fahmi argues in his conclusion:

In terms of discourse, the Church needs to differentiate between defending universal values in the public sphere and engagement in deals with the state or political parties. While the first is needed and would improve the Church’s public image among Egyptians, the latter could have drastic consequences because it makes the Church a part of the political regime. The ideals of human dignity, social justice, and human rights need to be integrated into Church discourse. Only by struggling for a political regime that respects these principles will the Copts, together with all Egyptians, receive their full social and political rights.

In this and Fahmi’s other recommendations are found much wisdom. But where he wants to differentiate, I see simply a different involvement. To hold out a discourse for these values would be to very obviously criticize the current regime. Perhaps this prophetic voice is the burden of the gospel, but it is also very political. If the author wishes to accuse the church of hypocrisy for criticizing Morsi and not criticizing Sisi, let him do so. But the stakes for Christians were different, and as mentioned above, the church presented its approach in a national context, not one of religion or politics.

The consequence of its decision, however, is to put the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi supporters outside the national context. Indeed, Egypt’s Christians are convinced of the terrorist designation with which the government labels them. And Christians suffered much terrorism, as their churches were attacked by Morsi supporters across the nation.

This is a high price to pay for the church, but the author comes very close to blaming the victim.

This leads to a situation in which Church decisions can put the lives and property of any individual Copt at risk, even if he or she did not actually participate in making a political choice.

Earlier he wrote:

The strategies of both the Muslim Brotherhood and the Church in this period have increased the level of religious polarization between Egyptian Muslims and Christians. The result has been a cycle of sectarian violence, with each side accusing the other of attacks on its followers.

Unfortunately, this critique is partially true, but is it a cycle? The Brotherhood has certainly accused the church of a conspiracy, but their manner is deeply sectarian and propagandist. If the church had stayed silent, if Christians were not among the many, mostly Muslim activists who campaigned against the Muslim Brotherhood, perhaps they would not have been targeted.

But did the church stand against Morsi for political gain only, to reset the Mubarak-Shenouda relationship? Or, did they place themselves in jeopardy because they thought it was right – for Coptic liberty, yes, but also for human rights and the good of the nation?

If their intentions were true, which can be debated, then this is exactly the situation Fahmi calls for now, with the church defending universal values as part of its discourse. Many Muslims have spoken positively of the church, for what it has suffered, and many Copts appreciate that the bulk of ‘moderate Muslims’, as they call them, now see Christians in a different and better light.

Like Fahmi, I can read into recent actions of the church a pattern of political engagement and representation of Copts as a community. I lean toward his perspective, wishing Copts as citizens would be in the forefront. But I try to watch carefully for evidence of this being the intention of the church, and I have not yet seen it. Fahmi links considerably to articles which trace history, but he can only interpret on this issue, and not link to any quotes.

Certainly I have not seen the church discourage its people from their own participation in politics. If movements are faltering and parties are weak, is this not their own fault? They have had three years since the revolution to assert themselves, to build apparatus and win support on the street. They have not done so. If Sisi ignores them, as mentioned above, is it because they do not yet have sufficient weight to force their hand.

The church does have weight. Fahmi’s correct question concerns how the church should wield it. The weight of the gospel does call for a prophetic voice, for self-limitation, and the promotion of the common good. Within the sharp political polarization and challenge to state authority, the church has a very difficult line to walk.

It is right to call the church to sublime ideals, but Fahmi’s article misrepresents in its critique. His opening sentence stated:

The Coptic Church’s recent involvement in politics in Egypt has harmed both the Church and the country’s Christian community.

If so, were he in Egypt, he would be one of the very few Christians to say so. Nearly everyone else is overwhelmingly positive about the status quo.

Perhaps this is why his own prophetic voice, even in overstatement, is needed. May his readers in Egypt bristle, but also consider.

Lapido Media Middle East Published Articles

Experimental Egyptian Community Serving Dropouts Reaches Milestone

Sara Hanna
Sara Hanna

Sara Hanna has spent her last five years in a desert oasis, but despite this she is as normal a young adult as you could find anywhere: a 29-year-old university graduate keen to make a difference with her life.

‘I want to do something with meaning, to give my life for other people,’ she told Lapido Media. ‘I have a good education but others haven’t had the chance. I must create these opportunities for others.’

Many restless youth will dabble in volunteer social work for similar reasons. Others will seek a career in the field. But few can match Hanna’s experience on the Cairo-Alexandria desert road, or hope to witness the transformation she will help create.

Her last five years were spent at Anafora, an experimental community created by Bishop Thomas of the Coptic Orthodox Church.

And on 23 November in Anafora, she was one of 26 Egyptian MA graduates of the Catholic University of Lyon, France, in a ceremony coordinated with the community’s fifteenth anniversary.

‘I have lived here because I believe in the vision of Bishop Thomas and the message of Anafora,’ Hanna said. ‘It is to lift up every person.’

The name Anafora means ‘to lift up’ in the ancient Coptic language, and is used of the sacrificial offering presented in the Orthodox liturgy.

Bishop Thomas presides over the diocese of Qusia, 270 kilometers from Cairo in the heart of Upper Egypt. The Asyut governorate where he is based suffers from 70 per cent poverty and 33 per cent illiteracy.

Couple these statistics with a traditional, conservative mentality, and Bishop Thomas concluded that drastic measures were necessary.

Bishop Thomas
Bishop Thomas

‘We wanted to be more free, more relaxed,’ he told Lapido Media. ‘To do this we needed to have Anafora outside their local setting.’

Today around 100 people, mostly from Qusia, have come to work in the retreat centre and various farming and educational programs on the 120 acre property. Hundreds of young people come every year and mix with international visitors, cross-pollinating in cultural exchange.

And like Hanna, some of them stay.

She is from Cairo and now directs the educational programs at Anafora. She supervises the tutoring of 50 high school dropouts, aged 16-41, to prepare them to return to Qusia and complete their high school degree. Fifteen others are in a vocational training program, learning skills through which they can gain employment or start small businesses back home.

In development is a nine-month certificate course in addiction counseling, in cooperation with the NET Institute in Florida.

Sister Partheneya, Hanna’s fellow graduate, estimates 40 per cent of male students in the Qusia ‘Son of the King’ youth program suffer from addiction to drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, or pornography. Five priests are enrolled and plan to create Qusia’s first addiction recovery center, which will be open to all.

But the joint program with the Catholic University is Bishop Thomas’ highest level of educational investment. Hanna and her colleagues received the equivalent of an MA in Local Development and Human Rights.

Furthermore, within five years Hanna will become the leader of an Anafora team and take on all the training. Until then professors will come from France and adapt their teaching to the local context.

It is the first extension program offered by the university, but they hope to replicate it elsewhere.

‘Bishop Thomas is a visionary and helped create a new idea,’ Olivier Frerot, the vice-rector at the Catholic University of Lyon, told Lapido Media. ‘He is creating civil society from the bottom up.’

Anafora Graduation

Among the graduates were 15 priests and two sisters. It is normal in Qusia for the better-educated priests to also serve as community leaders. The next batch of students has much more laity.

‘When you want to implement a new culture and elevate the whole society, you must convince the leaders first,’ said Fr. Angelos Faltas, one of the graduating priests. He partners with Muslim NGOs to combat illiteracy, and has begun an internship program with five local factories to train 100 men for the labour market every three months.

But it is not just the leaders that Bishop Thomas needs to convince. It took 10 years before Anafora finally saw local acceptance of his transformative vision.

One proof is in the prestigious American University of Cairo’s scholarship program. Each year since 2004 the university selects two students from each governorate, and 60 per cent of those from Asyut have come from the diocese of Qusia, said the bishop.

These students are honoured as role models for the community, representing Egypt at the highest levels. The only challenge is to get some to stay. Internal migration draws the best and brightest away from nearly all villages in Upper Egypt.

The priests will stay, as they are bound to the church. But from distant Anafora, Hanna explains her hope for the training.

‘It helps people know how to develop their local community,’ she said. ‘Now they will think how to stay and serve, rather than how to leave.’


This article was originally published at Lapido Media.


Arab West Report Middle East Published Articles

Hala Shukrallah: The First Coptic and First Female Head of a Political Party in Egypt

Hala Shukralla

From my recent article at Arab West Report, an interview with Hala Shukrallah of the Constitution (Dostour) Party:

Congratulations on your election as party leader, which as a Copt and as a woman is historic and unprecedented in Egypt. What does it mean both for the party and the country?

It represents a definite step forward, for at a conscious level people have not seen it as significant. A few years back this would not have been possible. The divide was not only visible, but vocalized. It would have created a backlash and instigated an attack, especially utilizing these two factors – woman and Copt.

That this was a non-issue within the party was very significant. It was not a focus at all during elections, showing that the party itself stopped perceiving these elements as a divide between people.

In society, it is another issue altogether. When we are speaking about our party we are speaking about a majority of young people. They have gone through a revolution – two revolutions – and have really changed so much of their thinking. You can understand why these things have stopped meaning so much to them.

But if you look at the way society has accepted this, and even celebrated it, this also is very significant. It shows there is a majority within society that wants to see change.

Your election was also celebrated by the Coptic community at large, which itself has gone through two revolutions and witnesses a divide between its youth and elders. How do you describe the Coptic electorate? As a citizen and voter, what is the average Copt like?

Especially since the 1970s, the Coptic sector in Egypt has been very aware there is a growing conservative element that perceives them as ‘the other’. What they have done is take a step backwards and basically hide in their own community. They have ghettoized, in a way, in the arms of the church, which has been speaking on their behalf.

From my point of view this is dangerous. I understand why they have done it, but they perceive themselves as a bloc, allowing the church to speak on their behalf, and therefore society continues to see them as a bloc, and not as individuals or citizens.

We have gone through this cycle over and over again, but it was broken on the 25th of January, when for the first time they went out into the streets and joined demonstrations. They began to protest as citizens. This was a turning point, very visible and vocal, with Muslims and Christians in Tahrir Square holding hands as citizens.

Pictures of the cross and crescent together became very important symbolism that became ingrained in the minds of Egyptians over the last three years. This has made a difference and left its mark on us.

But with the advent of the Muslim Brotherhood there was an effort to roll back this progress made in the first year of the revolution. Citizenship was debated, whether we can give minorities rights, but maybe not all rights, and so on. The discourse excluded some sectors from being full-fledged citizens. But with their growth and that of the fundamentalist movements there has been a withdrawal, once more, of Copts into the church. And the church is again speaking on their behalf.

Please click here to read the full interview at Arab West Report.


Atlantic Council Middle East Published Articles

Egypt, the Election, and Sectarian Analysis

Uncovered, presumably Coptic women stand in line to vote
Uncovered, presumably Coptic women stand in line to vote

From my latest article at Egypt Source, exploring the controversial presidential election turnout:

One day before the beginning of presidential elections, the Egyptian Center for Media Studies and Public Opinion (ECMSPO) published the results of a counterintuitive poll. Based on personal interviews with 10,524 citizens throughout Egypt’s governorates, they predicted a turnout of only 10 percent.

More shocking, and controversial, was their estimate that 48 percent of presumed winner Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s votes would come from Christians.

On the first day of voting the webpage of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, seized on this survey. Publishing pictures of old men, smiling ladies, and assortments of priests and nuns, they featured the sectarian-laden headline: “Elderly, Women, Christians … the Trinity of Election Theater Today.”

But as reports streamed in of otherwise empty polling stations, this headline gained credibility. As the Presidential Elections Commission (PEC) decided to make the second day a public holiday, and then extend voting to a third, it cemented the impression even more.

The article takes a closer look at the polling organization, which doesn’t seem quite right. But the official totals of 47 percent turnout don’t quite seem right either. A closer look is given to the size of the Coptic electorate, but also, like Saturday’s post on Pope Tawadros, wonders about their behavior too. From the conclusion:

But cynical also is Muslim Brotherhood use of this demographic reality. To call the elderly, women, and Christians part of a ‘Trinity’ is to use theological language instinctively repulsive to Muslim sensibilities. That they call elections a ‘theater’ is reasonable given their organizational viewpoint; that they play games with religious minorities, gender, and age – as if these did not have the rights of citizenship to choose freely – is not.

Of course, the Muslim Brotherhood is not the only group making sectarian usage of the Copts. Lamis al-Hadidi, a pro-government media personality on the private CBC channel, urged them to vote reminding of their sixty churches burnt by terrorists. She, like the FJP, has crossed a line.

Perhaps individuals within the church are privately backing Sisi behind the scenes, and directing Copts to vote for him through internal discourse. If so, they too are crossing a line. But the church has had good sense to avoid this distinction publicly, officially instructing priests not to directly support a candidate.

Whether turnout is high or low, it may well prove that together, this Trinity elected Sisi. The Brotherhood may be right to fume, but they are wrong to do so with such sectarian language. Unfortunately, it is only one more example of the morass into which Egyptian politics has descended, and the mud slung by many.

But mud is slung in advanced democracies as well, and generally speaking it does not hinder straightforward readings of electoral results. The election of Sisi was supposed to be simple, though Egypt’s democracy is far from mature. Contested turnout figures are just one more bump in a very long road.

Please click here to read the full article at Egypt Source.

Arab West Report Middle East Published Articles

Church and Politics Under Pope Tawadros

Sisi, flanked by Bishop Bishoy (L) and Pope Tawadros (R)
Sisi, flanked by Bishop Bishoy (L) and Pope Tawadros (R)

Yesterday I linked to my article on Christianity Today about the role of Copts in the current presidential elections season. It is a true article, but space limits the ability to probe the full issue of how they have been involved, particularly through leadership in the Coptic Orthodox Church. Here is a longer treatment, excerpted from my article at Arab West Report:

By appearances, the Coptic Orthodox Church is doing everything wrong. But appearances can be deceiving; officially, they are doing everything right.

But there is a messy in-between which casts doubt on it all. As convoluted as Egypt’s post-June 30 transition has been following the popular deposing of President Muhammad Mursī, the church has matched it step-by-step.

The appearances are obvious. Posters are seen throughout Cairo bearing pictures of Pope Tawadros alongside the front running military candidate. Some call out to the faithful: “The Lord Jesus calls you to support Field Marshal ‘Abd al-Fattāh al-Sīsī to preserve national unity.” Others give the reason “to stamp out terrorism,” and a third, “to stamp out the Brotherhood.”

Text messages have also been sent bearing similar slogans, calling on Christians to give their vote to Sīsī. This is confirmed by Ihāb al-Kharrāt, a Coptic founding member of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, who in an interview with the author on May 15, 2014 called it “an abuse.”

The question is, by whom? The identity of sponsors is unknown, and the church has publicly denied any relation to the campaign on its Facebook page. Instead, as early as January 28, 2014 Pope Tawadros was rebutting rumors he was supporting a presidential candidate, and on May 4, 2014 he reiterated the church’s stance of neutrality. The church has no political role, he said on May 13, 2014 and his presence in Mursī’s removal on stage with al-Sīsī and Sheikh Ahmad al-Tayyib of the Azhar reflected national institutional backing for the pulse of the street. Thereafter, priests are instructed not to directly support any candidates.

If this official position is clear and correct enough, there is a convoluted undercurrent. On March 23, 2014 Pope Tawadros was quoted by Kuwait’s al-Watan TV channel saying al-Sīsī had a national duty to run for president. Tawadros praised him as having the discipline necessary to run the country, though everyone was free to choose the one deemed most suitable. During the interview he also disparaged the Arab Spring, describing it as a conspiracy to break up the region into smaller states.

The next day the pope backtracked, telling al-Shurūq newspaper that he had not made any official statements or given any interviews over the past 10-14 days. Notably, he did not deny the content of the interview, though this was implied. But the video of his interview was later released stating the opinions in question, though the footage is not of great quality and appears edited, possibly doctored. Even so, it appears the church made a misstep in revealing its private convictions.

But even its public stance is open to interpretation. The Facebook page which denied relation to the posters called on Egyptians to participate in the presidential elections. This itself is a political step, though perhaps legitimate in terms of fulfilling national obligations. But to what end is this participation designed?

It is these national obligations Pope Tawadros once again emphasized on May 27, 2014 the last day of voting before polls were unexpectedly extended to a third day. In the face of a Muslim Brotherhood-backed boycott campaign joined at least passively by many youth, he declared this to be unacceptable negativity and urged people to vote.

But the government campaign begs interpretation that this election is less a contest between candidates than a quest for the legitimacy of turnout. 51 percent of the eligible electorate participated in the 2012 second round vote that installed Mursī over Ahmad Shafīq as president. Mursī received roughly 13 million votes. In his presumed victory al-Sīsī would want to at least match these numbers to validate officially his popular support beyond the many substantial street rallies which buttressed the popular overthrow.

Having given many signals of favor toward al-Sīsī, official or otherwise, is church neutrality now only a superficial position? In calling for participation, is it simply echoing the state call to support, in effect, a referendum on al-Sīsī? If his opponent Hamdīn Sabbāhī stands little chance of winning, should the church position be interpreted otherwise?

It is useful to look back at Pope Tawadros’ papacy to judge the fine line he has walked between involvement in and abstention from politics.

The article continues by examining the pope’s statements about and within the political arena, since his selection in November 2012. Judging from this history, the conclusion tries to examine the current situation:

The pattern that emerges gives an indication of what it means. Despite earlier stated intention to remove the church from politics and allow civil society to speak on behalf of Copts, Pope Tawadros was quickly drawn in. His remarks largely, though not exclusively, pertained to issues that affect the Coptic community. The 2012 constitution opened space for a threatening Islamism, and the attack on the cathedral in April 2013 was unprecedented and largely ignored by Mursī, despite initial condemnation. Statements of allowance for Coptic citizens to protest suggested an effort to stay within church matters, in the spirit of the January 25 revolution in which Copts acted without church direction, even if he earlier discouraged demonstrations.

But in endorsing the protest against Mursī a day before military action against him, Pope Tawadros took a political stand. It was not necessary, and it compromises his interpretation of appearing with al-Sīsī a day later. Yes, his appearance was a national statement of unity, but he appears an eager participant. It was a full endorsement of the order to come, and a condemnation of what came before.

But fair enough, it was a national action. Subsequent reception of al-Sīsī can be seen as honoring a national hero. And endorsement of the constitution can be seen as in line with support for the national roadmap and overall stability. They can also be seen otherwise, but this is the fine line he is walking.

Therefore, urging participation in presidential elections can be seen as more of the same. It is a national measure to rebuild the state, and it can be imagined he will do similarly with coming parliamentary elections. What will be tested then will be his opinion of candidates, as there is likely to be significant Islamist participation through the Salafi Nour Party. They are currently allies against Mursī; will the church be similarly neutral between candidates then, officially?

But this narrative is complicated by the controversial statements to al-Watan, along with the semi-denial. Having tightrope-walked for so long on the borders of political-religious legitimacy, it is not surprising to see such a mistake. But it is not enough to undue his official rhetoric. The church is neutral toward all political candidates; it simply plays its role as a national institution to support the state and encourage popular participation in governance.

To say otherwise requires descending into a conspiracy that may well be present but must be proven. But even without the conspiracy, it is possible to criticize the church for playing this national political role. This can be on the basis of principle – that religion should stay out of politics altogether. It can be on the basis of wisdom – that if there is a reversal in favor of the Islamists the church now has an entrenched enemy. Or it can be on the basis of the common good – that Egypt and her Christians are served better by active Coptic citizenry, not clergy.

But this calls for a vocal Coptic lay leadership that is emerging, but not yet mature. This is unsurprising given the decades of church paternalism under Pope Shenouda, encouraged by the long authoritarianism of Mubārak. Perhaps Pope Tawadros is being pushed back into the old paradigm; perhaps he is willing and eager. Perhaps there is little alternative yet and he acts against his better principles. Noteworthy also is that Pope Shenouda began his papacy as a vocal critic of Islamist policies, under President Sādāt. Banished for 40 months in a desert monastery, he returned much more subdued and cooperative under President Mubārak. It can be estimated that contrary to his predecessor, Pope Tawadros was victorious in his criticism; how will he now conduct himself under President al-Sīsī?

Like the meaning of the church’s call to vote in presidential elections, these questions are matters of his intentions, which cannot be known fully. Appearances are not good, but official stances are reasonable. It is the in-between that rightly confuses observers.

Within a still messy revolution, anything other would be surprising. The church and its pope are fully Egyptian, and Egypt is still convoluted.

Please click here to read the full article at Arab West Report.

Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

As Egypt Picks Next President, Christians Play Biggest Political Role in Decades


From my article at Christianity Today, published May 27, 2014:

For Egyptian Christians, today’s presidential election is not much of a contest.

Most support General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in appreciation for his role in deposing previous president Mohamed Morsi and ending the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood. A smaller, younger contingent leans toward leftist politician Hamdeen Sabbahi out of appreciation for the revolution and skepticism of another military leader. But most on both sides expect Sisi will win handily, and most welcome the new era to come.

“This election [brings] great expectations to welcome a new Egypt with Muslims and Christians as equal citizens,” said Fawzi Khalil, a pastor at Cairo’s Kasr el-Dobara Church, the largest evangelical congregation in the Middle East.

But while most Christians are solidly in the camp of Sisi, many are taking advantage of the opening of political space after the January 2011 revolution to win leadership positions in a variety of political parties.

The article highlights one Christian woman who has become the first to head a political party in Egypt, supporting Sabbahi, and a man who is a founding member of another, supporting Sisi. A third figure is a human rights advocate seeking fair treatment for the Muslim Brotherhood, standing against the tide.

Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today.


Friday Prayers for Egypt: Easter Visits

Flag Cross QuranGod,

Easter, and the national celebration of Shem al-Naseem the following day, were both quiet in an otherwise quiet week. But even quiet palpitations within can be heard and affect the national scene. For good, God, only for good.

Because all events are subject to your evaluation, even if natural to those involved. For some used Easter to celebrate politics, while others used politics to denigrate Easter. Judge between them, God, but only in mercy.

For political candidates visited the papal cathedral to join in on Easter; one in particular received a rousing ovation. All candidates were Muslims, who believe neither in Jesus’ death nor resurrection. Their presence can be seen as a great gesture of solidarity, or, a great exploitation of an electorate.

What is the proper place of Easter in Egypt, God? Should it be made equal with other religious feasts and become a national holiday? Or should it be left an oddity for minority Christians, neither prevented nor acknowledged? Is anything in-between viable, or a capitulation?

For a political movement opposed to these candidates put the holiday’s name in quotation marks. Criticizing a supposed normalization between the Orthodox Church and Israel, it described pilgrims going to Jerusalem to celebrate “what is called ‘the feast of the resurrection’.” The pilgrims did go but the church did not sanction; the rumor reported served only to discredit – church and Easter alike.

Show Egypt the level of value to give Easter, God, independent of belief. It cannot be easily shared, but can it be communally honored? Jesus unites Egyptians even as he divides. Help society to emphasis the former, with all appropriate allowance for the latter. Guard this balance, God, even as you guard the disputed truth.

But show also the believers in Easter the proper relation of their faith to society. At times they are honored; at others, marginalized. Give them wisdom in both situations.

Is the cathedral a place of political judgment, God? Or does your sovereignty demand the voice of faith in politics as in all else? As Muslims debate this issue, let Christians do the same. Lead each individual to the candidate of choice, and if a community coalesces, discern between them. For good, God, and with mercy.

Allow all holidays in Egypt to pass quietly, and their palpitations to be joyous. May all celebrations, national or otherwise, enrich the national scene.



An Alternate History for Pope Tawadros

From Salama Moussa, writing with deep respect for the Coptic pope and the impossible leadership position thrust upon him during divisive political times. Still, he wonders if things could have been different:

Three months after the July 3 events it is still impossible to criticize Pope Tawadros II presence on the stage with General Sisi and Sheikh Al Azhar. It is, however, possible to think of an alternative history. In that history the Pope would have indicated his support privately but refrained from the public display to lessen his political burden, one that he insisted he did not want in the first place.

He could have also indicated privately that while disapproving of the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood, and not wishing them an exclusive role in running Egypt, he could not sanction the killing of either the innocent or the guilty. In doing so he would have assumed the role of a father to the Muslim Brothers, of whose behavior he surely disapproves, but whom he must love as children of God. It is a tough task, fit only for a Patriarch.

Would such a stance have lessened the attacks against the Copts?  Probably not. Would it have made the state serve them less? Possibly. The current feeble efforts can still be weaker. It would have placed the Pope among the ranks of the most exceptional men of the new century, and possibly given a template for reconciliation to the hardened hearts of the Egyptian political class. There is no doubt of the risk of such actions toward the Copts of Egypt, but maybe it is time for the Coptic Church to aim wider than just Egypt, and higher than just its needs.

It would also have been Christian in the literal sense; the sense that Christ’s ministry aimed for the fallen and deluded.

Moussa is cautious about issuing his opinions from afar, not being in Egypt. But perhaps this vision can still be considered, and not just viewed as a missed opportunity.

Current Events

Egyptian Writer May Face Jail for Defaming Religion

From Ahram Online, telling a story that is not unusual:

Saber says those who filed the lawsuit took his words out of context, adding that he did not defame religion in his short stories.

“In my stories, the characters are wondering where God is in the face of all the grievances and evils that they face. It’s like they’re asking him to interfere; this is not in contempt of religion, it is merely posing a question,” Saber explained.

Here is an angle, though, what while also not unusual, is less known by many:

According to a statement made by a coalition of Egyptian right human rights organisations, the prosecutors undertaking the investigation consulted the church in Beni Suef as well as Al-Azhar to seek out their opinion as to whether the accusations were correct.

The church told the prosecution that the content of Saber’s literary work contradicted divine religions, ridiculed the divine, and invented stories that stray from noble and sophisticated literature.

Al-Azhar affirmed the church’s stance, stating that the work destroys intellectual values and tears apart the fabric of Egyptian society.

The church in Egypt is a very conservative institution that is not shy to seek the power of the state as a defense against encroachment on religious values. I do not know anything about the content of the book, if it targets Islam, Christianity, or religion in general. The author’s name also does not infer his religious background.

But the church would do well to review its own literature. Habbakuk the prophet does little but rail against God’s apparent inaction in the face of injustice:

How long, Lord, must I call for help,
but you do not listen?
Or cry out to you, “Violence!”
but you do not save?
Why do you make me look at injustice?
Why do you tolerate wrongdoing?
Destruction and violence are before me;
there is strife, and conflict abounds.
Therefore the law is paralyzed,
and justice never prevails.
The wicked hem in the righteous,
so that justice is perverted.

And his answer is simply to trust God, even when he does not ‘deliver’:

Though the fig tree does not bud
and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
and no cattle in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will be joyful in God my Savior.

It is unfortunate when religious leaders ‘protect’ their flock from the very same doubts and questions that fill their scriptures. But this, also, is not an unusual story.


A Sense of International Attention

One of the privileges of studying Egypt is to be able to be a resource for others who are studying and writing about the region. In recent weeks a few have inquired about my opinion or made use of resources here at A Sense of Belonging. If you wish, and if you have the language, please enjoy the following:

From the Spanish newspaper El Pais, on the relation between the Coptic Orthodox Church and the state in light of the Rebel movement which ousted Morsi:

“Como minoría religiosa, los coptos a menudo creen necesario aliarse estrechamente con el Estado, pues es este el agente de orden en cualquier sociedad”, explica Jayson Casper, un investigador especializado en minorías de Arab West Foundation, un think tank de El Cairo. Tawadros II fue entronizado a principios del pasado noviembre, y la mayoría de analistas subrayaron la dificultad de su labor. Y no solo por ocupar el puesto del carismático Shenuda III después de más de cuatro décadas de papado, sino por hacerlo en un momento de zozobra para la comunidad cristiana, acechada por un creciente número de ataques sectarios.

Durante el debate que precedió a la elección del nuevo patriarca, muchos coptos abogaron por que este tuviera una menor intervención en política. Sin embargo, muchos han ido cambiando de opinión a medida que avanzaba la presidencia de Morsi. “Las primeras señales de que [Tawadros II] sería menos político que su predecesor fueron desapareciendo a medida que los coptos sufrían bajo Morsi. Creo que la mayoría aprecian su posición clara, y estuvieron contentos de ver que está al lado del gran imán de Al Azhar y el consejo militar”, comenta Casper.

From a French blogger, A Student Defends His Faith, writing about this blog’s Friday Prayers:

Jayson Casper, originaire des Etats-Unis et diplômé en économie et en islamologie, vit au Caire en Egypte avec sa femme Julie et leurs trois enfants. Il travaille comme rédacteur pour le magazine Arab West Report et ponctuellement comme journaliste indépendant pour différents médias chrétiens. Sur son blog, il propose des analyses approfondies de la situation politique, sociale et religieuse en Egypte. J’ai découvert son blog lorsque je commençais à m’intéresser à Rafiq Habib (d’ailleurs sa réflexion sur celui-ci (partie 1 et partie 2) vaut vraiment le détour) et depuis, je le visite régulièrement et corresponds aussi avec son auteur. Sur la page de présentation du blog, il écrit (traduit par moi) : “Le souhait de notre famille est d’apprendre à connaître et à apprécier tout ce que l’Egypte a à offrir et de découvrir sa langue, ses habitants, sa culture et ses religions. Nous espérons contribuer, par nos vies, nos amitiés et notre emploi, à la lutte contre les préjugés de nombreux Egyptiens envers les Américains et les chrétiens, et par nos écrits et nos visites aux Etats-Unis, à la lutte contre les préjugés de nombreux Américains envers les arabes, les musulmans et les orthodoxes. Notre prière est que nos vies à l’étranger plaisent à Dieu, qui désire que tous puissent expérimenter sa grâce, vivre en paix et aimer leur prochain.” Leur blog s’inscrit tout à fait dans cette démarche.

Pourquoi un tel titre ? Parce que c’est ce qui résume son appel : parce qu’il vit en Egypte, Jayson Casper veut le meilleur pour l’Egypte et les Egyptiens ; parce qu’il n’est pas lui-même Egyptien, il ne sait pas ce qui est le meilleur pour eux et cherche donc à comprendre ce qu’eux-mêmes pensent plutôt que de leur imposer sa propre vision d’avenir d’Occidental. C’est ce qu’il appelle le “foreigner’s sense of belonging”, le sentiment d’appartenance de l’étranger.

Petit aperçu de quelques-unes de ses analyses les plus intéressantes :
– Le survol le plus complet que je connaisse, en 19 pages (avec un résumé en ligne, le reste étant accessible en PDF), du militantisme copte né de la Révolution égyptienne, avec une description fouillée de tous les principaux mouvements, leur idéologie, leurs alliances et rivalités et leurs relations avec les autres mouvements révolutionnaires.
– Une réflexion pertinente et nuancée sur ce que les chrétiens occidentaux devraient penser du coup d’Etat militaire contre Morsi, entre refus de l’islamisme et attachement aux principes démocratiques.
– Cet interview sur les motivations d’un citoyen égyptien lambda, engagé dans la campagne d’opposition demandant la démission de Morsi.

Par ailleurs, tous les vendredis (jour du culte dans l’islam), Jayson publie une prière pour l’Egypte. Ces prières sont rédigées de façon à ce que tout un chacun, quelle que soit sa religion ou son appartenance politique, puisse l’adresser à Dieu. Dans ses prières, il demande à Dieu de faire triompher la paix, la justice et la vérité, pour tous les Egyptiens. Exemple : le vendredi suivant le coup d’Etat, alors que la très grande majorité des chrétiens égyptiens (sauf certains mouvements de jeunes révolutionnaires, hostiles aux Frères Musulmans mais inquiets du retour de l’armée) ont soutenu le coup d’Etat (cf la photo de l’annonce du coup d’Etat, sur laquelle on voit le pape copte Tawadros apparaître aux côtés du général al-Sissi et du nouveau Président de la transition), Jayson demandait à Dieu de protéger les Frères Musulmans de toute injustice, des arrestations arbitraires et de la marginalisation ! Hier encore, dans sa dernière prière, il demandait la paix et la protection pour tous.

Bref, un blog très intéressant d’une personne très intéressante, que, vous l’aurez compris, je recommande chaudement à tous ceux désireux de mieux comprendre les enjeux complexes des événements actuels en Egypte et au Moyen-Orient.

And finally, Barry Rubin, a researcher and scholar of Islamist movments based in a private university in Israel, referenced this blog in his recent publication on Egypt’s Salafis. I get footnote number 39, on the Asala Party:

There are two other Islamist parties that ran jointly with al-Nour in the parliamentary election and took the same stance in the presidential election.[35] The Asala or Authenticity party was formed after the revolution by Abel Abd al-Maqsoud Afifi. He had an unusual previous career for an Islamist leader, having worked for 33 years in the Egyptian government, mostly in the Immigration and Citizenship Department.[36]

One distinctive aspect of the party’s platform was its foreign policy, advocating that Egypt take leadership in the Islamic world.[37]In general, though, it has no clear reason, other than its personalist nature, for remaining a separate organization.[38] Like the other Islamist political parties, it does not openly advocate violence.[39]

The third Islamist party allied with al-Nour is the Building and Development Party, many of whose key figures were involved as al-Jama’a cadre in the 1990s violence.[40] Indeed, some of its leaders were convicted in 1982 in the assassination of President Anwar al-Sadat and were released from prison by the armed forces’ junta in March 2011.[41] Like the other two, it demands both the implementation of Shari’a while promising Christians and women that their rights will be respected.[42]

Thanks for following along.


Friday Prayers for Egypt: Cathedral Violence

Flag Cross Quran


It was an unprecedented offense, as this Coptic Orthodox cathedral has never before been besieged. But for several hours tear gas rained in a hailstorm of stones. Molotov cocktails exploded among volleys of birdshot. Two died. What died with them, God?

God, there is too much conspiracy – save Egypt from manipulation. Bring truth to light and expose the darkness in men’s hearts. But the darkness has infected everything, so that little can be known for sure. But certainty is on the lips of most.

All this for a funeral, God? Oh, that it was all spontaneous, as bad as that would be. An altercation outside Cairo devolved into the death of a Muslim and now six Christians. The funeral of the latter was held in the heart of Coptic Egypt, the seat of the pope. Politically charged, frustrated Copts chanted against the Muslim Brotherhood, and on exiting the cathedral were hit by stones thrown from neighboring residences. It is said Coptic youth smashed parked cars and picked fights with police. Perhaps, like countless times before, a street fight picked up steam and self-perpetuated.

But nowhere in Egypt had it self-perpetuated on sacred ground.

Egypt is tense, God, and if not desensitized, Egyptians are politically hyper-sensitive. So much is at stake, small things become combustible. Maybe the cathedral violence was Egyptian all natural. It is immeasurable sad this is the preferred scenario.

But the one conspiracy claims Copts hit themselves. What better way to discredit Islamists than sectarian tension in the Vatican of Coptic Orthodoxy? In cooperation with police trigger happy on the tear gas, a newly politicized pope can put longstanding charges of negligence in full view of the world. Not all need be planned, but set the stage and watch the sparks fly.

And the other conspiracy claims Islamists want nothing more than to distract the people through religious conflict. They can wash their hands officially, say all the right words, but paint the opposition with a sectarian lens. In light of papal support for establishment Azhar, this incident serves also to put them in their place.

God, how can Egyptians know?

Open their hearts, God, to know themselves first and foremost. Expose to each the depth of their blindness, sin, and self-deception. Here, all are guilty, but without malice. It is the state of mankind, but without your quickening, discernment is limited. Heal them, God, that they may heal their land.

And as their hearts open, God, open their eyes. May they see clearly, with simplicity. There are those who are playing games with the most sacred of subjects. Perhaps you care little for the symbolism, God, but you care greatly for integrity. For those guilty of the above, with malice, may you expose them to all.

Then God, with pure hearts and wide eyes, open their minds to new possibilities for their nation and selves. What is justice for the Egyptian, God? Lead him to know and structure his society accordingly. May creativity and conservatism hold hands.

And, God, may the hands of all be open. Open to embrace the other. Open, not for begging, but because the weapon has been dropped, the fist unclenched.

But for now, the cathedral, like these essential organs everywhere, remains shut. Open Egypt, for Egyptians. Open her to you.


Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Egypt’s Five Largest Denominations Unite for the First Time

Egypt Council of Churches
Egypt Council of Churches

From my recent article in Christianity Today, published February 22:

February 18, 2013 may prove a monumental day in the modern history of Egyptian Christianity. Heads of the five largest denominations – Coptic Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, Greek Orthodox, and Anglican – created the Egyptian Council of Churches. Since the dawn of Catholic and Protestant missions in the 17th and 18th Centuries, Egypt’s Christians stand united.

“I believe history will record this day as we celebrate the establishment of a council for all churches of Egypt,” said Pope Tawadros II of the Coptic Orthodox Church, which boasts approximately 90 percent of all Egyptian Christians. “I think such a step was delayed for years.”

The rest is a brief summary, in which participants actively deny any political role for the council, closing instead with these words of faith:

“The Lord has answered prayers which have been offered for thirty years,” said Baiady. “Our diversity must become a source of richness rather than a struggle.

“Unity is built on fruitful, humble love which favors the other over the self.”

Please click here to read the whole article, containing quotes also from the Catholic and Anglican representatives. It is a good step, a formal admission to the unity asserted by most Christians I know here.