Church, State, and Revolution in Egypt

His Holiness Pope Shenouda III, Pope of the Co...

Pope Shenouda, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church

Many Christians in America are keen on emphasizing that the ‘separation of church and state’ is found nowhere in the constitution. Rather, they state, it was from the personal letters of Thomas Jefferson – his guiding opinion, of course, but never adopted in America’s founding documents.

This is true. The constitution guarantees freedom of religion for the individual, while also keeping government from imposing a religious test for any public office. Many Christians, however, find that the modern interpretation of these clauses – read through Jefferson – squeeze religion from public life.

They don’t know how good they have it.

Coptic Christians in Egypt are currently caught between two relatively good systems. The modern secular state, as in America, allows personal freedoms and independence of religious institutions. This was somewhat the promise of Mubarak, but never really arrived. Especially in light of the Arab Spring, many Copts look to the west and hope for the implementation of such enlightened policy.

Yet on the other hand, also driven by the Arab Spring, is the understanding that Islam-as-state protects a subservient church. This also is enlightened, and for many centuries Christians lived comfortably under the caliphate, participating in society, economy, and government. There were abuses in history, and it is not the equivalent of modern citizenship. Yet many Copts are fearful of such a return, while Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis are head-over-heels trying to assure them their fears are baseless.

Unfortunately, Mubarak muddled between the two.

While the church was officially independent, it was not free. Relations between the president and the pope were conducted along the lines of the old caliphal system. No jizia was paid, but in exchange for guaranteeing the subservience of the Christian community, the pope received a direct line to the leader and relative freedom of internal rule. If Christians got out of line, though, or if it was necessary to hold them in line, a measure of sectarian strife was allowed. Some say it was even encouraged, if not promoted.

A few days ago I posted about a controversy in the church, which erupted during Christmas celebrations. With the massacre at Maspero in the background, Pope Shenouda welcomed the military council, as well as the Muslim Brotherhood. The church has regularly welcomed representatives of the state, which in the past have been members of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party.

This year, it is members of the military council, and of the triumphant Islamist powers. Though the faces have changed, the pope was following a protocol long established.

Revolutions, however, disrupt protocol. Many young Copts invested themselves heavily in the revolution, seeking greater freedom for society at large. Instead, at Christmas, they find the pope continuing the same pattern. The military, they believe, killed demonstrating Copts at Maspero, and no one has been held accountable. The Muslim Brotherhood is an open question; will they simply continue politics-as-usual, with a democratic face?

If these young Copts desire freedom throughout the society, they desire it on the part of the church as well. It was humiliating, or else cowardly and insulting, to see the pope receive those who shed Coptic blood, as well as Islamists who seem very comfortable with the military.

They want the pope to be revolutionary. They want him to refuse greetings until justice is met. To a large degree, they want a western version of freedom of religion.

They are not alone. Many Egyptians desire this, including many Muslims. The question is: Is it best for the church?

The pope is a man of tradition, and old men are set in their ways. He is also a fountain of wisdom, and he knows his society. He believes the church is safest under the protection of the state.

Is he wrong? Maybe. Jesus was a revolutionary, though of a different kind. But he was willing to sacrifice himself for what was right. If the church challenges the state – currently constituted as the military council – it might rally both Christians and Muslims to continue the revolution until military rule is abolished. Then, with governance in the hands of civilians, even an Islamist parliament would be free to … well, what would it do?

Or, if the church challenged the state, the state might hit back. Would Muslims rally behind it? If so, would they be strong enough? Or would this only push them deeper into Islamism, seeing Coptic comeuppance, ‘those ungrateful Christians’?

One might pragmatically say the church should stay by the side of the military against the Islamists, as under Mubarak. Activists, and most Copts, would now say that Mubarak did not work out so well for them. They were certainly very critical of him before the revolution. But will Islamists be worse?

Pope Shenouda is probably not making bets for one side or the other. In all likelihood, he is simply following protocol. He is not promoting the military council or the Muslim Brotherhood. He is acknowledging their place in the governance of Egypt.

History is riddled with examples of minorities who backed the wrong side. If Pope Shenouda is licking the boots of the powers-that-be, this is beneath the dignity of his position – indeed of any Christian, or of any individual human being. But if he were to thumb his nose, this also is a threat to dignity, and more.

Perhaps unfortunately, revolutions demand one choose a side. This puts Christians in a very difficult position. On the one hand, their religion encourages them to sacrifice themselves for others, for truth, and for the cause of justice. On the other, it encourages fealty to the ruling powers, with prayers offered on their behalf. How, then, should a first loyalty to God drive a Christian in Egypt today? How should it drive the pope?

Perhaps Pope Shenouda leans a bit too much in deference to the state. This is certainly the activists’ charge. Yet it must also be noted this criticism is leveled from the perspective of a western system of religious freedom, or at least from the longing thereof.

It may well be Egypt is moving back to an official caliphal system, where the pope represents his community. Or perhaps the mixed-Mubarak system will stay in place. The future could be very bad, or it might not be bad at all. Activists must continue to labor for what they believe in, and convince others of the same. The pope must be given room to do the same. Indeed, his conduct now may be guaranteeing activists their relative freedom of operation.

Americans, imagining themselves in the middle of all of it, might wish for a little more Jefferson.

 

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