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from issue no. 12 - 2010

The Egyptian bet

From Diocletian’s persecutions to Mubarak’s fall. From alliances with Mohammed’s first followers to the incognito of the Muslim Brotherhood. Antonios Naguib, the Coptic Catholic Patriarch of Alexandria, retraces the long history of Christians in the land of the pharaohs. A story full of surprises

Interview with Antonios Naguib by Gianni Valente

First the massacre of Alexandria, with dozens of deaths following the attack on the Coptic Orthodox Church of the Saints, the night of 31 December. Then, the revolt that exploded in the streets of Egypt, the clashes, the dead, the end of Mubarak’s regime and the beginning of a transition to a still uncertain berthing place. For the Christians of Egypt, as for all the other Egyptians, this is truly a time full of questions. A time in which a series of anxieties, trepidations and unarmed hopes interweave. And where the greatest realism coincides with the prayer of thanksgiving and trust in the mercy of God. As Antonios Naguib, the Catholic Coptic Patriarch of Alexandria, also testifies in the interview that follows.

Antonios Naguib

Antonios Naguib

Beatitude, what happened in Egypt? And how did you live through the latest events?
ANTONIOS NAGUIB: We lived through agonizing days, that the whole world was able to follow in the media. Parties and groups opposed to the regime and the government began to organize enormous demonstrations, starting from Tuesday 25 January. They demanded “change”, a radical and immediate change of regime, of the Constitution, of the government and of the president. President Mubarak sought to satisfy the protesters and the public with partial concessions, that were considered inadequate. The outcome is known, and it was the resignation of Mubarak.
How was such a sudden explosion possible?
In truth we can not say it was sudden. Many analysts had long been pointing to elements that were preparing this explosion, which occurred like the eruption of a volcano. A number of diverse factors joined together in pushing the people to insurrection: the abuse of power, corruption, the monopoly of industry and land in the hands of a few businessmen. Then all the social problems: youth unemployment, the inability to find housing at a reasonable price, and therefore the difficulty of raising a family; and, again, the continuous increase in the prices of food and services.
There were many deaths. But at times a far more bloody civil war was feared.
In all the churches of all denominations daily prayers were offered for peace in the country. And now we thank Almighty God for the way things went, and we pray for the peace and good of beloved Egypt, that it may look to a much brighter and better future.
Who were the real protagonists of the revolt? How do you see the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in the current phase, and in the future? And that of the army?
The first to be thanked are the young patriots who led all to the rejection of an unjust situation that had prevailed in the country for too long. As for the Muslim Brotherhood, they did not hide their radical opposition. But they did not lead the uprising. The Army wanted to avoid confronting the people with guns, and I think it played a decisive role in pushing Mubarak to resign.
Was it a spontaneous uprising, or were there external interferences to destabilize Egypt?
The beginning of the youth’s demonstrations, on 25 January, was peaceful and very correct. Then other elements infiltrated and the acts of vandalism began. The withdrawal of police forces opened the doors to all kinds of delinquents. But that’s when the most interesting thing was seen: in every street youths and men, Christians and Muslims, in a wonderful solidarity, spontaneously organized themselves into “popular committees” to defend the inhabitants and their property; it was possible to restore security and tranquility.
But how much did Western pressures – in particular those of the United States – and those of the army weigh in the resignation of Mubarak? And how are these pressures seen by the Egyptian people?
I can not say if Western pressures, and in particular of the United States, really had an effective weight on Mubarak’s definitive decision to resign. Because if the demonstrations had stopped with his first concessions, he would not have retired before the end of his mandate. It was the youth and the other protesters, determined not to accept less than complete and total resignation, that led him to the final decision. If he had not done so, I believe that the army would have decreed and declared his expulsion from power.
And now? In your opinion how will it end?
I believe there is a real chance to initiate a process which will gradually lead Egypt to take its own position among the modern countries. A civil and democratic country based on laws, where the freedom of everyone is respected and where relationships between people are regulated on the basis of shared and common citizenship, with equal rights and equal obligations for all. The demonstrations expressed these political demands. This can truly and finally be the way to avoid divisions and conflicts between religious and social groups, guaranteeing everyone a chance to express themselves and make their own contribution to the common good. Without there being categories and groups discriminated against in society and in politics. Egypt finds itself at an important political, economic and social crossroads. The reconstruction of the country can really reanimate the roots of a civilization that marked the world for centuries.
How have Christians lived through this period?
With and like all our fellow citizens, we have lived through these tragic events with a deep sense of apprehension. As I said, all the Churches turn to our only help: divine Mercy. We put all our trust in God, and now we implore Him to give light and courage to the leaders of the groups and organizations to walk together along the path of reconstruction.
At the beginning of the protests, Christian leaders were prudent. There were those who called on Christians not to participate in the demonstrations. Is it perhaps feared that the destabilization of the system could with time lead to new disasters for them, as what happened in Iraq?
I am reassured by the fact of having seen something take place in these days that has not been seen for a long time: a concrete unity among the citizens, young and old, Christians and Muslims without distinction or discrimination, in a common purpose to act for the good of Egypt, for the safety and security of the country. I hope these feelings will remain and take root in our hearts. This experience has enlightened the line of sight of many. Now everyone sees that those who foment divisions and conflicts with other Egyptians on the basis of religious differences actually aim to destroy this unity and to destabilize Egypt.
The fact is that Mubarak’s authoritarian regime in its official statements opposed religious conflicts, and despite everything was considered by many observers as a factor of “protection” of Christians, suffering from recurring violence in recent decades. Isn’t there the risk of regretting, perhaps in a while, the absence of the rigid omnipresence of security forces?
It is true that many Christians believed that Mubarak’s regime guaranteed them some protection, and feared that the regime change could bring the Muslim Brotherhood to power. So far, this danger remains somewhat distant, although not entirely removed. On the other hand the military has clearly stated that their task is temporary with a view to preparing the full restoration of civilian rule.
Shortly before the general uprising Egypt was the focus of international attention and controversy precisely because of the massacre of Coptic Christians in Alexandria, on 31 December last. Do you think there is a connection between the two?
I evaluated this hypothesis from the start. Because I had experienced similar events in the ’eighties and ’nineties, when I was Bishop of Minya. At the time we lived through about five years of deadly attacks against Christians. The perpetrators of those attacks wanted to subvert the regime, but they did not succeed. So they began to attack the police and government officials directly, up to the point of killing the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar. The target was the regime, the Christians were just the bridgeway towards that goal.
In the recent events, it was said that the police forces that had withdrawn in the first three days of the revolt, and by doing so had opened the way for all the acts of vandalism that you know of, had received this order from the Minister of the Interior, who wanted to show in this way that his person was essential for the president and the regime. In those days, despite the total absence of police who usually controlled the guard posts in front of every church, there was not a single attack on the churches. This has given weight to the hypothesis, in circulation particularly among Christians, that the same Minister of the Interior had planned the massacre of Alexandria, to justify a strengthening of police controls. In any case, the spontaneity of the youth and popular uprisings swept away all possible criminal calculations.
I am reassured by the fact of having seen something take place in these days that has not been seen for a long time: a concrete unity among the citizens, young and old, Christians and Muslims without distinction or discrimination. I hope these feelings will take root in our hearts
After the massacre in Alexandria on 31 December, also the major international media focused on the Coptic Christians of Egypt. Often without duly explaining who they are.
The Copts are the Egyptian Christians who according to tradition received the Christian faith from the apostle St Mark. Afterwards, with Diocletian, the great persecutor, came the era of the martyrs, which initiated (in the year 284) the Coptic calendar. In the fourth century, with religious freedom, the Christian faith had spread throughout all of Egypt. The Church of Alexandria at that time had an eminent role, with its great theologians: Origen, St Alexander, St Cyril and St Athanasius. Until when, in 451, the Coptic Church, along with the Ethiopian, Syrian and the Armenian, refused the decisions of the Council of Chalcedon.
How are the apostolic origins of the Church in Egypt reflected in the life and devotions of the faithful?
The devotion to St Mark is very strong. He is revered by all as the founding apostle. And then, Egypt was also one of the countries in which Jesus lived, when, after His birth, Mary and Joseph found refuge there to escape from Herod. The entire itinerary of the Holy Family is sprinkled with places and shrines that are the destination of pilgrimages.
St Mark was Peter’s disciple. He was given the directive by the Prince of the Apostles to write his Gospel. So from the beginning there is a link between the Coptic Church and the Bishop of Rome.
Until 451 the Church was practically one, then came the separations. From the first half of the eighteenth century a small part of the Copts confessed their specific communion with the Bishop of Rome, and in 1895 Pope Leo XIII formed the Coptic Catholic Patriarchate. But the vision of the relationship with the Church of Rome remains a controversial issue in relations with our brothers of the Coptic Orthodox Church. They say: unity in faith, yes, in charity, yes, but submission as inferior to superior, no. They say that this was the situation in the early centuries that was later condensed into the Pentarchy, the structure of the five Patriarchs, including that of Rome, which according to them had a primacy in charity, but not in jurisdiction.
Incidentally, at the recent Synod on the Middle East, Cardinal Levada announced plans to gather suggestions and proposals from the heads of the Eastern Churches on the theme of primacy, to test, on this point, new ideas for dialogue with the Orthodox. Did this initiative go ahead? Have you Eastern Catholic Patriarchs been contacted by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith?
So far, no. At the Synod greater participation of Eastern Catholic Patriarchs in the life of the Catholic Church was augured. Some practical proposals were put forward, such as that of admitting the Eastern Patriarchs to the Sacred College that elects the Pope, by virtue of their own patriarchal office and without them having to be created cardinals. These would be signals of a greater involvement, but do not represent a solution. And certainly they are not things that can satisfy our Orthodox brethren. For them, the criterion is that of autocephaly, that is the autonomy of each local Church. And the question of primacy should be set in the terms in which it was shared in the relations among the apostles and among their first successors.
From the refusal of the Council of Chalcedon on, the indigenous Christian communities in Egypt are related to Monophysitism, the doctrine, condemned by that Council, according to which Jesus’ human nature was absorbed by his divine nature. What remains of those doctrines in Coptic spirituality?
In fact, since then, the disputes have had to do with questions of terminology rather than of substance. And, as is the case today also, doctrinal disputes were similarly fueled by political issues. At that time Egypt was ruled by the Byzantines, who had accepted the Council of Chalcedon and wanted to impose “Chalcedonian” bishops politically loyal to them on the episcopal Sees, beginning with the Patriarchal See of Alexandria. The Egyptians identified the “Chalcedonian” faith as a distinctive hallmark of the imperial faith, and, especially under the pressure of the monks, organized themselves in the Church of the people, leaving to the Chalcedonians the control of a pro-imperial hierarchy protected by the Byzantine garrisons. But from the doctrinal point of view, as early as the sixth century in Egypt the doctrines that supported the fusion of the human and divine natures of Jesus had been refused. In 1988 representatives of the Coptic Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church signed a Christological declaration jointly agreed on to express their shared faith in Jesus Christ, “perfect in His Divinity and perfect in His humanity”, who “made His humanity one with His Divinity without mixture nor mingling, nor confusion”.
In your opinion, what defines, in lived experience, the spirituality of the Coptic Church?
Here we must distinguish. We Coptic Catholics were formed with the help of Catholic professors and educators. Taking advantage therefore of all the new theological and spiritual contributions that emerged in Catholicism over the centuries. By its own predisposition our thought is continuously updated, urged on by the teaching that comes from the Pope, as well as from the Congregations, the Councils, the theologians and the saints.
The Coptic Orthodox, on the other hand?
For them, things are different. We Catholic Copts distinguish between the spiritual ascetic-monastic heritage and the theological-dogmatic heritage. Whereas for them theology coincides with Holy Scripture, the Fathers of the Church and with the rich monastic spiritual tradition. So everything stays the same as in the beginning; there is no differentiation through the centuries like what we witness in the Catholic Church. And I must say that for us Coptic Catholics, the proximity to this reality of our Coptic Orthodox brothers is a help, because our “Western type” of formation contains a risk of intellectualism. While with them it is all much more simple and essential. The point that unites us all is the liturgy. We have to say that the faith in Egypt was preserved and handed down not through theology, civil culture, or great preachers, but through the visceral attachment to the liturgy lived by the Christians of our parts. The liturgy is our true spiritual home.
And the pilgrimages?
The pilgrimages also have a prominent place in the lives of our people. There you find people who come from every part of Egypt; there you rediscover that you are one family, in the faith and the veneration of saints. We Catholic Copts also go in pilgrimage to Orthodox shrines and to places where according to tradition the Holy Family passed.
It is true that Muslims go too?
Certainly. They come to see St George and the Virgin Mary, who is mentioned in the Koran as the most honored among all women, and who for them also gave miraculous birth to her son, whom they consider the greatest of the prophets. So the Virgin Mary is a bridge of unity. And then, Saint Theresa of Lisieux also. There is a Basilica in Cairo dedicated to Theresa that is much frequented by Muslims.
In those days the guard posts in front of the churches were removed but there was not a single attack. This has given weight to the hypothesis, in circulation particularly among Christians, that the same Minister of the Interior had planned the massacre of Alexandria of 31 December, to justify a strengthening of police controls
Really? And how is that?
She is their favorite child saint. The shrine is in a working class neighborhood. It happens that when someone is ill, has an urgent need, has problems with work or family, maybe a Christian friend says: let’s go and pray to St Theresa. They go there, stop in front of the statue of the saint, light candles and pray with great fervor. Often I have even seen them cry. And truly miracles happen, and the word is passed around, from friend to friend. Thus it has become a sanctuary frequented equally by Muslims and Christians. There are also booklets in Arabic that tell her story. A saint so young, so helpless... they accept her very well.
Relations with Muslims have always been a litmus test of the native, “Egyptian”, character of the Coptic Church. From the time of their arrival.
At that time, in the seventh century, the Copts were not only marginalized, but persecuted by the Byzantines, who were the rulers. As I said, Alexandria had a Byzantine patriarch imposed by the empire. When the Muslim conquerors arrived, the Copts welcomed them as liberators. Their first governor, Amr ibn al-As, assured that he would respect the faith of the Copts and their places of worship, something that did in fact happen with him and his first successors. Thus the Coptic monks and bishops were able to resume the spiritual direction of the people and also a socio-political position recognized in the new Islamic order.
But then things got worse.
The time of the Mamluk rulers and later of the Turkish sultans was marked by violence and also by repeated attempts to destroy the Copts. They moved mostly to the southern regions, where they could live life a little more tranquilly.
And now? Are there still areas or social groups where Christians are concentrated?
Now Christians live throughout the country, from the coasts of the north to the borders with Sudan. There is the rare village where all the inhabitants are Christians. But in general we live mixed with the rest of the Egyptian people. Formerly there were areas of Cairo where Christians were prevalent, but now this phenomenon is decreasing too. We do not have enclaves. And we are not even identified with a social class. There are Christians in all social groups, from the fellah, the peasants, to the rich elite. Always in a proportion that does not exceed 10 percent. There are also the rich, well known internationally, but they are always few in comparison to the rich Muslims. And among the Coptic Catholics the rich are few, almost non-existent... [laughs, ed.].
Yet from the nineteenth century on, a certain nationalism emerged among the Copts that identified them as the true inheritors of the ancient Egyptians and regarded Muslims like “foreigners”. The Coptic bourgeoisie baptized their children with the names of the pharaohs.
To tell the truth this exists in Coptic mentality. I say this as a fact: the Coptic Christians were in Egypt before the arrival of the Muslims. But we must not make of this a factor of opposition toward the other Egyptians. How can you wipe out fourteen centuries of coexistence? Then the Muslims could also say: after all you arrived here “just” seven centuries before us... If anything, this argument should be used to define a common ground that unites us in the present and future as it has united us in joy and sorrow for fourteen centuries up to today. We fought together for independence, we have suffered together in the past wars, where the blood of Christians was shed along with that of Muslims.
The Copts did not feel great disappointment when, in modern Egypt, the defensive bastions of the Western powers were dismantled.
Quite the contrary. They did not see in the power of the Western forces an element of protection for Christians. To them it was a factor weakening the local Church, with the passage of members of the Coptic Orthodox Church to that of the Coptic Protestant one. And they say the same for the Catholic Copts. On the other hand, religious freedom can not be denied. And in modern Egypt there has been no ruling power that fostered the birth of the Coptic Catholic Church. Even now we are only 250 thousand. We can not be accused of proselytism.
In the Coptic Orthodox Church, even during the long periods of marginalization, the laity have always had a great influence in the leadership of the Church’s life.
Originally it was they who had to handle everything. The lay notables had money and positions of social influence, the clergy was not educated. The peasants went to the monasteries, they took the most pious and made them bishops. It was thus up to the time of Patriarch Cyril VI, the predecessor of the present Patriarch Shenouda III, who was a holy man of God and began to attract some young university students into the monasteries, and then consecrated them bishops for the mission among the people. These bishops, along with the laity, launched Sunday school catechism, and from there a wave of renewal began that involved the entire Coptic community. A renewal that flourished around the monasteries. From this context come the bishops ordained by Patriarch Shenouda III. They number more than a hundred, and now it is they who lead the Church. The influence of the laity has decreased, but still remains very large.
Many Christian communities of the East are characterized by a certain discretion. They tend to be not too socially conspicuous. Instead, the Copts in Egypt show a certain exuberance even in their public visibility. Large monasteries, large cathedrals, public events.
Of course, the Coptic Church is a visible, present, active Church. But this doesn’t have to do with a desire to appear. The fact is that, although a minority, it is a very consistent minority. They are many, at least eight million, they certainly can not hide.
Let’s return to the present tragic situation. The end of the year massacre shocked everyone. But the Copts had already suffered attacks and violence, since the ’eighties. What has changed compared to before?
There is the general phenomenon of an increase of Islamic fundamentalist currents, which at the Synod we defined “political Islam”. This phenomenon has diverse forms and manifestations. Some of these groups set out to brainwash young people to implement plans of dominion, locally and internationally. They don’t hide it, they state it clearly, they write it. And, given the difficult conditions lived in our countries, they succeed. Among them there are those who spread a culture of rejection and hatred of others. From this soil small groups may emerge who decide to carry out death strikes such as the bombing of Alexandria.
As Christians in Egypt – Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox, without differences – we see that any appeal to diplomatic pressures, punitive initiatives or to economic sanctions directed against Egypt, because of events that concern Egyptian Christians, is the greatest harm that can be done to the Christians themselves
Is the Muslim Brotherhood behind the violence against Christians, as some claim?
The Muslim Brotherhood started out from an ideology that promoted the renewal of Islam in order to return to the purity of its origins. This soon became a political orientation that sought to return to the lifestyle of the times of the Prophet through the integral imposition of the Sharia and of Islamist domination in society. But then things evolved. Even within the Muslim Brotherhood several branches were created, the different groups often take different paths and clash. They can not all be lumped together. Every generalization is misleading. One group should be distinguished from another. And now, there are the new Salafist groups that attack the others, including the Muslim Brotherhood, in the name of their presumed greater Islamic purity.
The great historical merit of the Synod for the Middle East was to have clearly defined this situation, with a view of communion within the Church, with other Christians and then with the other fellow-citizens, to build societies based on law, on respect for common values and on equality in citizenship.
Also in the past, before the attacks and violence suffered by the Copts, the Church in Egypt has never attributed blame to the Islamic majority or to Islam in general. And now?
After the tragedy of Alexandria, there was an even stronger reaffirmation of the common destiny shared in Egypt by both Christians and Muslims. All the interventions on television and in newspapers, also on the part of intellectuals and leaders of the Muslim community, beginning with the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, moved along this line, more than before.
Sensational reactions followed the Pope’s words. Even so far as the suspension of relations with the Holy See by the University of Al-Azhar, the most important center of religious teaching of Sunni Islam. How did things go?
A television [Al Jazeera, ed.] reported the news in a distorted way, saying that the Pope had called on the Western States and governments to intervene to protect the Christians persecuted in Egypt and the Middle East. The Pope never said that. But this false version of his words was taken as if it were the official version. And it became the pretext which led Al-Azhar University to suspend its dialogue with the Holy See.
In brief, the Pope’s words were distorted. But in the West there were indeed campaigns, that also reached the European Parliament, asking that aid be suspended to countries that do not protect Christians.
This attitude is wrong. And it ends up by confirming the erroneous interpretations of the Pope’s words. As Christians in Egypt – Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox, without differences – we see that any appeal to diplomatic pressures, punitive initiatives or to economic sanctions directed against Egypt, because of events that concern Egyptian Christians, is the greatest harm that can be done to the Christians themselves. I wanted to say this also in Brussels, to the European Parliament, where I was invited to speak about the persecution of Christians in the Middle East. But I did not want to leave the country, in the tragic circumstances of these days.
How did the Orthodox Copts evaluate these initiatives and the appeals of the Pope?
They too were affected by the distorted version that was given. And officially they adopted the same criterion of judgment expressed by the Imam of Al-Azhar. We, as Catholics, have a bond of faith and of hierarchy with the Bishop of Rome. But we certainly have no obligation to feel bound by the initiatives of European, Western or international groups and organizations. The contributions that can come from everyone are important and to be valued, but the goal to be aimed at is to foster a positive climate and to identify common grounds for coexistence and cooperation, and not to worsen tensions and conflicts.
In conclusion, I would ask you first of all to pray for the peace and tranquility of Egypt and of all countries that suffer from instability and violence. And I thank you for your interest and your closeness.

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