The relationship between the state and the Coptic Church is considered an old one, which is stained by a lot of disparity and ups and downs. And between the two ends of this relationship, there are the Copts themselves, whose life aspects vary significantly depending on the ups and downs of that relationship.
This relationship has evolved greatly over the past decades, and many observers believed that it has reached an advanced stage after seeing Pope Tawadros II, the second Coptic Pope, sitting in the front rows surrounding El-Sisi on the 3rd of July 2013, when the latter delivered a speech to overthrow the Muslim Brotherhood (Al – Ikhwan al Mouslimin) President Mohamed Morsi Despite the wave of violence that took place in Egypt, by members of the Muslim Brotherhood after resolving the Rabiaa and Nahda protests in August 2013, which led to the burning of approximately 100 churches and Christian facilities, as a result of the lacking security to protect the prior, even though the security services were aware of the consequences of breaking up the protests, the relationship between the State and the Church has not been affected, or specifically between Sisi and the Church’s Pope.
Hoping to have put the Copts, under the new rule, in a better position to have access to certain rights, which they have long claimed as their own over the past decades. Of which the following examples (and not limited to) equality and non-discrimination in public office and government jobs, allowing them to work for parties where they are forbidden such as law-enforcement and law, and teaching at universities, while aiming to arrive to a solution for the dilemma of building and renovating the churches.
This relationship reached its highest point when Sisi visited St. Mark’s Cathedral in Abbassia on Christmas Eve, the 6th of January 2015 according to the Eastern calendar, which is the first visit of its kind for the president for this celebration, as his predecessors sent delegates. The visit made many people go too far in their comments on this event, describing it as the beginning an equality era and an application of the principle of citizenship, a once far-fetched goal of the Copts. In return Sisi received an unprecedented support from the Copts at home and abroad, due to the presence of millions of Copts as immigrants around the world and especially in the United States, where the media refers to them as the Expat-Copts.
But throughout the past two years in particular, representing the period in which Sisi came to power, no improvements took place as the Copts anticipated but instead the situation deteriorated, as the past two years witnessed an increase in the attack on the Copts, their churches and properties going as far as abducting minors and forcing them to change their religion.
Those tensions peaked during the last few months, when a large number of Copts houses were burnt, spreading rumors of their possible conversion into churches in the villages Kom al-Lufi, Saft al-Kharsa, Tahna al-Jabal, and Abu Yaqub. In an unprecedented change in the quality of the attacks on Copts; we saw the village of al-Karam in the province of Minya undergo a gruesome attack on a Christian elderly woman of seventy years; where she was stripped of her clothes in full, hit and dragged on the streets of the village, after her house was burnt down and the property looted due to a rumor about a romantic relationship between her son and a Muslim woman, which was denied by the Muslim woman at a later time.
Due to the incident’s direct link with honor and social shame in the Egyptian society, the Copts awaited a positive and decisive response from the state. Yet it never happened, on the contrary, the State exerted pressure through the Family House – a pacifying committee made up of Muslim and Christian scholars aiming to unite Egyptians, to deviate the case from the court and settle down for a ‘conciliatory meeting’, as is customary in such situations.
Thus opening the debate about the need for a “constructive role of the common worship,” which the law started to talk about it in 2011, following the famous Maspero massacre, which its 5th anniversary is on the ninth of October, when the Egyptian army forces killed dozens of Copts by running them over with tanks and sniping them with live ammunition, while they were participating in a peaceful sit-in in front of the television building to protest the demolition of a church in the village of al-Marenab in Aswan in southern Egypt. That law, which was hereafter named ‘the building churches law’, to segregate between the constructions conditions of churches and mosques, but in fact the building of mosques in Egypt does not necessitate any licenses as long as follow they are of the Sunni sect, since non-Sunni Muslims are not allowed to have Mosques.
After a tug of war, and many of the skirmishes between the state and the church and many of the statements between the parties, of which some are mentioned here, as the one Sisi stated while attending a graduation ceremony for a new batch of the Military Academy, “We are ninety million, if every day we witness an incident or even several incidents, and we address them with subjectivity, it will not be for the greater good of the country.” The remarks, which were offset by the statements of the Pope Tawadros II portrayed as a response to Sisi’s remarks, when he announced, after the meeting between the members of the Committee for Religious Affairs and the parliament in the cathedral: “The Church is controls so far, the anger of the Copts against the system at home and abroad, but will probably not hold up much longer against the escalation of the systematic attacks against the Copts.” Abroad, specifically in the United States, a group of Coptic activists organized a demonstration in front of the White House in Washington, demanding the application of Law of building places of worship, and lift the injustice, suffering and discrimination against the Copts at home, and applying the law instead of the customary sessions presently used to punish attackers and property and church offenders.
After all these back and forth exchanges between the parties and the respective pressure, the Law for building churches was released at the end of August, after 160 years of the oppressive law known as the Hamayouni Decree issued by the Ottoman Sultan Abdülmecid I in 1856, amid a state of rejection by the forces of civil society which advocates the idea of the existence of a secular and civil state, because they regard that law as a wasting of the idea of the state and the equality of its citizens, it comes to consolidate and deepen sectarian discrimination between Egyptians, which was confirmed by the Deputy Director of the Middle East department in the organization “Human Rights Watch” Joe Stork. The report issued by the organization in mid-September concerning the law, stated: “The long-awaited churches law maintained the restrictions on the establishment and renovation of churches in light of the persisting discrimination against the Christian minority in Egypt” and that “these restrictions amount to discrimination on religious grounds, being directed against Christians in an unjustified manner”, and added that “the parliament and the government must adopt legislation acts and policies to ensure the protection of Egypt’s Christian minority of sectarian violence, such as serious investigations in acts of violence committed against Christians by the instigators of sectarian violence, as well as the slackers responsible for taking all the needed steps to provide protection and accountability. ”
But despite all the rejection and criticism that the law suffered in terms of Coptic organizations and individuals, and civilian forces supporting the idea of citizenship, it was met with the acceptance and desirability of the leadership of the Church. Despite the ups and downs and the contrast in attitudes between the state led by Sisi and the church by the Tawadors II, Copts cannot dispute or disengage as the circumstances that bonded them made their fate ominously linked.
The state exploited that point in equality and pressuring the Church in many matters and crises, to silence the Copts and Coptic activists and groups not only in the country but also abroad. Tawadros II, who has no political tacts like his predecessor the late Pope Shenouda III, is unable to understand the mood and the ambitions and aspirations of the Copts after their participation in the revolution of January. As days went by, the Copts realized that Sisi is not the man they were waiting for and their hopes were in the wrong place as reality proved that their expectations are out of reach.