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Christians in Egypt torn between church and citizenship

The January 25th Revolution in 2011 represented a real challenge to the structure of tyranny in Egypt at all levels, especially to the dominance of the Coptic Church and its distorted relationship with the Hosni Mubarak regime. Consequently, the church did not welcome the revolution and forbade its members from participating in the Tahrir Square demonstrations, deeming it as one of the greatest sins unpardonable by God, in this world and the hereafter.

It remains such that the relationships between the church and Christian Egyptians on one hand, and the church and the state on the other, see controversial issues rarely addressed fairly in research and media projects. It is too complex to address all the various aspects in one article, but I hope to shed light on one significant aspect, that of the intimate relationship between the Coptic Church and the repressive state apparatus, at the expense of the citizenship of the Christians in Egypt.

With the eruption of the revolution, the Christians called for their complete citizenship rights, meaning simply equality in rights and duties, both individual and collective. They also asked that this citizenship needs to exclude the church from the dealings between Christian citizens and the state, turning the it back into a religious institution only, involved with religious and spiritual matters and detached completely from politics. Henceforth, the church had no right to consider itself a representative of Christians and influence their political choices towards a particular presidential candidate or party. It is not the church’s right to be a mediator between Christian citizens and the state in the acquisition of their political rights and social and economic development, such as building houses of worship.

As a result, a number of Egyptian Christian groups have emerged, which talk openly, clearly and publicly about freedom from the church or revolting against it. This is a serious challenge to the Coptic Church and its legitimacy, just as it is a serious challenge to the deep state apparatus which benefits from having the Christians kept under the cloak of the church, dealing with them through it alone; this makes it easier to repress and use them as and when the deep state pleases.

Pope Shenouda received a lot of criticism from young Christians regarding his relationship with state institutions, with indications emerging of an approaching citizenship revolution of the Christians against the Coptic Church, emanating from the people’s revolution in Tahrir Square. This was further impetus for the church to enter into an alliance with the state, regardless of there being a history of the state persecuting Christians and the church. The legitimacy of the two institutions are at stake, with the outbreak of the revolution affecting the minds of Egyptian Christians. As such, it was necessary to rewire minds back to the fold of submission to the church, and thus to the state system.

A number of factors contributed to legitimising the church’s discourse as the exclusive interlocutor of Christians in Egypt, causing Christian consciousness to withdraw from the citizen-led revolution in terms of a citizen model within a national framework and transforming it into a sectarian model:

  1. Islamic speech, which is generally unenlightened towards minorities and the Christians in particular, such as speeches by Salafi movements which posed a potential threat to Christians by calling for their rights to be curtailed. They were described as the minority which must accept unfair conditions just because Christians do not belong to the religious majority. According to this narrative, it is not their right to assume executive positions in state institutions nor to build houses of worship, unlike the rights given to Muslims.
  2. The complicity of the state apparatus in its reluctance to protect institutions and the role of Christian worship, in addition to the lack of fair investigations and accountability for those involved in acts of sabotage, killing and destruction affecting Egyptian Christians and their property.
  3. Anti-Christian media propaganda and their portrayal as destroyers of the state apparatus, or hostility in media discourse, such as that which appeared so openly accompanying the events in Maspero on October 9th 2011, which led to the massacre of 26 civilians.

Indeed, the Coptic Church benefited from this situation whereby its legitimacy was strengthened as the protector of the People of the Book from persecution. Thus, it was natural to choose to return to the old system, because it knew that the only way to obtain legitimacy was linked to the existence of an oppressive unjust regime, keeping the people of the church in the plight of the minority, where they are presented as blame-free in the sanctuary from evil.

Moreover, it was well aware that Egypt’s transition to a democratic state meant the loss of church privileges along with those of its officials. It also meant that the Christians would leave the fold of the church to join the call for freedom from Tahrir Square and liberation from religious control. Thus, the church put forward two options to Egyptian Christians, both of which were bitter pills to swallow: either submit to the arms of the church and its hegemony, or sink into “difference” outside the national community.

There was, however, a third option, to which a group of Egyptian Christians are committed, despite being subjected to harassment and expulsion from the church, and from the state apparatus, by which they are considered to be a rogue religious authority, leaving them with no backing whatsoever. These citizens are committed to the path of collective struggle in the country where the state does not treat its people, whether Muslim or Christian, as citizens and has no regard for their blood, honour or property.

Thus, the real battle is the battle of citizenship, and reservations must be put aside and questions about the legitimacy of the church asked without shame about its relations with the repressive state and its deep networks beyond control. This, in addition to the church’s interventions in the lives of Christian citizens, imposing itself as a patron speaking exclusively to them whilst snatching away their national identity.

Translated from Al Araby Al Jadid 29 April, 2014

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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