Available languages:
Carta di credito
Christians in the Muslim World

A strong figure for a troubled Egypt

Interview with Father Rafic Antoine Greiche, Head of the Press Office of the Catholic Church in Egypt. by Meriem Senous

What was your experience of the election of the new Coptic Orthodox Pope?


I was invited to the drawing of the names. It was a beautiful ceremony lasting over four hours. The atmosphere was highly spiritual. After the mass they proceeded with the draw by a blindfolded child. All the Coptic bishops took part in it, in particular the Coptic Catholics represented by H.E. Msgr. Kyrillios William and H.E. Msgr. Boutros Fahim, H.E. Adel Zaki for the Latins, H.E. Msgr. Georges Shihan for the Maronites, the responsible for Affairs with the Nunciature, H.E. Msgr. Korian and then I was there as Greek-Catholic priest and journalist.



How did the Egyptian, Muslim and Christian media follow and highlight this event?


All the media, public and private, Muslim and Christian, gave great prominence to the event broadcasting the ceremony live on their television channels. Many Muslim Egyptians took interest in it and followed the ceremony too. As foreseen, the following day all the state newspapers, both Muslim and Christian, reported this news dedicating their front page to the election of the Coptic Pope Theodoros. Articles, comments, reportages of the ceremony, information on the figure of the new Pope. Furthermore, all the political parties, of all leanings, sent messages of congratulations to Pope Theodoros. And Muslim friends even say ‘Mabrouk’ to me, or ‘congratulations’ for the new Pope.



And the politicians?


At official level President Marsi himself sent a message of congratulations. Only the Salafites refused to send their wishes to the new Pope Theodoros since they do not recognise his authority. In recent days there was even an incident which, even if not serious, is symptomatic of a tense situation. A small group of Salafites invaded the bishopric of Shoubra el-Kheima, to the south of Cairo, where Msgr. Anba Morkos works, spokesman for the Coptic Orthodox Church. They occupied one of the offices of the bishopric rechristening it ‘God’s mosque’, laid out their carpets and said Muslim prayers.



How is this gesture to be interpreted?


It is a provocation, but also a message directed in particular at that bishop, Msgr. Morkos. Their target is not any bishop, as he is not the bishop of a small village, but their message was directed at the official representative of the Coptic Orthodox Church.



How does Pope Theodoros present himself to the public and media?


I noticed that the day following his election he gave interviews to all the Egyptian newspapers and appeared on national television. A strong personality emerges from his speeches, in a positive sense, as he speaks with confidence and conviction. Having to deal with the media and give interviews is something completely new for him. He has never been a public figure, known to the media. He has always worked discreetly, behind the scenes. Now however, considering his new position, he will have to come out more and speak more.



In some parts of his first speech he insisted a great deal on the commitment of the Christians in public life, encouraging them not to isolate themselves and to take part in political and social life...


It is true that the Christians have been emarginated. And we all agree that they must come out of their isolation and participate more in the public and political life of their country. The new Pope stressed all this very firmly. He said that the Christians must not shut themselves off in the Church areas, but rather come out to take part more actively in social and public life like all other Egyptians. He repeats incessantly: ‘The young are the pillars of the future and ample room must be given to them. We have a space reserved for them at their disposal. We will teach them languages, manual work so that they can build personal projects. A young person who has studied and cannot find work remains unemployed. A high number of unemployed constitutes a danger for society’.



A challenge that Pope Theodoros must face is represented by Egypt’s transition phase which is preparing a new constitution…


It must be highlighted that sharî‘a is already applied in Egypt in particular in the family code, the personal statute. Sharî‘a is already the source of Egyptian legislation. The Salafites want there to be no laws that contradict sharî‘a and the ahkâm, the norms of sharî‘a, to be the source of legislation. They want to modify Article 2 of the constitution and substitute the reference to the principles of sharî‘a with the application of the norms of sharî‘a, that is the hudûd [corporal punishment foreseen by the Koran], something that the Christians do not want and nor do the mainstream Muslims. In that case the Christians will be considered dhimmî and will also have to pay the jizya. They will be relegated to the level of second class citizens.



Do you think that the Salafites will be able to impose their point of view?


There are still problems within the Constituent Committee, but we are waiting for the sentence from the High Constitutional Court which could resolve this problem. If this Committee is dissolved, President Mursi, who belongs to the Muslim Brothers, will have to set up another.



President Mursî congratulated Pope Theodoros and declared that he will take part in the taking of office ceremony if he is invited…


He is an open person of good will, but he takes orders from his party to which he is accountable. It must be recognised in his favour that since he was elected President in July 2012, he has received the bishops three times, while Mubarak waited twenty years before receiving Pope Shenouda III. He has received the bishops, announced the need to promulgate new laws in favour of the construction of churches and Christian families. He then posed for the official photos and it all ended there. This is not true only for the Christians but concerns also other contexts. He has made many promises at economic and social level but nothing has been done yet. Even at the level of daily life: nothing has been done about the cutting off of gas and electricity or rubbish collection. He had promised to resolve these problems in the first hundred days of office, but these have passed and the problems remain and get worse. For my part, I always have the hope which comes from my faith.

Stay up to date: sign up for our newsletter

For insights and analysis subscribe to our biannual journal