Pope Shenouda may have emerged triumphant in the eyes of his followers after the Supreme Constitutional Court ruled in his favor, but public opinion was split, with many wondering about the proper limits of the papal sphere of influence. The crisis also revealed the extent to which all parties were deploying a human rights discourse to advance non-democratic ends. Islamists, intellectuals and high-profile, pro-government Copts who had long minimized or even denied religious discrimination against Copts by state and society were suddenly eager to defend the rights of Copts against the Church. The Church, which had conventionally resisted the Islamization of politics, was suddenly making reference to the rights of non-Muslims under Islamic law. Women’s rights organizations, which had never defended the rights of non-Muslim women in Muslim family law (despite the serious compromises of gender equity therein), were suddenly all excited about saving Coptic women from the patriarchal Coptic leadership.
In Egypt, however, there is no freedom of religion in the first place. Egyptian citizens who are not Sunni Muslims do not enjoy equal rights to practice their religion freely. In the Camillia saga, it is important to remember that while the majority of Sunni Muslims are subject to severe restrictions, and possible persecution, if they wish to convert to Christianity, Christians are permitted to embrace Islam as a matter of course. The imbalance in the right to freedom of religion was further accentuated with the abolition by state security of the “reconciliation committees” in 2003. These committees allowed the Church or Coptic families to verify whether members who wished to convert were doing so of their own free will. This move has only intensified the conviction of Copts that they must rely on the Church’s bargaining power, rather than citizenship rights, to negotiate with the state. It is evident, however, that Pope Shenouda has lost his credibility among the wider Egyptian polity, which may leave room for Copts to work on internal reform, including the ouster of Bishop Bishoy. Within the Church, there is a nascent resistance movement against what is perceived to be Bishoy’s lack of accountability. Yet the politics of the Church cannot explain the tenor of the current crisis.
Tackling this issue of conversion — the bedrock of freedom of religion — is precisely what most of the major parties involved (the state, the church, al-Azhar, Islamists) either do not want to do or are too terrified to do.
Since I was away most of the summer, I missed much of the rise in tensions over this issue. In the last few weeks I have found that the situation is worse than I had expected.