A Coptic Christian priest blesses his congregation with holy water during Sunday service in the Virgin Mary Church at Samalout Diocese in Al-Our village, in Minya governorate, south of Cairo, May 3, 2015. - REUTERS/Stringer
CAIRO – 5 March 2018: A position like that of the Coptic Orthodox Pope of Alexandria can very easily influence an entire region; and this is no surprise. The Vatican has been exerting power for centuries. It is no different for Christians in the Middle East and Africa. Lebanon’s dominant political denomination has always been Maronite Christians – they have always been the ones to govern the country. Coptic Orthodox Christianity, perhaps the oldest form of Christianity existent, was born in Egypt. The kind of political influence such an institution has is not to be underestimated.
The Pope of the Orthodox Church of Alexandria has supported the Egyptian state for as long as both institutions have existed. Holding strongly to their national identity, the Coptic Orthodox Church recognized that it has to ally itself with the government of its homeland rather than the government of anywhere else. They were Copts – Egyptians, and they wanted to remain Egyptians. They weren’t simply holding on to their religious identities, they were holding on to their national ones as well. ‘Copt’ was a stronger word than ‘Orthodox Christian’ for them. Let’s not forget when they used to chant “Raise your head up, you are a Copt.” Not a Christian; a Copt.
But much like with any other religious institution in a country where the literacy rate was not anything to be proud of, most people, especially those of the lower classes with minimal literacy, adhered only to what their religious leaders preached. They do not care for politics, even if they argue politics as though they were born in the presidential palace, nor do they care for power. Whatever minimal hopes they have for a decent life, and a decent livelihood for them and their children, they poured into their religious beliefs and worship practices. That did not only hold true for those classes – it really held true for anyone who simply was not bothered by politics as a whole, for anyone who perceived that their role in politics is basically nonexistent, and that they might as well plan for their afterlife, rather than worry about the one they could not control.
Pope Tawadros II in Sydney, Australia - Photo courtesy of Coptic Orthodox Church Spokesperson Facebook page
According to Magdi Guirguis, a theological and historical researcher and a professor at the American University in Cairo, the Church was the main actor that prompted Copts to join or refrain from joining the revolutions of the past years. Even though many did join the 2011 Revolution when it erupted, Pope Shenouda III specifically refrained Copts from joining the protests or even being near Tahrir Square. In fact, because many Copts ignored the patriarch’s warnings, the January 25 Revolution went down in history as the revolution that unified Egypt’s two religious sectors.
Similarly, when the revolution against ousted President Mohamed Morsi took place, Pope Tawadros II, Pope Shenouda’s successor, supported the protests heavily.
“The Coptic Patriarch’s stance in support of the June 30, 2013 protests has been linked to the killing of a Coptic priest in Sinai days after Morsi’s fall. This incident is the latest in a series of developments in Egyptian history in which the country’s Coptic community has played the role of a litmus test for the national ideal,” Laure Guirguis wrote in a Stanford CDDRL paper.
It is no surprise then, that political officials from all around the world hold meetings with the Pope. Let’s not forget Mike Pence’s embarrassment when Pope Tawadros refused to meet with him post-Jerusalem decision.
Part of the Church’s power, that is in Egypt specifically, comes from the fact that Copts are an extremely tight-knit community, making it very easy for the Church’s power to disseminate amongst them; especially since Egyptians and Middle Easterners in general are known to hold steadfastly to their cultures, traditions and religious beliefs.
Just like most Egyptians and most Arabs, Copts also were following the rules of their religions, and that is why the Church holds power over them.
It was also thanks to their Church’s ideology and their leaders that when numerous attacks were carried out on churches in Egypt and when 21 Copts were slaughtered in Libya, no one sought revenge. They sought reformation of state policies to garner more rights, naturally. But no one carried out any attacks as revenge. No one thought like that. No one even aimed for it or attempted it.
Both the state and the Church realized that no good would come if one rivaled the other. The Copts were too held onto their status as ‘Copts’ to ask for help from outside (when the attacks were taking place) and the state was not willing to see one sector of its population, even if it had different views than the government’s or the majority’s, become estranged.
This article is part of Egypt Today’s series on Christianity's political role in the region. Tomorrow's article will feature the role of Christianity in Jerusalem.