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Middle East and Africa

‘Can I remain Seated while the Egyptian People is Demonstrating?’

Interview with Tawadros II, Pope of the Copts and Patriarch of Alexandria, by Fr. Rafic Greiche, Fr. Sharîf Nâshif, Mary as-Samîn and Michael Victor.

Pope Tawadros II, who has led the Coptic Church since 2012, in a conversation on a broad front with exponents of the Catholic Church in Egypt explains the stances that have been taken over the last year in Egyptian public life and illustrates the way things are as regards the journey of the two Churches drawing closer to one another.



How do you remember your meeting with His Holiness Pope Francis on 10 May 2013?



The trip to the Vatican was my first visit after the start of my service as Pope…The meeting with Pope Francis and the meeting of the Coptic and Catholic Churches was an unforgettable day in my life and in that of the Coptic Church. I was very much struck by the personality of Pope Francis. We felt the love that flowed from this meeting and the conversations during the trip and we were struck by the smile and the simplicity of Pope Francis and his interest in this visit. In common prayer with Pope Francis, we felt as though we were in heaven. We discussed many things that unite the Orthodox Church with the Catholic Church, amongst which the question of the criteria of holiness. I spoke to Pope Francis about Pope Kyrillos VI, who is seen by students as the ‘protector of exams’, even though they had never met him and Pope Francis observed: ‘The spirit of God moves their hearts and this is a sufficient reason to affirm the holiness of Pope Kyrillos VI’…There was a series of situations which showed how much Pope Francis is lovable and extraordinary. At the end of the visit Pope Francis interrupted his meeting with the Cardinals and came out to greet us and to say farewell; standing beside me, while awaiting the arrival of the cars that were going to take us to Rome airport, he joked, when these were a few minutes late: ‘did you get all the suitcases right?’ It was a spiritual visit which led to a revivification of the spirit of love and brotherhood between the two Churches.



Do you think that theological dialogue between the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church will continue and achieve a pathway towards the unity of the Churches of the Lord?



There is a commission on doctrine which brings together the Easter Orthodox family and the Catholic Church and this meets every year in January. His Eminence Bishop Bishoi, His Eminence Bishop Barnaba, His Eminence Bishop Daniele and Father Shenouda Maher of America belong to it. Together the commission discusses theological and doctrinal questions and continues to work for the good of the Church. Thus we had an idea which we subsequently studied, namely ‘the unification of the event of Easter at the level of the Churches in the world’, and this study will be sent to all the Churches of the world, first of all the Church of Rome, because the difference concerning the date of Easter is a difference as regards the astronomical calendar and is not of a theological character. We chose the third and fourth Sundays of the month of April. This will make it easier to have this idea accepted so that the Christians of the world can celebrate the resurrection of the Lord Jesus on the same day. And there is also another objective: there are many Egyptian and Arab Christians who have emigrated and celebrate Easter in line with their communities, but the festivity of Easter and holy week in these countries are held according to the Western calendar. The result is that when the two calendars diverge, Eastern Christians cannot celebrate the Triduum [as festive days].



The Holy Synod of your Church has examined the question of baptism and communion for Catholics. What point has this study reached? Is there a dialogue with the Catholic Church on this point? Have you thought of consulting the Catholic Churches in order to learn about the theology of their baptism and immersion in the baptismal font?



Yes, in fact there is a commission which has the task of studying and discussing this question. Hitherto, we have dealt with cases of mixed marriages between Catholics and Orthodox. The decision is left to the discretion and rules of the local bishop, case by case, and to a dispensation of the Pope. However, we believe that the Catholic Church is a traditional and apostolic Church, and that in it is found the effusion of the Holy Spirit and the seven sacraments. As regards consulting the Churches, we did not have this idea, but it is worthy of respect.



Your Holiness recently visited the Evangelical Church (the first visit of a Copt Patriarch to this Church), in the same way as you visited the Catholic and Orthodox Churches on the occasion of Christmas and founded with them the Council of the Churches of Egypt. What feelings does Your Holiness have towards these Churches? Do you believe that the Council of the Churches of Egypt has begun to perform its role or do we still have to wait?



Every opportunity that God gives man to express love must be seized. In the Christian context the norm is unity and the exception is separation or division…our origins are that we are one, and thus to speak about differences reveals a lack of understanding of the nature of Christ who is without doubt ‘one’, ‘a single body’. As a consequence, through every service that we perform we must contribute to expressing the feelings of love that will lead to unity. As regards the Council of the Churches of Egypt, I am not satisfied because the Council can do more. At the same time, I have lived through a year full of events and when we had a meeting of the Council we decided that we would see the first year as year ‘zero’. Now year ‘one’ has begun. Before this new responsibility of mine, I was entrusted with the commission for childhood of the Holy Synod and I was satisfied with it. When I was a child I spent a very happy childhood, both in my little family (my father and my mother) and in my wider family (the Church). For this reason, I know that life is difficult for a child who is deprived of his family and of everything – an environment, the Church, a home, food. I once worked for three days on a seminar on poor children and all kinds of deprivation, and it was a very important seminar. A healthy family generates healthy children.



How can we as authentic Christians educate in a new spirit of love, and of unity, in the face of some voices that speak the language of sectarianism?



The most difficulty problem that we are faced with as human beings is ‘closed minds’; for this reason I said in my investiture address that Christians are united by three shared principles of the Christian faith: Christ is one, the Gospel is one, and the purpose is one – to achieve the kingdom of heaven. Yes, there are fundamental differences, but the foundations are the same and when we concentrate on these foundations we can educate the new generations to accept the other. The atmosphere of tension and fear as regards communicating with the other Churches goes back to the epoch of the Western colonisation of Egypt which brought to the country a way of thinking that was purely Western. The Egyptian national Church was afraid that this could cause what was called a ‘hunt’ of its faithful. Despite the difficulty of this term, this situation is still of contemporary relevance in Egypt, differently from the case of our Churches abroad where the situation is very different. Sincerely I have to say that 50% of our Coptic churches [abroad] began within Catholic churches and when a priest was appointed in a locality he first of all sought accommodation in a Catholic church, where he found a warm welcome, as he did in Episcopalian and Anglican churches. We have great hope that this problem will be solved at a local level, above all given the role performed by the Council of the Churches of Egypt and the projects involving service that are shared by the Copt Orthodox Church and the agencies of the Catholic Church and the Evangelical Church in Egypt, and taking into consideration the meetings of young people who belong to all the confessions. We are preparing a large ecumenical meeting for young people. All these initiatives cement a spirit of unity in people’s spirits.



Your Holiness has made some audacious political declarations in many interviews. Is it your view that the Church has a political role that is of no small account?



When we speak about its political role and national role, both are important, but naturally its national role is fundamental and what the Egyptian Church has done is to relaunch its national role. On 30 June the Egyptian people with its various loyalties was at boiling point and ousted the head of the government. For this reason I believe that what I did on 3 July was a way of expressing myself. You can take part in demonstrations and raise the flag of Egypt. This was something I did not do, but I was able to take part in the consultations of that day. The participation of the Church on 3 July 2013 was a national and not a political participation, a participation for Egypt, as I said in my address after the announcement. The Pope asked himself: ‘Can I remain seated where I am while the whole of the Egyptian people is demonstrating in the streets?’ Therefore I exhorted people to interact socially and this was honesty and responsibility because Egypt is like the temple of Karnak. It is the columns that support this large temple: the Egyptian Church is one of those columns and if it is hit the whole country is lost. The columns are the Egyptian Church, al-Azhar, the judicial system, the army, its art and its language, and none of these can exclude any of the others. Bringing back to the fore the national role of the Egyptian Church has been difficult above all because it had been marginalised over the decades and my destiny is to live in this epoch.



When the Church took a stance on 30 June in favour of the people’s revolt, all Christians had the feeling that Pope Tawadros was the Pope not only of the Copts but also of all the Egyptians. In your view what are the greatest problems of the Christians of Egypt? What do you say to those families who wish to emigrate?



The Council of the Churches of Egypt is a unique organisation that publishes unique declarations for all Egyptians. Personally, as Pope of the Egyptian Church, I feel that my responsibility extends to all Egyptians and not only to Christians. At the moment of my first investiture they described me as ‘the new Pope of Egypt’. My personal feeling is this – to serve and not to direct. It is for this reason that my office is open to everyone, without any exceptions.


Immigration is a personal question. The Egyptians are very tied to their land and Egypt from a historical and geographical point of view is ‘a river, a land, a people’. God alone knows the many reasons that have led Egyptians to leave but we are here for our children, we take care of them and we help them not to emigrate. We do not encourage them to leave the country even when they find themselves in difficult situations. The Bible says ‘In the world there will be tribulations’. Egypt is a country where Christ, blessed by the Holy Family, set foot. At times God allows some individuals to emigrate in order to reawaken the faith of other countries that have lost it and which have distanced themselves from God. For example, in Vienna our church has an external iron wall which impedes people from seeing it. The Cardinal, a truly exceptional man whom I have met, one day when he was passing in front of the church saw a group of women and young people in the garden. He asked them about the life and activities of the church and they answered him that it was an Orthodox church. The Cardinal then wanted to meet the Orthodox bishop and he gave him a second church, one that was about to be abolished in another area of the city. The emigration that we encourage is between African countries because the development of these countries constitutes riches for the whole region. Recently I appointed a married priest, who lived in Canada, to be responsible together with his wife for a church in Ghana.



What does Your Holiness think about the role of the ‘House of the Family’? What are relations with al-Azhar like?



It is important for the Church to have relations of love with everyone; there is an institution in Egyptian society that unites the Church to al-Azhar and this institution is the House of the Family, an institution that was born only four years ago but which in time has become increasingly influential. There is a special and good relationship with His Excellency the Imam Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayyeb. We are always in contact with each other and we discuss many things…



Your Holiness has proposed that 10 May should be a festive day for the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church. How do you imagine the commemorative celebrations?



In Egypt we imagine a friendly meeting with the Patriarch Ibrahim Ishaq [the Patriarch of the Catholic Copts] and perhaps a collective meeting. Abroad, in Europe, we have decided to hold a series of initiatives involving both Churches: lectures, seminars, visits, trips…



Has anything new happened as regards the closed churches and the law about places of worship and the single personal status [for all Christians]?



As regards the places of worship, with a number of jurists we are preparing an amendment to certain articles which will be presented to the first elected parliament. As regards, on the other hand, the code of personal status, the questions to be addressed are very many in number and we have just one clerical council. We have begun to prepare six other clerical councils. The council is valid for three years and is made up of a bishop, a lawyer, two priests and a medical doctor. They meet just once a year. As regards the personal code for all relations with the state, this is work that has been at a standstill for thirty-five years, which God certainly has had His reasons to block, and which must now be taken into consideration again. There are jurists who are working make changes to it because at the moment it includes many laws. With the grace of God, we will manage to finish it. There is nothing better than a specific law for Christians, but it should be placed within a state settlement.



The mentality of young people has changed and become revolutionary. Some of them could push others to adopt mistaken positions…how will the Church communicate with them in the near future?



The first way to approach young people is through dialogue, and no longer monologue (speaking and making yourself listened to while the other person keeps quiet). In today’s world young people have become rebels against the status quo, against power, against schools, against the home, against high functionaries of the Church…However, an important clarification is required: all forms of authority can be changed with the exception of paternal authority. I met a young man who opposed a matter and I asked him: ‘Is it really possible that the Church is dearer to you than it is to me and that in the Holy Synod, which is made up of 115 bishops, there is no living voice and all of them are drugged and asleep?’



Before the referendum on the Constitution, everyone was surprised by the declaration of Pope


Tawadros – ‘Yes increases grace’ [in Arabic here there is a play on words between na‘am, ‘yes’, and ni‘am, ‘grace’]. Some people were happy but others were angry that the Church had entered politics.



We took part in the committee for the Constitution and the formulation of number of its articles; we threatened to withdraw when we refused to accept some articles and, once the agreement on the Constitution had been found, how could I say ‘no to the Constitution’ if the Church had said ‘yes’? I do not force anyone to agree; indeed I say this as an Egyptian citizen who loves this country and not as the Patriarch. Young people need dialogue and not orders…



What is your view as regards the question of Jerusalem and on the prohibition of the Copts going there? Is the prohibition still in force or is there a new resolution?



First of all this resolution was approved in special circumstances at the time of Pope Kyrillos and not of Pope Shenouda, even though the official decree goes back to the pontificate of Pope Shenouda. For a long time it was not activated. In 1967 there was the war and the journeys began to be interrupted, and thus Pope Kyrillos decided to prohibit journeys to Jerusalem and extended this resolution to the pontificate of Pope Shenouda for a period of twenty years. Then there emerged the problem of the normalisation of relations between Egypt and Israel and the peace treaty; things changed and this question came to the surface. There is normalisation between the two countries but not between the two peoples; however we make an exception for the elderly who feel that they are near the end of their lives and wish for the blessing of the holy places and for people who have other nationalities and whom I cannot prevent from leaving.



Your Excellency, a few words of love for the children of the Catholic Church in Egypt…



In general all relationships of charity give me joy; I am joyous when I meet His Beatitude the Patriarch Ibrahim Ishaq, the bishops, the religious Orders, and when I learn about their activities, both in schools and in places of care, such as ‘The Seven Girls’ [a religious institute in Alexandria]...I have a solid relationship with them, I concern myself with the activities of the two Churches together and I feel the desire to pray to remove all barriers and differences. We must think of those things that draw us together. And the idea of unifying the day of Easter will draw us together even more.



The meeting, just as it began in a warm way, also ended with feelings of mutual love and the raising of our arms to heaven in saying the Lord’s prayer.




*Conversation published in The Messenger/Hâmil al-Risâla, a weekly of the Catholic Church in Egypt, on Sunday 4 May 2014. Translation from the Arabic by Ines Peta.