Egypt, the Copts, religion and the search for a livable future

By Harry Hagopian
April 6, 2012

It is not an overstatement to suggest that a majority of Copts have seen their lives being profoundly affected over the past few years whether in terms of their identity and role within Egyptian society or else in terms of the political challenges facing them. At times, the entire community has felt somewhat besieged and apprehensive of the future.

Throughout those changes - whether during Hosni Mubarak’s presidency or in the aftermath of the 25 January 2011 revolution - the late Pope Shenouda III was the indissoluble glue that helped hold the community together. Many Copts will have surely disagreed with him on some issues but his presence as leader of a large and important Oriental Orthodox Church could not be ignored at will. In fact, so raw has been the anguish of many Copts over his death that the monastery of Mar Bishoy in Wadi Natroun where he was interred last week had to be shut in order to avoid more accidental deaths from the faithful masses congregating at his tomb in order to receive his posthumous blessing.

But now that the immediate and livid emotive scenes have begun to yield to a longer-term sober assessment of the future, prominent Coptic Egyptian thinkers the likes of Michael Fahmy are already calling for the establishment of a ‘Christian Brotherhood’ along the same lines as the Muslim Brotherhood movement in Egypt. Mind you, the idea is not so novel since it dates back to 2007 when both the political and ecclesial instances in the country vetoed it. Yet, according to its proponents, such a brotherhood would help improve the Egyptian economy by bolstering tourism, while simultaneously working to combat illiteracy, ignorance, poverty and intolerance. In fact, a play on the Muslim Brotherhood’s slogan that ‘Islam is the solution’ would see an equivalent Christian one proclaiming that ‘Love of Egypt is the solution’.

But while the idea might be attractive to the younger Egyptian Copts, it does not garner unqualified support from those sectors of society who fear that it would foster sectarian strife and lead to further polarisation. And in this sense, the gulf remains in my opinion quite clear between the younger - and bolder - generations and their older counterparts who perhaps make up for their lack of boldness with prudence, experience and perhaps wisdom.

However, whatever happens in Egypt in the next weeks or months in terms of papal elections or political developments, I would like to underline six major thoughts that many informed thinkers or writers also suggest will become the future pontoon bridge of the papacy in terms of how the Coptic pope will deal with the legacy of his illustrious predecessor.

Is Pope Shenouda replaceable?

The answer is unambiguously yes! Whilst it is true that the late pope helped renew and expand the ministry and outreach of the Coptic Orthodox Church, not least among the youth, during his four decades at the top of the pyramid, the fact remains that no man is indispensable. I recall vividly the death of Pope John-Paul II when everyone was also convinced that the Roman Catholic Church will founder without its Polish Bishop of Rome at the helm. Yet, Pope Benedict XVI has managed this vast church quite adroitly despite lacking his predecessor’s charisma and so will Pope Shenouda’s successor. The institution, no matter how vulnerable, remains stronger than an individual who ultimately is mortal.


Since the modification of the so-called ‘1938 Regulations’ which allowed Copts to file for divorce for nine different reasons, including that of ‘irreconcilable differences’, the new rules introduced by the late Pope have highlighted that the Church only allows Christians a decree absolute in cases of adultery - in accordance with a literalist interpretation of the scriptural verse that "What God has joined together let no man put asunder" (Matthew 13.44).

However, I would argue that an increasing number of Copts somehow fail to acquiesce in this position. At times, they have claimed their right to divorce and re-marriage, and it has even been reported in some instances that they have left the church and turned to Islam in order to obtain their divorces from civil - rather than ecclesiastical - courts.

Houses of Worship

The lack of a unified code regulating the construction of churches has meant that Copts can now renovate their churches but they still cannot build new ones. The original impediment dates back to the 1856 Ottoman-era Hamayouni Decree requiring non-Muslims to obtain a presidential decree to build places of worship. After Egypt gained its independence, the Hamayouni Decree was further amplified in 1934 by the Deputy Minister of the Interior, Al-Ezabi Pacha, in what became known as the Al-Ezabi Decree, making it even harder for Christians to edify churches. The decree laid down ten conditions for Christians to obtain a building permit. The conditions also stipulated that the distance between a church and a mosque must be over 100 metres and that Muslims in the neighbourhood must approve such a new building.

According to Coptic Church lawyer Tharwat Bakheet, as reported recently in Al-Ahram, several draft building codes have already been drawn up and await parliamentary approval. There are also ancillary drafts that were jointly produced by the Coptic Orthodox, Catholic and Anglican churches in Egypt, as well as one presented by the National Council for Human Rights. However, no decision has been made on any of them. And with an Islamisation of Egypt becoming more prevalent, the task of changing those rules in favour of building churches will not become any easier for a new pope.

Islamist ascendancy

It is unfortunate that Islamisation of society in some parts of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region often entails a radicalisation toward Christians. It sometimes feels that the partnership is not one of Muslims and Christians as followers of two monotheistic traditions coming together and challenging other secular or atheist movements, but rather one of Muslims with radical, ultra-conservative (Salafist) or takfirist interpretations of faith who become exclusive of the ‘Followers of the Book’ and as such consider Christians ‘heretics’ who should pay a Jizya - an Islamic tax for non-Muslims.

Whilst it might well be true that Pope Shenouda was at times perceived as far too conciliatory toward the political authorities, the map of Egypt (and the whole MENA region) has changed considerably over the past year. The new pope will have to wrestle with those realities in a way that avoids further attacks on churches or massacres against Copts (such as the horrible one at Maspero Square some months ago). The big challenge is whether Egyptian Muslims will now accept Copts as equal co-citizens in the same way as the Tahrir Square demonstrations or sit-ins professed to do prior to those revolutionary impulses being co-opted by vested and political interests.

The Question of Israel

Israel is a volatile and emotive issue, more so these days with a national parliament that is less uncritical of Israel. Let us recall that Pope Shenouda fell out with the late Anwar Sadat when he sharply criticised the Camp David Accords of 1979 and banned the Copts from visiting Jerusalem by saying, “We will not enter Jerusalem again until we go hand-in-hand with our Muslim and Arab brothers.” It would be quite interesting to observe whether the future 118th Coptic Pope will deviate from this rule by showing more openness or whether he will in fact subscribe to the same interdiction.

But this quandary over Israel is a pan-Egyptian one that also confronts the new political forces. Besides, politics aside, the ban also has inter-confessional roots for control of parts of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

Ecumenical Relations

Pope Shenouda was dedicated to church unity and was even deemed radical when compared to his predecessor Pope Cyril VI of Alexandria. However, ecumenical relations between the Coptic Orthodox Church and other churches have at times been fraught with tensions. For instance, it is not uncommon for the Coptic Church not recognising fully the Holy Sacraments of other Apostolic Churches just as it is not uncommon for major ecumenical fallouts leading the Coptic Pope to opt for dogmatic purity over ecumenical fellowship - as it happened with the Middle East Council of Churches.

Yet, Christians of the MENA region require a renewed sense of koinonia, a state of fellowship and community as St Paul understood it, which exists alongside their “unity in diversity” in the face of numerous challenges. It behoves well upon the next pope to help all churches draw closer so that they can one day all be one, "just as you and I are one" (John 17.21).

All in all, the new Coptic generations today remain deeply attached to their faith but are also politically more exacting and less willing to cede their fundamental rights for equal citizenship in their country. They are no longer willing to be so easily pliable to the dictates of an institutional church or to discriminatory political systems.

The future is a compelling panorama for Copts today, and Anba Angaelos, General Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the UK, states it well when he questions whether all Egyptians will now learn to become first and foremost equal citizens of Egypt.

“Egypt isn't a country we live in, but a country that lives within us” is a renowned saying from the late Pope Shenouda. The question now is whether this country would continue living within the Copts … and more importantly how.

© Harry Hagopian is an international lawyer, ecumenist and EU political consultant. He also acts as a Middle East and inter-faith advisor to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales and as Middle East consultant to ACEP (Christians in Politics) in Paris. He is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor ( Formerly an Executive Secretary of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Committee and Executive Director of the Middle East Council of Churches, he is now an international fellow, Sorbonne III University, Paris, consultant to the Campaign for Recognition of the Armenian Genocide (UK), Ecumenical consultant to the Primate of Armenian Church in UK & Ireland, and author of The Armenian Church in the Holy Land. Dr Hagopian’s own website is

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.