Authorities refused a request on Monday from a group of Coptic activists for permission to demonstrate in front of the Coptic Orthodox Church, protest organizers told Mada Masr.
According to the request published by the privately owned Al-Watan newspaper, the demonstration seeks to protest the church’s alleged financial corruption, as well as the harsh divorce laws imposed on the Coptic community. The protest, billed as “The people of the church are angry at the church leadership,” was due to be held on September 9.
Protest organizer Gaber al-Nekhily explains to Mada Masr that the church leadership abuses the institution’s financial resources, especially in regards to donations made to it. He alleges that church leaders, including monks, live in luxury, while poor people, who are supposed to be the main beneficiary of these donations, continue to struggle in poverty.
In reaction to the accusations, the Orthodox Church’s Holy Synod released a strongly worded statement on Wednesday, rejecting the rhetoric of the protests and claiming the organizers of the protests are motivated by personal interests. The statement stated the church leadership fear that the protests would be infiltrated by people hoping to cause a “an unjustifiable riot.”
Pope Tawadros II’s door is open to everyone, the statement said, and the pope has never rejected a meeting with anyone, saying, “The pope goes to great efforts [to take care of church constituents], while there are others who try to make these efforts fail.”
The church urged the Coptic community to steer away from the protests stating they are not the correct way to deal with issues. The statement explained the church’s primary role is as a “spiritual entity based on the supremacy and leadership of Christ, not as an institution managed by confrontations and protests.”
The statement also asserted that the pope never makes decisions alone, but forms groups and committees that report to the Holy Synod, which then makes decisions according to a majority vote.
“We demand new legislation that enables the people of the church to oversee the church’s administration and financial and administrative powers,” Nekhily says. “The current status quo puts the church above the state and above the law and above any financial supervision.”
Nekhily believes that discomfort among authorities with the corruption allegations are the reason permission was not granted.
There is a contradiction, he says, between the role that the Endowments Ministry plays in overseeing mosques, financially and administratively, and that of the church, which remains free from state supervision.
He alludes to Article 3 of the Constitution – unchanged from the previous Constitution – which gives supreme powers to the church to organize the affairs of the Coptic community. It stipulates, “The religious principles of Coptic and Jewish Egyptians shall be the main source of legislation organizing their personal status and religious affairs, as well as the choice of their spiritual leadership.”
The church has long been the de facto representative of the Coptic community before Egypt’s political leadership and acting as the only political voice of Egypt’s Christians. The church’s leadership has come in for criticism for intervening in politics and being a strong ally of consecutive ruling regimes at the expense of the direct interests of the Coptic community.
Researcher of religious freedoms at the Egyptian Initiatives for Personal Rights (EIPR) Ishaq Ibrahim explained to Mada Masr that there is a clear need to impose internal supervision by the Coptic community on the church’s financial resources, but warned that this supervision should be independent from state control.
“The church’s money is not the state’s money, so it should not be monitored by the state. It is not similar to the Endowments Ministry whose financial resources belong to the state in the first place,” he explained.
The other main demand of the protest relates to the strict laws organizing divorce. The church only allows divorce in cases of adultery, a restriction that has left thousands of Copts demanding secular laws which would allow for civil marriages. Nekhily states that many lives have been destroyed by the church’s strict laws, and its stark refusal of civil marriages.
Many Coptic groups have been involved in campaigning for civil marriage, but their only way of communicating opposition to the current church leadership is through protesting, he explains. “We are a minority, a numerical minority, so any attempts to look for political tools like legislation and the parliament won’t succeed, as no one will dare to challenge the church for our sake,” he says.
He is indirectly referring to the strong political connection between Pope Tawadros II and President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, after the pope declared his open support for a military-brokered political roadmap that led to Sisi’s presidency following the ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi in 2013.
“Would Sisi dare to strip the church of their powers in controlling personal affairs of Copts Ministry just like Muslims?” he muses.
The Holy Synod’s Wednesday statement asserted the church is led by “truth and justice.”
“The church cannot be subject to blackmail or personal demands that violate the teachings and principles of the holy Bible,” the statement contended.
The Copts 38 group, the main group campaigning for reform in marriage and divorce laws, would not be participating in the protest, spokesperson Nader al-Serafy explains to Mada Masr.
“The declared demands are not clear. There is talk about financial corruption and other demands that have to do with civil marriage, which are completely unrelated,” Serafy says.
While current bylaws only allow divorce in case of adultery, bylaws issued in 1938 offered eight reasons for Copts to get divorce.
In any case, as far as Copts 38 is concerned, the civil marriage problem may be on the brink of being solved.
“We are in close contact with the church and this issue will be resolved soon. There is a draft law in the making to enable civil marriages,” adds Serafy, who joined the ultra-conservative Salafi Nour Party electoral lists.
His decision to run on the Nour Party list raised controversy as to why a Copt would join a hardline Islamist party. Nekhily himself accused the church leadership of forming political alliances with the Nour Party in the upcoming parliament through the nomination of various Coptic candidates, including Serafy, in order to pass laws that favor the interests of the church’s leadership. It’s expected.”
Serafy refutes these allegations, explaining that his nomination “is a personal political act that is unrelated to the Coptic issue.” In a previous interview with the privately owned Bawaba news outlet, Serafy said he acquired the permission of Tawadros II to join Nour’s party lists.
Ibrahim of EIPR explains that there are conflicting currents within the church institution, which usually result in conflicting interests. While he believes that Tawadros II declared his intention to reform the way the church is run, “the old guard” appears to oppose these reforms.
“Even if the intentions of the pope are true, they will take a very long time to happen. The church is an extremely conservative institution by nature. This approach is no longer working in a changed context where the youth are raising their demands,” he says.
While the church has taken some steps in order to shorten the divorce process, Ibrahim explains, it has failed to address the main issues related to civil marriage.
“The church needs to be faster in opening immediate channels of communication with the protesters,” he says. “Old techniques are no longer working.”