Yesterday, the new Coptic Orthodox patriarch said that any new Egyptian constitution must be inclusive and that the church would oppose any text that only addressed the Muslim-majority of the nation. Patriarch Tawadros Sulaymān, picked on Sunday in a ceremony steeped in the traditions of a church that predates Islam’s arrival in Egypt, also told Reuters that Christians should be more active in seeking to shape Egyptian politics after last year’s revolt.
The 60-year-old patriarch, the 118th to lead a church that traces its origins back to the early era of Christianity, took up the helm when the rise of Islamism alarms many Christians, who make up about a tenth of the nation’s 83 million people. For decades, Christians felt shoved to the margins of society and politics. Yet, although many joined the uprising to oust Hosni Mubarak, they now worry they’ll be pushed further aside by Islamists, whom the former president repressed.
In an interview at a desert monastery, where a day earlier he learned that his name had been picked out of a glass bowl by a blindfolded boy in an elaborate ceremony at St Mark Cathedral in the Abbassia District of Cairo, Patriarch Tawadros said, “The beauty of Egyptian society is the presence of Muslims beside Christians. Diversity is strong and beautiful”. Three names selected in a vote were put in a bowl to choose the man who’d replace Pope Shenouda Roufail, who led Egypt s Coptic Orthodox Christians for four decades. Bearded, bespectacled, and wearing the long black robes of a priest, the new patriarch said that the constitution being drawn up by a 100-person assembly, dominated by Islamists, but also including Muslim and Christian religious leaders, liberals, and other politicians, should reflect Egypt’ diversity, saying, “If a good constitution is presented in which every person finds himself represented, there’s no doubt Egypt will develop”.
Tawadros trained in Egypt and Britain as a pharmacist before being ordained into the priesthood. Tawadros, speaking quietly and carefully in a room surrounded with pictures of his predecessor, whose death in March left many Christians feeling bereft after his long rule, said, “Then again, if the constitution addresses one part of the community and ignores another, it’d take society backwards”. Adding context to his comments, the patriarch spoke from Anba Beshoy Monastery, one of several in Wadi el-Natrun, northwest of Cairo, which flourished as Christian desert retreats when Muslim conquerors from Arabia expanded their influence across Egypt and North Africa.
No to Politics
When asked what he’d do if the constitution was too heavily loaded with Islamic references, Tawadros said, “We’d object”. He didn’t specify what he’d deem too Islamic, and said that he wouldn’t urge his flock onto the streets in protest, saying, “The Church doesn’t play any political role at all. If religion and politics meet, they ruin each other”. The new constitution drafts have more Islamic content than the Mubarak-era version, but one key article saying, “The principles of Sharia Islamic law” are the main source of legislation, remains unchanged. Hardline Salafi Muslims, a vocal force in Egypt s new politics, demand even stronger language.
Even though the church wouldn’t take political action, Tawadros said that there were kindred voices among more-liberal politicians and moderate Muslims, who also object to what they said are Islamist efforts to dominate the drafting process. Yet, the new church leader said it was time for Christians to play a bigger part in politics independently, to secure their rights, as any citizen should, after years of retreating from the public arena and leaving the Church to act as advocate.
Although Tawadros insisted he was continuing the work of Shenouda, his comments suggested a shift from his predecessor, who was criticised by some Christians for becoming too politicised and aligning himself too closely to Mubarak. Tawadros noted, “There’s development in society; the Church encourages every citizen to achieve their individual rights”, adding that post-revolutionary Egypt offered Christians a chance to express their demands more openly. He said, “I encourage my children to participate in political parties and express their opinions”.
President Mohamed Morsi, propelled to power by the Muslim Brotherhood, vowed to protect the rights of Christians and others. However, this hasn’t dispelled the fears of many Christians, who’ve long complained of discrimination in the workplace and other areas of society. Without referring to individuals, Tawadros said that he welcomed promises by Islamist politicians, but wanted “something on the ground”. He pointed to problems such as the longstanding demand of Christians to make it as easy to build a church, as it is to build a mosque. Nevertheless, he said he was optimistic for the biggest Christian community in the Middle East, saying that adversity wouldn’t deter Christians, observing, “The Christian is like a palm tree… when you throw a stone at it, it drops its dates”.
6 November 2012
As quoted in The Malaysian Insider