The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Criticism for the Pope

I mentioned earlier in the week that I sensed that the Coptic church had not emerged unscathed, from a public opinion perspective, after the recent events involving the bishop's wife who converted to Islam. Here is an article by Gamal Asaad in this week's Al Araby, the opposition weekly belonging to the Nasserist Party. Asaad is a Coptic writer, and I believe he's a former member of Parliament. It is written as an open letter to the Coptic Pope Baba Shenouda. I have translated the best parts below:

The first test of your holiness' reformist thoughts was aimed at exploiting your popularity to achieve a political role for yourself, in addition to your spiritual role. This was clear in your first confrontation with Anwar Al Sadat during the Kanka incident... Your ambitions have remained political, oh holy pope, in that you played a political role, and you have not ceased assuming political representation of the Copts for a single moment.

The Kanka incident occurred six moths after Shenouda was elected Pope in 1971. After a newly built church was destroyed by police, Shenouda ordered priests and bishops to go to the ruins of the church and celebrate mass there even if they risked being shot. Clashes resulted.

Asaad goes on to criticize the pope for being the political representative of the Copts, and criticizes the state for consulting the Pope before appointing Coptic members to the Parliament and the Cabinet.

These practices of the absent State are very wrong. This gave the Copts the feeling that the church was an alternative for the State, and that you were their political representative... This caused a dangerous fissure in Egyptian politics, because it isolated the Copts and lead to their lack of participation in public affairs...

The voice of the ex-patriot communities of Copts have become loud. Their pressure has begun to bare fruits via the American intervention in Egyptian affairs concerning Coptic problems. This culminated when the American congress issued the Religious Protection Act... More important than that is the uncountable amounts of money that began to be sent to the church. That money caused the breaking of the relationship between the people and the clergy. The clergy were no longer in need of the people because they had an alternative, foreign money. Let us not forget that time when you said “the day in which the pope extends his hand to the rich Copts has ended.�

With all that, all hope of reforming the church was lost, along with the role of the secularists in the church. The clergy began to take control over everything. No longer was there a role either for the Consultative Council (maglis mili), or for the church committees. The bishops became the controllers of everything, enacting laws that do not fit with the age that we live in, and that do not agree with Christianity, and doing all this without any accountability. And this was the situation inside the church. As for outside of the church, the clear State-neglect off Coptic issues resulted in Copts turning increasingly to the church for representation. This helped create clerics who imagined that they were responsible for the Copts in more than merely religious areas-- in all the affairs of our lives. During this period many religiously incompetent clerics were consecrated.

With all the talk on reform in Islam, we sometimes forget that the Coptic church could use a bit of reform as well. Notice the similarity between the rhetoric of Islamic reform and the rhetoric of Asaad talking here about reform in the Coptic church. The clergy has too much power, interferes in political matters, enacts policies that are out of sync with the age we live in... There are many parallels to be drawn I think.

Asaad goes on to criticize the pope for his handling of several recent issues, including the incident of a sex scandal involving a priest, and two recent movies which many Copts objected to. He accuses the Pope of exploiting all these issues to seize more political power.

The big blow came when the priest’s wife converted to Islam. For the first time the church took a stance that was not only incorrect, it was flat wrong. For this lady was not kidnapped, and was not forced to convert to Islam, and did not marry her colleague. The bishops of Buhayra knew all this, before they roused the youth to protest in Cairo...

Rousing the youth, sending them to Cairo, the spreading of lies and of incorrect information, was a means of pressure on the government, and the exploitation of the internal and external political environment. So are these, your holiness, political or religious actions? Where are the church’s Christian values when it protests and insults others? Are you not responsible for the several day long protests staged by the youth? And it did not occur to you, your holiness, that there are Muslims in this country, and that there is a reaction to every action, or is this not possible in moments charged with tension? Did your holinesses not think that if a woman, who converted to Islam of her own free will, was surrendered to the church, that this would provoke a reaction similar to what is happening now with the cases being raised against the security services and Al Azhar? And is all this Coptic anger simply because she is the wife of a bishop? Why not do this with the tens of other cases of wives of non-bishops? Or is the wife of a bishop equivalent to the mother of the Christians as some wrongly think?

As for your entering into politics, this exposes you to many problems, as there is nothing sanctified in politics, and there are no holy politicians. And how is it that you imagine yourself responsible for the Copts in affairs other than religion? And where is the constitutional or legal appropriateness for you to be responsible for the Copts? And what is the role of the State in this? And what is the relationship of the Copts to the state?

I want to say to your holinesses that because of what has happened recently the church and you personally has lost much standing in Muslim public opinion and in the general public opinion. You have lost standing with the regime which remains afraid of America. Are we to believe what is said about the Copts supporting the American pressure on the Muslims? If so, then where is the equality and unity among Egyptians? And is your holiness not accountable for the calls inside the Cathedral for American intervention?

Shenouda's recent defiance fits more with the Pope in his early years. Shenouda was a journalist and a poet before he became a monk. As a monk he was responsible for education, and he began a tradition of delivering weekly lessons. The lessons became popular; thousands of people began coming, making him a powerful force inside the Church. There were two schools among the Coptic clergy at that time.

Here is Muhammad Hassanein Heikal describing that division in his book "Autumn of Fury": "One school, led by Shenouda, argued that the Church was an all-embracing institution which could provide a solution to all problems and an answer to all questions, temporal as well as spiritual. The other school, represented by Miskeen, insisted that religion was essentially a matter for the individual conscience, and should have nothing to do with politics."

These two schools described by Heikal, are essentially the same two schools that are reflected in Asaad's article above. Of course, when Pope Korollos died in 1971, Shenouda prevailed. He's now quite old (nearing 80 I believe), and many are suggesting that the church's recent hard headedness is somehow a manifestation of succession struggles.