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The Changing Spiritual Leadership of the Coptic Church and the Ouster of an Elected President

The strategy of the Coptic Church’s leadership in the post-Mubarak regime was not to engage in politics. Because of the gap between the institution and its followers that emerged as a result of the institution’s support of Mubarak’s son as the successor to the presidency, and the changing reaction of the church toward the January revolution, the church was “on hold,” and it reversed its political stance, especially in the face of the high level of political vulnerability and insecurity.37

Moreover, Pope Shenouda III died, and Bishop Tawadros became the church’s 118th pope four months after President Morsi was elected.38 Pope Tawadros II inherited a church that had suffered greatly under the Islamists. Yet, the new spiritual leader had also come into power during an era that was witnessing a reconfiguration of power within the Coptic community due to the revival of Coptic citizens’ political activism. Copts, who had been adrift since Shenouda’s death, were concerned about the demands by ultraconservative Islamists to filter the country’s new constitution through Sharia, or Islamic law. The new constitution, issued in December 2012, gave little room for religious equality, and many young, politically active Christians no longer want to rely on the church to advance their rights.

One of the most famous sectarian confrontations took place on April 7, 2013, when fighting erupted after a mass funeral for five Copts who had been killed during violent clashes in a north Egyptian town in Greater Cairo on Friday, April 5, during which a Muslim man was also shot and killed. The attacks in Al-Khusus continued and spread to Saint Mark’s Cathedral in central Cairo, placing hundreds of Christians under siege inside the Coptic cathedral after the funeral. This anti-Christian violence brought chilling validation to the concerns Copts harbored.

President Morsi said he gave orders for the cathedral and citizens to be guarded, and announced, “I consider any attack on the Cathedral as an attack on me, personally.”39 The attack set a most dangerous precedent in the history of the relations between the state, the church, and the community. It reinforced the idea of the inferiority of Copts, and thus challenged not only their rights but also their existence. As the grassroots anti-Morsi Tamarrud (Rebellion) Movement gained steam, Copts were among the millions calling for Morsi’s early removal from office and new elections.

Due to the failure of the new president and his government to achieve any real political or economic change, millions of Egyptians—Copts included— demonstrated against the regime on June 30, 2013, and demanded early presidential elections. The symbol of the cross and the crescent reappeared in the streets. At the July 3 news conference, attended by both the pope of the Orthodox Church and the head of Cairo’s Al-Azhar Mosque, the minister of defense, Abdul Fatah el-Sisi, announced the military would back the will of the people. Unfortunately, the appearance of the pope at the conference also reinforced grand conspiracies that Christians were working to derail the Islamist project.

Participants at the conference reinforced calls to remove Morsi from office and supported continued demands to hold early presidential elections to replace him. During this time, the pope also affirmed his support for the political interventions already put forth by Al-Sisi. An amended version of the 2012 constitution (previously adopted by the Muslim Brotherhood) was drafted. Following this, in an article printed in the state-owned Al-Ahram newspaper, Pope Tawadros II encouraged Al-Sisi to run for the presidency and insisted that Egyptians should approve the new draft constitution during a referendum scheduled for January 2014.40

However, sustained political and economic change would prove more difficult to ensure than proponents perhaps first assumed. In particular, the Coptic community, the military, and the old regime were quickly singled out by outraged Muslim Brotherhood supporters as the primary parties responsible for ousting Morsi.41 Angry mobs took to the streets of Dalga, near Minya, which resulted in injuries and the burning of Christian homes and shops. Hundreds stormed a local church, accusing Copts of treason. A few weeks later, attacks became especially rampant in Upper Egypt, where Copts constitute a disproportionately large part of the population.42

In reaction to General Sisi’s call to the Egyptian people to come out into the streets on July 26 and support the interim government’s goal to fight terrorism, the pope tweeted to his flock that “the national responsibility of the Coptic Church of Egypt demands us all to support the measures that protect our country and achieve our freedom without violence or recklessness. Long live Egypt, safe and secure.”43

The events of August 14,44 when the state security forces dispersed Muslim Brotherhood sit-ins, invited more retaliation against Christians. More than seventy Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant churches were attacked, many of them looted and then completely demolished. Mobs also destroyed several Christian convents, monasteries, orphanages, schools, homes, and shops.45

 
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