Church and Politics Under Pope Tawadros

Sisi, flanked by Bishop Bishoy (L) and Pope Tawadros (R)

Sisi, flanked by Bishop Bishoy (L) and Pope Tawadros (R)

Yesterday I linked to my article on Christianity Today about the role of Copts in the current presidential elections season. It is a true article, but space limits the ability to probe the full issue of how they have been involved, particularly through leadership in the Coptic Orthodox Church. Here is a longer treatment, excerpted from my article at Arab West Report:

By appearances, the Coptic Orthodox Church is doing everything wrong. But appearances can be deceiving; officially, they are doing everything right.

But there is a messy in-between which casts doubt on it all. As convoluted as Egypt’s post-June 30 transition has been following the popular deposing of President Muhammad Mursī, the church has matched it step-by-step.

The appearances are obvious. Posters are seen throughout Cairo bearing pictures of Pope Tawadros alongside the front running military candidate. Some call out to the faithful: “The Lord Jesus calls you to support Field Marshal ‘Abd al-Fattāh al-Sīsī to preserve national unity.” Others give the reason “to stamp out terrorism,” and a third, “to stamp out the Brotherhood.”

Text messages have also been sent bearing similar slogans, calling on Christians to give their vote to Sīsī. This is confirmed by Ihāb al-Kharrāt, a Coptic founding member of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, who in an interview with the author on May 15, 2014 called it “an abuse.”

The question is, by whom? The identity of sponsors is unknown, and the church has publicly denied any relation to the campaign on its Facebook page. Instead, as early as January 28, 2014 Pope Tawadros was rebutting rumors he was supporting a presidential candidate, and on May 4, 2014 he reiterated the church’s stance of neutrality. The church has no political role, he said on May 13, 2014 and his presence in Mursī’s removal on stage with al-Sīsī and Sheikh Ahmad al-Tayyib of the Azhar reflected national institutional backing for the pulse of the street. Thereafter, priests are instructed not to directly support any candidates.

If this official position is clear and correct enough, there is a convoluted undercurrent. On March 23, 2014 Pope Tawadros was quoted by Kuwait’s al-Watan TV channel saying al-Sīsī had a national duty to run for president. Tawadros praised him as having the discipline necessary to run the country, though everyone was free to choose the one deemed most suitable. During the interview he also disparaged the Arab Spring, describing it as a conspiracy to break up the region into smaller states.

The next day the pope backtracked, telling al-Shurūq newspaper that he had not made any official statements or given any interviews over the past 10-14 days. Notably, he did not deny the content of the interview, though this was implied. But the video of his interview was later released stating the opinions in question, though the footage is not of great quality and appears edited, possibly doctored. Even so, it appears the church made a misstep in revealing its private convictions.

But even its public stance is open to interpretation. The Facebook page which denied relation to the posters called on Egyptians to participate in the presidential elections. This itself is a political step, though perhaps legitimate in terms of fulfilling national obligations. But to what end is this participation designed?

It is these national obligations Pope Tawadros once again emphasized on May 27, 2014 the last day of voting before polls were unexpectedly extended to a third day. In the face of a Muslim Brotherhood-backed boycott campaign joined at least passively by many youth, he declared this to be unacceptable negativity and urged people to vote.

But the government campaign begs interpretation that this election is less a contest between candidates than a quest for the legitimacy of turnout. 51 percent of the eligible electorate participated in the 2012 second round vote that installed Mursī over Ahmad Shafīq as president. Mursī received roughly 13 million votes. In his presumed victory al-Sīsī would want to at least match these numbers to validate officially his popular support beyond the many substantial street rallies which buttressed the popular overthrow.

Having given many signals of favor toward al-Sīsī, official or otherwise, is church neutrality now only a superficial position? In calling for participation, is it simply echoing the state call to support, in effect, a referendum on al-Sīsī? If his opponent Hamdīn Sabbāhī stands little chance of winning, should the church position be interpreted otherwise?

It is useful to look back at Pope Tawadros’ papacy to judge the fine line he has walked between involvement in and abstention from politics.

The article continues by examining the pope’s statements about and within the political arena, since his selection in November 2012. Judging from this history, the conclusion tries to examine the current situation:

The pattern that emerges gives an indication of what it means. Despite earlier stated intention to remove the church from politics and allow civil society to speak on behalf of Copts, Pope Tawadros was quickly drawn in. His remarks largely, though not exclusively, pertained to issues that affect the Coptic community. The 2012 constitution opened space for a threatening Islamism, and the attack on the cathedral in April 2013 was unprecedented and largely ignored by Mursī, despite initial condemnation. Statements of allowance for Coptic citizens to protest suggested an effort to stay within church matters, in the spirit of the January 25 revolution in which Copts acted without church direction, even if he earlier discouraged demonstrations.

But in endorsing the protest against Mursī a day before military action against him, Pope Tawadros took a political stand. It was not necessary, and it compromises his interpretation of appearing with al-Sīsī a day later. Yes, his appearance was a national statement of unity, but he appears an eager participant. It was a full endorsement of the order to come, and a condemnation of what came before.

But fair enough, it was a national action. Subsequent reception of al-Sīsī can be seen as honoring a national hero. And endorsement of the constitution can be seen as in line with support for the national roadmap and overall stability. They can also be seen otherwise, but this is the fine line he is walking.

Therefore, urging participation in presidential elections can be seen as more of the same. It is a national measure to rebuild the state, and it can be imagined he will do similarly with coming parliamentary elections. What will be tested then will be his opinion of candidates, as there is likely to be significant Islamist participation through the Salafi Nour Party. They are currently allies against Mursī; will the church be similarly neutral between candidates then, officially?

But this narrative is complicated by the controversial statements to al-Watan, along with the semi-denial. Having tightrope-walked for so long on the borders of political-religious legitimacy, it is not surprising to see such a mistake. But it is not enough to undue his official rhetoric. The church is neutral toward all political candidates; it simply plays its role as a national institution to support the state and encourage popular participation in governance.

To say otherwise requires descending into a conspiracy that may well be present but must be proven. But even without the conspiracy, it is possible to criticize the church for playing this national political role. This can be on the basis of principle – that religion should stay out of politics altogether. It can be on the basis of wisdom – that if there is a reversal in favor of the Islamists the church now has an entrenched enemy. Or it can be on the basis of the common good – that Egypt and her Christians are served better by active Coptic citizenry, not clergy.

But this calls for a vocal Coptic lay leadership that is emerging, but not yet mature. This is unsurprising given the decades of church paternalism under Pope Shenouda, encouraged by the long authoritarianism of Mubārak. Perhaps Pope Tawadros is being pushed back into the old paradigm; perhaps he is willing and eager. Perhaps there is little alternative yet and he acts against his better principles. Noteworthy also is that Pope Shenouda began his papacy as a vocal critic of Islamist policies, under President Sādāt. Banished for 40 months in a desert monastery, he returned much more subdued and cooperative under President Mubārak. It can be estimated that contrary to his predecessor, Pope Tawadros was victorious in his criticism; how will he now conduct himself under President al-Sīsī?

Like the meaning of the church’s call to vote in presidential elections, these questions are matters of his intentions, which cannot be known fully. Appearances are not good, but official stances are reasonable. It is the in-between that rightly confuses observers.

Within a still messy revolution, anything other would be surprising. The church and its pope are fully Egyptian, and Egypt is still convoluted.

Please click here to read the full article at Arab West Report.

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