By: Ramy Yaacoub & Basil El-Dabh
In response to Pope Tawadros II’s recent statements regarding Egypt’s current conditions and human rights
“How can we talk about human rights at a time like this?” asked Pope Tawadros II when speaking to El-Tahrir, a popular Egyptian television channel. In his recent interview, the leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church explicitly suggested that in light of the current circumstances, which include the ongoing “war on terror,” political instability, and the rogue actions of the Muslim Brotherhood, now is not an appropriate time to discuss human rights. He also dismissed recent international reports critical of the state of human rights in Egypt as “tendentious in their nature.”
The Pope’s comments mark a serious departure from his November 2012 Al-Arabiya interview, between the time of his selection and enthronement, in which he said, “The pope doesn’t have time to work in politics. His primary role is a spiritual one. The church is a spiritual establishment only.” Even in January 2013, the Pope was tweeting verses of a universal nature which called for action in the realm of social justice; for example, he wrote: “Pro 25:21 “If your enemy is hungry give him bread. Love never fails; through hospitality and love one can embrace anyone, even an enemy,” and “Pro 9:31 “plead the cause of the poor. Live with a good conscience, do not tolerate injustice or oppression. Speak truth and protect the weak.”
The clear change in messaging depicted by the Pope coincides with the hyper-nationalistic fervor that has swept the Egyptian sociopolitical spectrum and pushed aside anything and everything that stands in its way.
There is no doubt that the Pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church, whoever he may be, is faced with the extremely difficult task of navigating through intricate sociopolitical problems in a country that has a history of discrimination against Christians and other ethnic and religious minorities. In addition to discrimination, Christians have historically been denied promotions to jobs deemed as national security priorities; more so, Christians in Egypt have been underrepresented in Parliament and in top Executive branch positions. Clearly, the Pope must constantly consider his leading role as the representative of the interests—and grievances—of Egypt’s institutionally underrepresented Christian community when making decisions. However, the Pope‘s recent remarks are reflective of his political opinions and go above and beyond reaffirming the commitment of the Coptic-Christian community to Egypt and its national interests..
Ideally, the Pope would not get involved in political developments, instead focusing on his post as the chief spiritual leader to millions both in Egypt and around the world. However, should the circumstances force his hand into involvement, he should do so without allowing nationalistic fervor to compromise the ethical and moral standards that the Coptic Orthodox Church was founded on.
While the Coptic community felt threatened during the Morsi era—with televised images of the siege of St. Mark’s Cathedral and the rage-fueled attacks on dozens of churches by Morsi supporters in August 2013 haunting many to this day—this was not a new reality; the Christian community was the target of significant violence during the rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, most notably the October 9, 2011 Maspero Massacre, and under Mubarak. Additionally, there are telling signs that reflect a trend that government-sponsored actions that will not be punished; Minister of the Interior Mohamed Ibrahim, who headed the police force during the siege of St. Mark’s Cathedral, for example, remains in his post today. For many Christian and Muslim alike who have suffered extensively due to the State’s abhorrent attitude towards human rights, the Pope’s remarks come as salt upon wounds that have yet to heal.
For many Christian and Muslim alike who have suffered extensively due to the State’s abhorrent attitude towards human rights, the Pope’s remarks come as salt upon wounds that have yet to healOne of the many contributing factors in Morsi’s downfall was the Brotherhood’s keenness to enforce major societal changes in line with their ideology. Writing for the Atlantic Council, Amir Beshay duly notes: “The separation of ‘religion and state’ was one of the several reasons for many – both Christian and Muslim [Egyptians] – to object to the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood.” Today, Egypt seems to be far from seeing advances in either the country’s respect for human rights or the separation of religion and state.
For Pope Tawadros II to ignore human rights is equivalent to ignoring the concept of “mercy,” a word that is inseparable from Christian doctrine and repeated more than 50 times in the Liturgy of Saint Basil, the most commonly used liturgy in the Coptic Orthodox Church. By labeling domestic turmoil as a justification to set aside the need to respect human rights, the Pope is—perhaps unintentionally—retroactively justifying the myriad of violations that Egypt’s Christians and other similarly vulnerable segments of society have faced. More so, the universality of human rights is the very concept invoked when Christians are discriminated against, and it is the concept that will ensure the safety and seamless integration of the Christian community as an intrinsic part of Egyptian society.
The Pope’s recent remarks were not outliers, but rather one of many partisan statements made by Church leadership in post-revolutionary Egypt. In an interview with Kuwait’s al-Watan television channel, Tawadros commented on the Arab Spring: “It wasn’t a spring or even an autumn…It was a winter,” adding that it took place “with the Western goal of dividing Arab countries into smaller pieces.” On human rights, he has also said, “It’s clear that there is a deliberate misconception on behalf of the media, television, and the press [with regards to] the concept of human rights.” Earlier this year, the Pope released a video not only encouraging Egyptians to participate in the recent constitutional referendum, but specifically calling upon them to vote “yes” and using the catchy slogan: “قول نعم يزيد النعم” (“Saying ‘Yes’ increases the blessings”). Thus, the Coptic Orthodox Church has taken on a number of political stances to date, many of them raising questions regarding the institution’s proper role. In this regard, Pope Tawadros II marks a significant departure from his predecessor’s policy after the January 25 Revolution. When asked about his participation in the upcoming referendum in March 2011, the late Pope Shenouda III said, “It is not important whether they vote Yes or No, but it is important for Egyptians to participate in elections.”
It is ironic that Pope Tawadros II calls for society to ignore or delay the advancement of human rights in Egypt when the very creed that he represents is derived from a man who embodied moral universalism, a predecessor to the concept of universal human rights, in his every action. Tawadros is not asking the public to turn the other cheek, but rather to turn a blind eye.
In examining historical accounts, one can find a number of stories that are deeply tied to the Church’s history, mimicking similar sociopolitical conditions, and yielding injustice and turmoil similar to what face Egypt today.
The First Jewish-Roman War (The Great Revolt)
In the year 66 CE in the Roman colony of Palestine, an uprising commonly dubbed “The Great Revolt” led to the First Jewish-Roman War, a theological-political struggle that would ultimately result in the destruction of important religious structures, claim the lives of thousands, and leave many in slavery. Although due reflection on the origins of the conflict is needed best understand its true import, one can simplify the matter by stating that the war was fueled to varying degrees by the Jewish rejection of the corruption, extortion, and greed of their Roman oppressors, the desperate need for better social welfare, and the rigidity of the religious leadership.
Prior to this conflict, the Romans appointed the Jewish King Herod the Great to rule Judea, land that included Jerusalem; he served as their client from 37 to 4 BCE. Although a tyrant, he has been remembered particularly for his extensive construction projects, and with his ambition and unsurpassed tyranny, he was able to eliminate all contenders to the throne. Because of this, his death resulted in a power vacuum that was ineffectually filled by his three sons, all of whom competed for influence over their designated territories in hopes of gaining the good graces of the Roman leadership and becoming the sole local ruler.
Unable to address the local population’s growing social justice demands, internecine cleavages, and theological disputes, the Romans appointed Herod’s three sons as tetrarchs of a divided Judea. These divisions inspired further divisions among the citizenry and only led to more severe disputes that brought about the formation of organized opposition movements and rebel and terrorist groups, including the “Zealots” and the “Sicarii” (“The Dagger Men”), who acted as political assassins.
The Sociopolitical Threat of One Working-Class Man
In the midst of this sociopolitical conundrum and theological battle between the Romans and religious Jews who saw their faith being attacked, there emerged a working-class man who preached for better societal conditions, calling for ideas like loving one’s neighbor, feeding the needy, and putting a stop to the condemnation of outcasts, like adulterous women. Although the term “human rights” had not yet been coined at this point of history, Jesus’ ideas of moral universalism reflected such a concept, with teachings on justice, fairness, social welfare, and mercy.
The leaders of the Jewish population, of course, saw Jesus as a threat to their theological-patriarchal hierarchy that could not be taken lightly, especially in light of the recent memory of the revolt of the Maccabees, the retaking of Judea by force, and the forceful conversion of the local population to a more “authentic” form of Judaism. Similarly, while local leaders like Pontius Pilate viewed Jesus as innocent, he also believed that it would be politically costly to defend his right to just treatment in an already electrified society that was on the brink of revolt. For this reason, Pilate stood aside, indirectly facilitating the unjust killing of an innocent man.
The period that begins with King Herod and ends with the death of Jesus is one filled with many lessons. King Herod, although a victim of Roman abuses of human rights himself, favored the ruthless conduct of politics and power, thus paving the way for a climate that dismissed ideals that we would recognize as human rights and justice. Additionally, his conduct amplified considerations of political capital in moral decision-making, contributing to calls by zealots for executions in which at least one innocent man was killed.
The local politics of Judea during the First Roman War were shaped by unorthodox political alliances, social upheaval and uprisings, a militaristic power, a religious-grassroots-oriented opposition, the rise of terrorists, and an overarching thematic spirit of injustice. Such conditions are eerily similar to those facing Egypt today.
If the Pope expects the country to make positive steps against discrimination and towards an environment that is inclusive of Egypt’s Christian minority and other minorities, he must remember that the only way to do so is by respecting the very concepts of the rule of law and of human rights that he has—however temporarily—dismissed as irrelevant.
While proponents of the Christian theological perspective may argue that the tyranny of man and political complexities facing the Roman Empire and Judea led to the salvation of the human race, this was a singular moment in history. Surely we cannot continue to expect the tyranny of man to deliver salvation.
The stories in this article and the unfolding political and human rights scene in Egypt beg to invoke a parable that arguably summarizes the relationship between Christianity at large and secular-style governance: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” As Pope Tawadros II sits on one of the thrones of an empire that was founded on the views and beliefs of that one unjustly-tried, innocent, working-class man, the irony could not be clearer.