In response to the recent turmoil in Egypt, Janel Kragt Bakker interviewed Hany Takla, a Coptic Christian leader who now lives in the United States. Mr. Takla is president of the St. Shenouda the Archimandrite Coptic Society in Los Angeles, which is dedicated to the preservation of the heritage of Christians in Egypt. He is also a lecturer at UCLA. Mr. Takla spoke to Janel about the ramifications of the current political situation in Egypt for the Coptic Christian community.
What does the current situation in Egypt mean for members of the Coptic Church?
The removal of Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood was much welcomed by members of the Coptic Church. His rule marked a period of permitted lawlessness against the Copts and their property, especially in areas where Copts live in concentration in Middle and Upper Egypt. The government didn’t specifically participate in the acts but they gave free reign to others to carry them out. Things got so bad that many Coptic Christians fled the country.
Was the Coptic Church or Christian community involved in any way in the events that led to the removal of Morsi from office?
Egyptian Christians themselves do not have enough power to start anything, but they went out in droves with the rest of the demonstrators. They protested in front of the presidential palace, in Tahrir Square, and all over Cairo. The Church did not tell them to go or not to go. The people just went on their own, similar to what happened with the anti-Mubarak protests in January of 2011. Muslim protestors made a good effort to show the Copts that they were welcome. The demonstrators were all thinking of Egypt rather than divisions between Christians and Muslims.
Do you think these most recent demonstrations ran parallel to the Arab Spring?
For the past two-and-a-half years there have been constant demonstrations. The latest demonstrations, precipitated by terrible economic conditions, are probably an extension of the Arab Spring. People haven’t had electricity for extended periods of time, and many are without work. The youth especially felt marginalized and alienated after the start of the revolution. People did not see any hope. What they saw instead was a government focused exclusively on guaranteeing their own power. Under Morsi the society became very conservative and the government corrupt. For instance, there was an incident in which the government allowed some of the Salafis to kill four Sufis. The Morsi government didn’t like anyone other than Sunni Muslims, who make up the vast majority of Muslims in Egypt. [Salafism is a conservative Sunni movement. Sufism is a mystical branch of Islam typically held in suspicion by other strands of the Islamic faith.]
So it wasn’t just Coptic Christians who fared badly under the Morsi regime?
Other minority groups were treated poorly, but Coptic Christians were especially targeted because they have a lot of economic power. Copts were evicted out of the homes of their forefathers on the basis of nothing more than rumors. Many churches were burned. Once a church is burned, it is worse than killing Christians. At least you can procreate other Christians, but you cannot procreate churches. Once a church is burned, forget it. You are not going to build another one. There is nothing left. Now, in order to accommodate all the people, churches are using all possible rooms as chapels. The church I used to attend in Cairo is serving 60,000 families.
Pope Tawadros II was present, along with Muslim religious leaders, at the televised announcement of the move to oust President Morsi. What does this mean for the Coptic Church in Egypt and its relationship with the country’s majority Muslim population?
The Coptic Church has tried to be very cordial with the majority Muslim population over the decades. Relations have long been good between the Grand Sheikh of Al-Ahzar and the Coptic Pope. It is only with the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salifis, and other extreme groups who spew hatred against anyone who does not share their identity, with whom Copts have not had cordial relationships. Copts’ relationships with most Egyptian Muslims—especially educated Muslims in Cairo and Alexandria—have even improved since 2011. Leaders have become more sensitive, and Copts are going out of their way to recognize Muslims’ feasts or other special occasions and offer congratulations. Copts have long been second-class citizens in Egypt. But under Morsi’s regime, Copts became fourth- or fifth-class citizens. So, right now, there is an overture from the Christians, and there is an overture from younger and middle-aged Muslims toward unification. Both are part of the silent majority who are suffering from the havoc the violent minority is causing in Egypt. How long is it going to last? I think it will be wise for the Christians not to take too much advantage of the circumstances, and not to assume that they will get all their rights immediately. We have to take it slowly.
Overall, do you think the ouster of Morsi serves the interest of religious freedom and the fate of the Coptic Church in Egypt?
It was a necessary move. How does it pan out afterward? That remains to be seen. People are not very tolerant, and they don’t like incremental changes. At the same time, it is very hard to make big changes in a traditional society. I hope Egyptians have wisdom and patience as they get this change going, and that they have learned from past mistakes. In the past, when groups like the Muslim Brotherhood took over the government, what they preached was different from what they did. The Muslim Brotherhood has a lot to say and they know how to protest, but they don’t know how to govern.
What does this development mean for democracy in Egypt?
It is disputable that the Muslim Brotherhood was democratically elected. The margin of victory was very small, and there were lots of incidents of voter fraud and intimidation, especially in Upper Egypt among the Christians. Additionally, many Egyptians believe that the U.S. had a hand in hurrying the elections results, and that the country got stuck with Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood as a result. And in reality, even if we say that Morsi was democratically elected, he was not governing. Egypt was being governed by two men who stood behind Morsi: The first was Mohamed Badi’e, the Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the second was Khairat el-Shater, who was in charge of all economic matters. So in essence, Morsi let other people run the country.
You cannot call Morsi a democratically elected president because he was not acting as a president. As I understand it, Morsi’s manipulation of power, especially with regard to the Constitution, would be considered an impeachable offense. The problem is that there was no apparatus to do anything about it. Prior to the constitutional referendum in December, protesters gathered signed statements supporting Morsi’s ouster from 22 million registered voters. There are about 40 million eligible voters in Egypt, and the number who voted for Morsi was around 12 million. As far as allowing the army to intervene, there was no other choice since Egypt does not have a legislature. The army is the only power in Egypt with the capacity to facilitate a change in the government. The rule probably would have collapsed eventually, but it would have taken months and many lives. Thus, I feel I can comfortably argue that the ouster was the only democratic way to proceed.
What do Americans need to know about the religious situation in Egypt that is missing from reports from the U.S. media?
The media mostly reports on what is happening in Cairo, not in other regions of Egypt. In areas of Middle and Upper Egypt where Copts live in greater concentrations, Copts have faced a multitude of woes from arbitrary eviction, to the burning of houses, churches, and businesses, to churches being cordoned off so people cannot get in. Recently, in Luxor, five Christians were shot dead. The bishop there, known for being a moderate, was so disgusted he would not accept condolences from officials after what happened in the community. Near the Gaza border, churches have been attacked, and a priest was killed when he was fixing his car. The Christians could not even have a safe funeral for him because they were afraid of what would happen. And further, the bishop closed all the churches in his diocese for the safety of the people. That hasn’t happened before. Copts had problems before, but they are having more problems now as a punitive measure against the protests. Fanatical Muslims are telling Egyptians that Copts are responsible for all the turmoil. Copts are usually the soft targets in Egypt, so in the short run the situation of the Copts outside of Cairo and Alexandria is not good. I don’t know what is going to happen in the short run. In the long run, if the majority of Egyptians continue in the spirit of putting Egypt first, there is hope.
What is the best course of action for the Copts in Egypt?
I think they should wait and see what happens. They should also try to get involved in the political arena, which they didn’t do before. They should try to remove religion from political conversations, and they should be vigilant in the face of the ignorance of those who use the Qur’an out of context in order to do damage to the Copts.
Images: Zaki Osman, Ahmed. Blood on the wall of St. Mark and St. Peter’s Church. Available from: Flickr Commons.
Oakley, Corey. Coptic protest – Maspero. Available from: Flickr Commons. Szustek, Tom.
Copts’ protest, Dublin. Available from: Flickr Commons.