Last week, a group of Coptic activists protested inside the Abbaseyya Cathedral against the Church’s representatives in the 50-member committee tasked with drafting Egypt’s new constitution.
Protesters called on two Coptic Church leaders, Bishops Armia and Boula, to return to their monasteries, accusing them of blocking attempts to open the door for absolute religious freedom.
Bishops Boula and Armia were slammed in particular for their stances on amending Article 3 of the proposed constitution. In the constitution passed in 2012 — suspended with President Mohamed Morsi’s ouster by the military on July 3 this year — Article 3 granted followers only of Christianity and Judaism the right to freely follow the jurisdiction of their religions in their personal affairs.
The article also gave religious leaders the right to organize the personal and general affairs of the Coptic community.
The stipulation of the article, which was amended under the rule of Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Morsi, showed an inclination by the Islamist regime to maintain a relationship with the Church as the supreme representative of the country’s largest minority group.
Following the ouster of Morsi and with the drafting of a new constitution, the issue of religious freedom was brought to the forefront of the constituent assembly’s discussions. More voices have started calling for opening the sphere for religious freedom, where the state grants citizens the right to practice whatever religion they believe in.
Many argue that the January 25 revolution opened Copts’ eyes to the entwined relationship between the Church and the state, which is why they are now rejecting any overlap.
Coptic activist Mina Fayek explained to Mada Masr that the mentality of the Coptic community started to shift following January 25 as more Copts became opposed to the intervention of the Church in political life.
For the young activist, Boula and Armia represent an old school within the Orthodox Church that wants to maintain the deep-rooted relationship between state and Church, in which the Church plays a role beyond its religious duty.
“Some leaders want to have a political role as well, but we cannot put the clock back. The relationship between the Church and the state needs to change. Copts can represent themselves,” he said.
Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights researcher Ishak Ibrahim agrees, adding that the revolution pushed at the limits of the relationship between Copts and their religious leaders.
“The very basic fact that young people are voicing their concerns inside the cathedral is a landmark shift that shows how far Coptic youth have developed in the way they think,” he explained.
Ibrahim regarded the open sphere created by the 2011 uprising within the blogosphere as well as the street action enabled Copts to force a new reality on the Church.
“The Church cannot resist the change happening,” he said.
Although the official stance of the Orthodox Church leaned towards the proposed changes to Article 3, the remarks of some church representatives in the assembly raised many questions.
Church representative Bishop Armia said in a discussion in the Coptic Cultural Center that he fears that opening the way to absolute religious freedom may further fuel social conflicts.
“When we [grant] the right to all non-Muslims to resort to their religious jurisdictions in their personal affairs, there will be a huge problem in Egypt from which both Muslims and Copts will suffer,” Armia said. “What if we are faced by a Shia or a Bahaai who wants to resort to his or her own religious jurisdictions? What about devil worshippers? How are we going to face those?”
Following protests against his remarks, Armia declared in an interview with the privately owned daily Al-Masry Al-Youm (AMAY) that this was his personal opinion “as an Egyptian citizen” rather than the Church’s position.
In an AMAY interview with Bishop Boula in 2012, during the drafting of the constitution by an Islamist-dominated constituent assembly, the church leader boasted that he was behind the contentious stipulation of Article 3 that restricts religious freedom to Abrahamic religions only.
“We do not want to open the door [for complete religious freedom] because it will never end. We have a lot of factories in which Asians work and follow non-Abrahamic religious beliefs, would we allow them to practice their religions? It is the same issue with Bahaais. That’s why we agreed on restricting it only to Muslims and Copts. It was my suggestion, not the Salafis’,” Boula said.
Responding to the mounting criticism by secular Coptic activists of his stance, Boula explained in a more recent interview with Al-Watan daily that secular Copts are represented in the current 50-member committee, referring to renowned cardiologist Magdy Yaacoub.
“But there have to be representatives from the religious institutions, like Al-Azhar. We cannot bring [religious] representatives from outside the institution,” he said.
Still, Fayek acknowledges that his and other fellow critics’ views may not be common among Copts.
“Yes there is a majority of Copts who have opinions similar to Armia and Boula,” he said, referring to some who fear that more religious freedom may play in favor of Coptic sects other than the dominant Orthodox Church.
“It is the same as Muslims who do not want more religious freedom for Shias and Bahaais,” he explained.
Yet Fayek dismissed claims that all those who oppose the old guard in the Church are not religious.
“Many of us are practicing and are faithful followers of the Coptic Church. I have found other Copts who have the same opinions as me in the church I go to every week,” he said, adding that the Coptic community needs to understand the importance of distinguishing the religious role of leaders from their political role.
Fayek believes that with the ascendance of Pope Tawadros II to office last year, some changes began taking place within the Church leadership.
“We started to see some changes. The Church started to realize that there is no more guardianship over Copts when it comes to their political and social life,” he said.
But Fayek believes such change is not enough. In his latest interview, with CBC satellite channel, Tawadros II endorsed General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi for presidency.
“Egypt needs someone like Sisi,” said Tawadros II.
Fayek believes that such an announcement should not come from a religious figure.
“There is an initial change within the Church leadership that needs to be developed, there is also more awareness among Copts. We need to work on that as well,” he added.
But one positive sign that Ibrahim sees is that all the remarks that have angered young Copts were more personal opinions than any official stance. He believes that religious leaders are conservative by nature, and “are not for absolute religious freedom.”
“Their remarks are part of the quest to keep the old relationship between the ruling regime and the Church. It is a relationship, however, that is surpassed by the new reality,” he said.