Politics Stymie Religious Reform in Egypt’s Coptic Church

Internal opposition to Pope Tawadros’s dealings with the Egyptian state could block his attempts to reach out to other churches.

Expert comment Updated 7 December 2018 Published 20 November 2018 2 minute READ

Dr Georges Fahmi

Former Associate Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme

Pope Tawadros casts a vote in Egypt's 2018 presidential election. Photo: Getty Images.

Pope Tawadros casts a vote in Egypt’s 2018 presidential election. Photo: Getty Images.

The head of the Coptic Church in Egypt, Pope Tawadros II of Alexandria, is attempting to lead reforms that would redefine his church’s relations with other Christian denominations. But he now faces internal opposition that is not just doctrinal, but political, focused on the contrasting approaches of Pope Tawadros and his predecessor, Pope Shenouda III, towards the Egyptian state.

For over four decades and until his passing in 2012, Pope Shenouda acted as the political representative of the Coptic community. He perceived the relation between church and state, and by extension between political leaders and himself, as that of equals.

Pope Shenouda gave his relationship with the state a political slant by both applying and releasing pressure and exchanging political support from the church for religious benefits for the Coptic community. He clashed with president Anwar Sadat in the 1970s and he was placed under house arrest in 1981. Although Sadat was assassinated a few months later, it took his successor Hosni Mubarak until 1985 to release Shenouda.

Under Mubarak, the pope maintained the same perspective toward state institutions but he adapted his approach. Now eschewing confrontation, he began to advance his church’s interests by applying pressure in indirect ways. Bouts of sectarian violence against Copts would, for example, cause Shenouda to angrily retreat to an isolated monastery, and this move would often lead the regime to hurriedly address the causes of the sectarian problem in a way that would suffice for the Pope to return to his office in Cairo.

Unlike his predecessor, Pope Tawadros does not perceive himself to be a political leader, and he refrains from engaging with political bargains with state institutions. In moments of sectarian tension, he declares his full support and trust in state institutions. In his own words, Pope Tawadros has stated that, to him, ‘homeland carries more importance than the Church’ and that ‘a country without churches is better than churches without a country’.

Pope Tawadros has previously stated that supporting the state is essential after the Arab Spring, where chaos is still spreading throughout the Middle East. When questioned about the difference between himself and Pope Shenouda in handling state institutions, Pope Tawadros answered: ‘Each era has its own tools.’

This stance has now had implications for Tawadros’s attempt at religious reform. In contrast to his religiously conservative predecessor, Tawadros has actively reached out to Catholic and Protestant churches, and to other Orthodox churches as well. In a sign of how far relations have come, last year he agreed to a common declaration with the Vatican not to duplicate baptisms, meaning that Orthodox Copts and Catholics who switch churches would not be required to be rebaptized according to their new denomination.

The declaration sparked anger among conservative Coptic bishops. Bishop Agathon, the Bishop of the Maghagha and Edwa Diocese, levelled unprecedented public criticism at Pope Tawadros for acting without first consulting with the Holy Synod, the highest authority in the Coptic Church of Alexandria. Other bishops joined the same position. Bishop Makarios for example, the Bishop of Minya and Abu Qurqas, argued that acknowledging Catholic baptisms is synonymous with recognizing the Catholic Church’s religious doctrine. Faced with a wave of anger, Pope Tawadros was forced to take a step back and rework the document into a less definitive statement.

This connects to politics because the majority of bishops who lean toward conservatism remain loyal to Shenouda’s political approach in dealing with the Egyptian state. This includes Bishop Agathon and Bishop Makarios, who position themselves as leading figures in the defence of Coptic rights vis-à-vis state institutions, while remaining highly critical of Pope Tawadros’ reformist moves.

Most mainstream Copts will not necessarily subscribe to conservative theological ideas but they do tend to support the conservative bishops’ approach in dealing with state institutions. In the absence of any other political organizations that could defend their rights before the state, many Copts remain attached to the church as the only organization that could come to their defence. Although many Copts remain supportive of the current political regime, they also yearn for a stronger negotiator for their rights, as was the case with Shenouda under Mubarak’s rule.

Thus, reformist voices on the doctrinal front lack popular legitimacy because of their passive political attitudes towards state institutions. The conservative camp, on the other hand, builds legitimacy from the perception that it defends the Copts before the state. Far from a fringe religious argument, in a different political context, the outcome of these theological debates would be shaped differently.