by Esmerelda Weatherwax (March 2013)
To St Margaret’s church in Westminster to hear Bishop Angaelos of the Coptic church speak on ‘Doing God in the Middle East’, a talk for Civil Servants, part of the Westminster Abbey Institute spring 2013 programme. This is not a transcript; I do not do shorthand. It is my recollection, from longhand notes.
The Revd Canon Andrew Tremlett welcomed us and introduced the Bishop with some biographical details. He was born in Cairo, brought up in Australia where he attended University. He became a monk under the care of Pope Shenouda who died last year. He is a prolific presence in the UK and is a member of the General Synod of the Church of England. He works with Baroness Cox on an asylum group and was part of the memorial service held in Westminster recently for the martyrs of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’.
The icons here are gifts of the Coptic Church to St Margaret’s, replicas of icons in the Coptic Cathedral in Stevenage.
Bishop Angaelos began by saying how much he always feels at home here, among friends. Our relationship with the Church of England is one we cherish. Today he wants to give us some insight into what is romantically called the Arab Spring. But if you work in the Foreign Office you will know that it is definitely not a spring.
He commenced with a short history of the Coptic Church. The Christian church has been in Egypt since the time of the Gospels, when St Mark evangelised Egypt around 50AD. The government figures say that there are 5 million Copts; the real figure is between 15 and 18 million. They are the largest Christian presence in the Middle East. The Copts are the indigenous people of Egypt – direct descendants of the Pharaohs. As you will see from the icons the Coptic language is written in Greek script which was adopted at the time that hieroglyphs died out.
Islam entered the country in 642 and then things changed. From 1253 onwards there were added pressures and this was the time that an 80% Christian nation became an Islamic one. There was an invitation to Islam, if we want to be gracious about it, others would call it enforcement. Christians were second class citizens who had to pay the jizya tax in order to live.
Fast forward to the early decade of this century and under President Mubarak the regime was supposed to be secular, but Christians were hardly represented at all at the highest level of any authority, whether it be health, education, finance.
Then came what he describes as the uprising. It was not a revolution. A revolution means change and this has produced no change. If it does produce any change he does not believe that it will be for the better.
At first he saw an incredible possibility of people embracing their nationality. Previously in Egypt one was a member of one’s religion first. To be a good Christian was to always be a threat; to be good Muslim meant to be on the fringes of fundamentalism. But in the early days, to see Tahir Square, to see Muslims and Christians, men and women, young and old, together with the national flags was incredible. He drove through maybe three days after the uprising began, at 2 am in the morning and witnessed a celebration. He has a rock he picked up that morning in his office as a reminder.
There was a lot that could have been done. There was the potential to empower all to use their full ability.
He was branded a cynic at the time but he was right that period only lasted a few weeks. There was no effective leadership and the momentum withered.
A new leadership emerged but only for a small presence of political Islam.
The first thing that was attacked was not a Christian site but a Sufi shrine, because that stream of Islam was not in line with what was wanted. Then after attacks on Christians began there were more deaths in one year than in the previous 10 years. Not only Christians were attacked but atheists, Jews, secular Muslims, other types of Muslim. People lost hope.
He defined democracy according to the Oxford English dictionary. He sees it in terms of a universal human rights. Some in the West were very naïve; they wanted to export Western democracy. This had failed in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Why did they expect it to work in Egypt?
It was obvious that those coming into power didn’t look at representing all. Christians have been under Muslim majority sharia law for a very long time. We accept this. But suddenly all positions of influence were given to a small minority even among Muslims. The majority of these positions were given to members of the Muslim brotherhood or the Salafists. They only had a very small mandate, of maybe 12% of the population. This is how. Only 50% of Egyptians are allowed to vote. Only 50% of them actually voted. Only 50% of them voted for Muslim brotherhood.
This was no spring.
In Egypt today there is a breakdown of law and order. There is no investment. The economy is in tatters. Tourism is down and we pray for those killed and suffering in the tragic ballooning accident earlier this week.
The two main issues facing Egypt are illiteracy and poverty. Poor voters can be manipulated economically. Illiterate voters can be manipulated in other ways. The problem can be addressed by education and by including women.
Christians were accused of not being part of the revolution and of holding back. We did not do this because we supported Mubarak but because of our experience over previous centuries. We need to look at empowerment in order to build a nation that has been divided for centuries.
Egypt, and we thank God for this, is different to other parts of the Middle East in that there is no tribal mentality, unlike the situation in Syria, Iraq and Libya. He believes that there is still time to build a state with universal human rights.
The solution is simple – no 1st class and 2nd class citizens. The Christians have recently rejected minority status. We are not a new group entering the country. We are the indigenous people.
It won’t happen overnight but we must be hopeful.
Our country must be protected from external influences. We must create a unified nation for a unified people, with unified objectives.
There began a session of questions and answers.
Q. Bishop, does President Morsi welcome advice from people like you?
A. He is a politician and all politicians will listen. But acting on advice is not his forte. Many of his advisors have already resigned. Consultation is only a formality.
Q. From a representative of Christian Solidarity Worldwide. The United Council for Egyptian Churches sounds very interesting. What do you think its role will be?
A. This is an initiative started by the late Pope Shenouda III and the Anglican Bishop of Egypt. Christians can stand together. In the past we relied too much on the Council of Middle East Churches and they have been limited. We are not politicians but we can be a moral compass to Politicians. We must speak loudly as to what is right and what is wrong. That will be our strength. Mubarak tried divide and conquer. He attempted to do this between churches as well as between Muslims and Christians.
Q. What practical steps could be taken to unify the Nation? How can unity be achieved?
A. We must pray and be the Light of Christ in the nation. We must be loving and loyal citizens. The next step is not in our hands; it must be done by government, a literacy programme. The churches’ humanitarian work is a drop in the ocean. There has to be a government programme of community cohesion.
Q. I recently visited the Monastery of St Anthony in the eastern desert. They were receiving visits from many Coptic families. Please tell us more about the role of the Monastic movement.
A. The Monastic movement had its home in the monasteries of Egypt, from the time of St Anthony himself. They have always been oases of faith. In my time in the monastery I remember 10,000 visitors, coach parties of Christians seeking peace and retreat.
Q. A woman, a member of the Church of Antioch mentioned the problems in Syria, and Iraq and Lebanon. There has been an exodus from those countries. Is this happening in Egypt and how much commitment do Egyptians have for their heritage?
A. We must continue to pray for the Christians of Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. There has been no mass exodus – Egyptians do not want to go. In the 1980s many Lebanese went to Australia, but where would 15 – 18 million people go now? The Arabs surrounding Egypt wouldn’t want us. Better the devil we know.
But what we do have is affluent Egyptians, of both religions, planning their exit strategy, their Plan B, if they see the situation deteriorating. And this would be a terrible drain on society if they did go.
Q. What would happen if a monastery were to invite government leaders to a retreat?
A. This has happened historically. Politicians love a photo opportunity. But what would be their motivation? Their real intention?
We are still trying. We are the indigenous people. We want our country to do well. We won’t leave.
Q. You have first-hand knowledge of Egypt, the UK and Australia. Is the British government doing enough?
A. Her Majesty’s Government is working in a very British way. Calm, collected and for the long term, which doesn’t always show immediately. You are working behind the scenes, as compared with the US who are upfront.
To speak generally it is a matter of human rights and civil rights. Building a church should not need a Presidential decree. Bulldozing a church should be a matter of criminal damage.
Q. The questioner asked about the Muslim Brotherhood. They seem to have a very fixed outlook.
A. The Muslim Brotherhood is a quandary. Egypt is governed by a presidential system. The President is supposed to cut his political ties. The Muslim Brotherhood should have no voice but they are contributing to public policy. This won’t do. It is an abuse of power and manipulative.
Never forget, technically the Muslim Brotherhood is still an outlawed organisation.
The talk concluded with thanks.
I found the demonstration of faith in the face of adversity awe inspiring, both faith in God to provide, and faith in our fellow man.
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Photograph of St Margaret's E Weatherwax February 2013