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Christians in the Muslim World

From Nasser to Sisi, the Difficult Balance of the Copts

Coptic Christian cathedral in Egyptian desert, St. Paul monastery [Shutterstock.com]

Despite growing voices of dissent within the community, the upcoming elections in Egypt could confirm the positioning of Christians in support of the President

Last update: 2018-03-06 16:20:52

In the small village of al-Ur, in the south of Egypt, a cathedral dedicated to the 21 Copts beheaded in 2015 by the Islamic State in Libya was inaugurated in February.

 

Financed by the government, the new church is part of the strategy of President ‘Abd al Fattah al-Sisi, who will run for a second term in office in an election in March, to strengthen the alliance with the Coptic Church. Following in the footsteps of his predecessor Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasser, today the ra’is is trying to overcome the criticism of those who accuse the state of not doing enough to protect the rights of Christians in Egypt.

 

On June 25, 1968, Nasser, President of the Egyptian Republic, inaugurated the new Coptic cathedral in the center of Cairo during a solemn ceremony, together with Patriarch Cyril VI.

 

The ra’is was directly involved in various ways. First of all, with a generous financial contribution that was donated personally to the Egyptian Church to build the new place of worship, with the help of newly nationalized companies.

 

Then speeding up the process to obtain permission to build new churches, a process that used to get lost in bureaucratic procedures most often inconclusive. And again, in the heartfelt speech held when the foundation stone was laid, on July 24, 1965, aimed at spreading a message of brotherhood and cooperation between the two Egyptian religious communities. But it was above all the presence of Nasser at the entire inaugural ceremony, immortalized hand in hand with Cyril VI, to confer to the sacrality of the event a markedly political aspect.

 

This meeting, indeed, marked the beginning of a long cooperation between the Egyptian government and the Alexandrian patriarchate, which would have ensured the constant and undying support of the Coptic community to the Egyptian regimes and an inclusion (albeit often only apparent) of Christians in the social and political system.

1965: the beginning of a long cooperation between the government and the Alexandrian patriarchate

 

The coup carried out in July 1952 by the Free Officers Movement radically changed not only the form of government – the monarchy gave way to a republican system – but also the ideological, political, social and economic spheres.

 

The early Fifties, with the presidency of Muhammad Naguib (1953-54), were the years of the strengthening of military’s power: since the beginning, the military vigorously promoted the implementation of a policy that envisaged the involvement of the Coptic community (an ancient presence, whose percentage in today’s Egypt is estimated at about 10 percent of the population) in support of the new government, calling all Egyptians to unity, equality and respect for the national ideal.

 

In the same years, a number of policies was launched which, besides hitting the old regime and the elites who supported it, caused enormous damage to the Coptic community.

The military vigorously promoted a policy that envisaged the involvement of the Coptic community

 

From the agrarian reform of 1952 to the law of unification of the jurisdictions of 1955, passing through the nationalizations of 1957 and 1960, the Copts suffered a serious loss of prestige and a series of economic and social restrictions. However, these reforms were not aimed at protecting the interests and traditions of one group at the expense of another, but were part of the political and economic program of the revolutionaries and their major representative, Gamal ‘Abd Nasser, who was elected President of the Republic in 1956.

 

Nasser, in his attempt to modernize and strengthen the state structures of the new republican Egypt, intervened in the difficult relationship between political power and religion, integrating the aspects linked to faith within a broader project that could provide the regime with legitimacy and popular support.

 

Nasser and Cyril VI

The joint appeal to the Egyptian nation became the instrument through which the government succeeded in suppressing tensions between religious groups, but above all for the Coptic community it represented the opportunity to rediscover an area of ​​public and social participation taking part in memorable events and in the difficult moments the Nasser regime had to face, such as the Six-Day War.

 

An important step in the direction of greater cooperation between the Church and the regime was taken thanks to the personal relationship established between Nasser and Cyril VI, elected in 1959. From that moment, the Patriarch began to interact directly with the Egyptian President, coming across more as a political than a spiritual guide, and Nasser began to recognize the Patriarch’s leadership, weakening the dissenting voices within the community.

 

This friendship marked the golden age of inter-confessional relationships in Egypt, symbolically represented by the images of that day, June 25, when the rais and the Patriarch entered the new cathedral together, to seal the devotion of the Copts to political power.

 

Sisi and Tawadros II

After just over fifty years, it was the current President, ‘Abd al Fattah al-Sisi, who wanted to publicly renew the pact with a majestic ceremony. On January 6, 2018, on the occasion of the Coptic Christmas, the current Egyptian rais inaugurated with Patriarch Tawadros II the new cathedral that, according to the President’s intentions, should become the largest Christian church in the Middle East.

 

Built 40 kilometers east of Cairo, on the site that will see the rise of the “New Cairo” (the future administrative and financial capital of Egypt according to a government plan of urban expansion ), the cathedral was built in record time so that the Egyptian authorities could show this goal on a solemn occasion.

 

The iconographic and symbolic reference to Nasser and Cyril VI is clear: the current Egyptian President Sisi wants to renew the covenant agreement of collaboration established with the Church years ago, thus trying to overcome the criticism of those who accuse the state of not doing enough to safeguard the rights and protection of Christians in Egypt. And the speech held by Sisi, restating the call for national unity between Christians and Muslims without divisions or differences, echoes the words often used by Nasser in his public speeches. But the churches in Cairo look like fortresses nowdays, because of the enormous security measures stepped up by the government in every place of worship around the country: a consequence of the violence that in recent years has seen the Copts become the new target of ISIS terrorist attacks.

The current Egyptian President Sisi wants to renew the covenant agreement of collaboration established with the Church years ago

From the killing and forced evacuation of several dozens of Christians in 2017 in al-Arish, the capital city of the North Sinai governorate – where a vast anti-terrorist operation of the armed forces is now taking place–, to the brutal attack of December 11 2016 at the Coptic cathedral in Cairo, and the double attack on Palm Sunday, April 9, 2017, in Tanta, in the Nile Delta region, and in Alexandria: the latest attacks against the Copts suggest that terrorist violence is no longer confined to the Sinai peninsula but is instead moving towards the main urban centers, putting a strain on the validity of Sisi’s vows to preserve Egypt’s security, a pivot of his propaganda.

 

And in addition to acts of violence and intimidation, the conditions of political, economic and social discrimination still weigh on the most numerous Christian community in the Arab world.

 

This situation is what a memorandum, submitted last December 21 to the American Congress by six U.S. lawmakers, has tried to bring out, highlighting the presence of a systematic discrimination of Copts in Egypt led by the President ‘Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

 

It is not the first time that an external interference triggers bitter controversies and condemnations in the country: the response prepared by the Egyptian Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee has tried to refute the theses contained in the U.S. memorandum, praising the President’s actions to defeat radical groups that aim at breaking the unity between Christians and Muslims, and to reaffirm the full rights of citizenship for all Egyptians without any differentiation.

 

Aligned to the official response of the government, some Coptic lawmakers also expressed their disappointment towards the conclusions reached by the memorandum, stating that the persistence of sectarian violence and intimidation against the Copts cannot be attributed to the current political leadership.

 

On March 26 - 28, the presidential elections will be held and in the absence of credible opponents, forced to withdraw or arrested in recent months, the result in favor of Sisi, who will run for a second term, seems obvious.

 

As in the past, the Coptic Church has declared to stand alongside the President, ready to support the electoral campaign. This occurred despite the presence of a dissident movement within the community that has long claimed a return of the Church to her original spiritual task, now obscured by the merely political one, which has in fact engulfed the secular institutions of the community. These are the voices of a large group of young Copts who participated in the 2011 uprising and who became the bearer of demands for democracy, freedom and full political participation, freed from identity and sectarian dynamics. Aspirations which were soon drowned in the convulsive phases of the transition.

 

Patriarch Tawadros II, in fact, seems totally in line with government policy, renewing that famous pact between politics and religion that had its highest expression in the years of Nasser and which is now newly presented right before the new election. It is no coincidence that a number of places of worship have recently received funds for restoration works.

 

Despite the so far unsuccessful counter-terrorism operations launched in Sinai and, above all, the economic condition of the country (with inflation at 18 percent, youth unemployment almost at the 40 percent threshold and the poverty rate going from 28 percent to 33 percent from 2015 to today), Sisi’s government still represents for the Copts of Egypt a barrier of protection and the guarantee of political stability. And the upcoming elections could once again confirm the positioning of the Christian community led by the Patriarch faithfully at the side of the rais, despite the voices of many young copts and intellectuals resonate with criticism towards the President’s authoritarianism.

 

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Oasis International Foundation

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