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41. Death of a Pope: The Worsening Position of Egypt’s Copts?

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Article title: 
41. Death of a Pope: The Worsening Position of Egypt’s Copts?
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Year: 
2012
Week: 
14
Article number: 
41
Date of source: 
April 4, 2012
Author: 
Cornelis Hulsman
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Ph.D. candidate, Emma Hayward wrote an interesting analysis for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy on the current status of Coptic Christians in relation to the Egyptian state and concludes that their position is weakening. While it is true that Coptic Christians are now without an authoritative leader to give them voice, in particular in church-state relations, it is not true that they are “leaderless”. The Coptic Orthodox Church, to which around 95 percent of all Christians in Egypt belong, is now ruled by the Holy Synod. However, it is certainly true that Pope Shenouda was an authority and that most Copts believe they need a similarly strong leader to rule the church.

Ph.D. candidate, Emma Hayward wrote an interesting analysis for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy on the current status of Coptic Christians in relation to the Egyptian state and concludes that their position is weakening. While it is true that Coptic Christians are now without an authoritative leader to give them voice, in particular in church-state relations, it is not true that they are “leaderless”. The Coptic Orthodox Church, to which around 95 percent of all Christians in Egypt belong, is now ruled by the Holy Synod. However, it is certainly true that Pope Shenouda was an authority and that most Copts believe they need a similarly strong leader to rule the church.

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Hayward’s description of Pope Shenouda is correct as is her conclusion that “notwithstanding Shenouda's centralizing measures, the Coptic community today is more fragmented than it has been since the early 1960s.” It is true that Pope Shenouda allowed churches to be built without special permission from the state. This often went well, but at times this also resulted in conflicts between Muslims and Christians as described in Arab-West Report. He was indeed working on removing Copts from the jurisdiction of Sharī’ah inheritance law, and adopting a unified legal code for all Christians in Egypt. “All of these reforms were in process when Mubarak was overthrown last February, but their current status is unclear,” Hayward writes. The discussion on a unified legal code for all Christians in Egypt was much desired, but had also been dragging on for many years with no conclusion in sight. This is typical in a country where authorities habitually and intentionally delayed reforms which they in reality did not want or feared Islamist opposition if they would implement a certain new law.

The current status is indeed unclear. There is resistance in some Islamic groups to changes but on the other and there are also indications that some leaders of the Freedom and Justice Party want dialogue. I think Copts should use each opportunity to express their grievances and wishes to Islamists leaders.

The proportion of Copts is obviously important to Hayward since this is mentioned on three different occasions in her text. She first claims that Copts make up “approximately 10 percent of Egypt's population,” linking this to a comment that the one hundred drafters for the new constitutions “include just six Copts,” making her conclude that thus it “will be even less likely to take into account the concerns of the Coptic community.”

Hayward later repeats the argument that Copts are underrepresented: “The 100-person constitutional assembly includes very few delegates likely to be sympathetic to Coptic demands. Indeed, only six of them are Christian -- two of whom are members of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party. On his deathbed, the pope had attempted to use his remaining political clout to secure more seats for Copts in the assembly, but fell short.” She concludes that Copts are thus facing an “underrepresentation in the assembly,” which is not true. It seems Hayward is not aware of the studies of Philip Fargues, author of many studies on the statistics of Christians in the Arab World, who is convinced that the proportion of Copts in Egypt does not exceed six percent.

It is good Hayward mentioned that two out of the six Copts are members of the Freedom and Justice Party since it is certainly not true that Coptic members of this party would represent one-third of Coptic Christians in Egypt.

In her conclusion, Hayward returns to the proportion of Copts in Egypt: “At less than 10 percent of the population, the Copts are hardly a counterweight to the Islamist Muslim Brothers and Salafists who control nearly 75 percent of the parliament and who appointed the constitutional assembly. Yet the lack of an effective Coptic minority voice at the table will only further diminish the chance that Egypt's constitution will represent and protect all Egyptians.” It is not true that these Islamists “appointed the constitutional assembly,” but it is true that they had a large say in this.

Mentioning the proportion of Copts in three different places in her article and continuously linking this to the argument to underrepresentation shows that the proportion of Copts is a key argument in her text. It is then sad that the proportion presented is incorrect, undermining a good part of her argument in an otherwise well-written article.

Hayward states that “the Coptic community's best chance of achieving desired reforms may be to strike some kind of bargain with members of the current assembly. But this can happen only if the community agrees on priorities.” She is right and shows that it is unfortunately unlikely that the community will agree on priorities. “At a recent conference on the new constitution, Coptic leftists saw individual citizenship rights and equality before the law regardless of religion as the most important issue, whereas Orthodox priests spoke of resolving problems with inheritance law and divorce. Meanwhile, anecdotal evidence suggests that obtaining the right to build churches without state permission is important to nearly all Egyptian Copts.”

Copts wish church building without state permission? I have been observing these discussions in person and I do not think this formulation is accurate. Coptic intellectuals have been arguing for many years for equality in regulations between church and mosque-building, which is not equal to building without any state interference. It is a fact, however, that in 2011 most new churches and the expansion of existing churches was happening with hardly any state interference because currently, the state is mostly absent and thus all Egyptians make use of this to almost build as they like. 

Hayward: “To secure the reforms they are pushing for, however, secularists and traditionalists will need to work together because although church leaders have more clout within the Coptic community, Coptic leftists are often better at connecting with Egyptian society at large.” This is certainly true.

“Particularly since more than twenty Christians, leftists, and reformers walked out of the constitutional assembly on the basis that it is insufficiently representative, the Coptic community may find that negotiation and external pressure are the only levers left to them, unless the current assembly is disbanded and a new one selected,” Hayward concludes. Regretfully she has adopted the arguments of Christians she met that they were insufficiently represented without really looking into the various Western studies that exist on Coptic statistics. I, however, fully agree with her that negotiation is a major tool left to them. I disagree to the external pressure since this has the proven tendency to backfire for Copts in Egypt.

 

 

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