Egypt’s Coptic Christians Look Back on 2016, a Year of Triumph and Tragedy

By Michael Adel

Many important developments for the Coptic Church and its congregation in Egypt took place in 2016. The church was a key player in several interactions, issues and events in the spiritual, social and political realms at home and abroad because of the unusual circumstances in Egypt over the past few years.

But nothing could have prepared the Coptic community for the horrific suicide bomb explosion inside a Cairo church attached to the Coptic Cathedral. The Sunday 9:57am blast on 11 December killed 25 people, shaking not just the foundations of the church but the moorings of the nation.

Image result for Egyptian security officials and investigators inspect the scene following a bombing inside Cairo's Coptic cathedral in Egypt December 11, 2016. © Amr Abdallah Dalsh

The attack reinforced the notion among the majority of Copts that they are being targeted by the Muslim Brotherhood which sees Copts as having played a pivotal role in the ouster of the Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in 2013. As such, the blast, which tore through the church where mostly women and their children sat, was viewed by Egyptian Christians as a very real existential threat. It was also a bad reminder of the attack on a Coptic church in January 2011 when 23 people were killed in an explosion at Two Saints Church in Alexandria. Or the torching of almost 80 churches in the wake of Morsi’s downfall.

Copts had hoped those dark clouds had moved on. Obviously, the optimism was more than a bit misplaced.

Before Sunday’s carnage, Christian Copts were upbeat. President Al-Sisi’s visit to the Coptic Cathedral in Abbassiya on Christmas eve was a landmark event in the relationship between the church and the state in general, and the president of the republic in particular. It was the second such visit. The brief visit was a unique event in the history of the cathedral since its establishment. More importantly, it was the foundation for a new relationship between the Christian religious institute and the state – something the church will not compromise on again. In the past, only representatives of the president, political parties and various agencies attended.

One reason for the president’s visit to the cathedral was perhaps to show appreciation for the church’s role on the national stage since 30 June 2013 when the church led by Pope Tawadros II was very cooperative with the state following the ouster of Morsi as president, and the pope himself and clergy became unofficial ambassadors of the state on the world stage. The pope and bishops asserted during many meetings with foreign representatives and diplomats that the future of Copts is better with Al-Sisi and that Egypt is safe. This was the message during a meeting between the church and a delegation from the European Parliament, French Senate and Moscow clergy. Several bishops also travelled to the US to support the president at the United Nations and elsewhere.

In the spiritual domain, the greatest event in the church’s history – even though it came at the end of last year but continued to resound throughout 2016 – was the visit by Pope Tawadros to Jerusalem in November 2015. It was the first visit by a Coptic pope in 53 years after an internal church decision to boycott. In response to the media and public attention to his visit, Pope Tawadros said it was not an official visit but for humanitarian reasons, to attend the funeral of Bishop Abraham, the Bishop of Jerusalem and Near East. This encouraged Copts to visit Jerusalem throughout the year. In fact, several bishops, priests and church leaders visited Jerusalem on religious and other missions. Father Boulos Halim, spokesman for the Coptic Orthodox Church, said there will be a five-day visit by Bishop Rafael, secretary of the Holy Synod, Bishop Youssef, Bishop of America and Bishop Bayman, Bishop of Naqada and Qos to Jerusalem, upon the request of the Ethiopian Church regarding Al-Sultan Monastery. Halim told the press the purpose of the visit was to oversee renovations at the monastery, in the presence of the Egyptian charge d’Affaires in Israel and Ethiopia’s ambassador to Tel Aviv.

Another positive development for the church was the ratification of the first legislation pertaining to building churches in Egypt, a groundbreaking legislation. The official newspaper published President Al-Sisi’s decree ratifying legislation for renovating and building new churches. Minister Parliamentary Affairs Magdi Al-Agati announced that the three Egyptian churches agreed on the final draft of the church renovation and construction law.

The Holy Synod of the church met to welcome the new legislation, noting that they now await its application to test it on the ground. Several new churches were built in Egypt recently, including St Paul Church in Basateen, St George Church in Fayoum and the Catholic Virgin Mary Church, and others are under construction. Meanwhile, Archbishop Yoanas, Bishop of Assiut, received a permit to build St George Church in Assiut.

As well as the highs, there were also lows during 2016, including sectarian clashes even though they were fewer compared to previous years. It was a tragic scene in Minya governorate when a gang of radicals and fanatics assaulted an old woman – known in the media as Al-Karm Lady – and stripped her of her clothes. Al-Sisi intervened to bring those responsible to justice, and in response Bishop Makarius of Minya sent a letter of gratitude to the president for his quick intervention in the Al-Karm crisis to uphold the rule of law.

“Mr President, thank you for intervening in a timely manner and your confirmation of the dignity of the Egyptian citizen, and the need to apply the law and hold accountable the perpetrators. This greatly impacted the hearts of everyone,” the letter said. “Mr President, the governorate of Minya – the most important in the region and once the headquarters of government in Egypt – is inhabited by six million Egyptians, including two million Copts. Of them, there are many who are leading figures in many domains. It is the second largest region of antiquities in Egypt after Luxor and has the largest stone resources in the world. This governorate suffers many problems. Because of its importance and greatness, it is very risky that consecutive governments have continued to ignore it over the past decades. Minya needs a second look and personal follow-up by you. Long live Egypt, and may you live long for Egyptians.”

In 2016, Pope Tawadros’ health was closely monitored. It improved greatly through physical therapy instead of surgical intervention which physicians rejected after the pope admitted he had back pain caused by a slipped disc. He travelled to Austria for treatment. Sources tell Al-Ahram Weekly that the pope suffered from mild back pain before becoming pope, but increased after excessive movement and duties as pope in and out of Egypt. Thus, he was forced to call a doctor to the papal headquarters to examine him.

Among his most important statements this year, Pope Tawadros said: “Some people today feel the Bible is old fashioned, and others see it as scripture only. However, real believers live its teachings. It has the power of salvation and redemption that first and foremost is based on living the life of the Bible. Others are busy with the media bustle, websites, reading newspapers and such, and the word of God is lost in the midst of all this. Thus, the first teachings of Egypt’s Patriarch St Mark is: ‘Repent and believe in the power and sacrifice of Christ, it is the path to salvation.’ ” He also said the church is a system that needs joint work.

Pope Tawadros said in one of his meetings that Egypt is a great country and the bond between its Muslim and Christian citizens is “strong”, especially since it is known as the “land of obelisks, beacons and minarets”.

He also said: “Egyptians are living in cohesion and coherence and we must start using the term national love instead of national unity. Our love will always be to God and then our homeland.” He also praised Al-Sisi for “promoting the spirit of love and cohesion among Egyptians”.

Other key developments in 2016 were the end of a debate within the Egyptian church about civil marriage. The Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant churches agreed not to recognise these marriages and not allow their congregations to violate ecclesiastical marriage.

During the year, the church gave Copts a gift by launching the first satellite channel for children named “Kugi”, supervised by Bishop Marcus of Shubra Al-Kheima.

Copts did not forget the crisis of Wadi Rayyan Monastery, known in the media as “The Sculpted Monastery” when a delegation from parliament and public figures succeeded in ending the standoff, bringing viewpoints closer between monks opposing the construction of an international highway through the monastery. There was also the incarceration of a monk for two years for assaulting an environment official.

In 2016, Father Rafael Moussa of St George Church in Arish was assassinated by terrorists on 30 June, an act that was condemned by the state, church and Al-Azhar.

The closing session of the Holy Synod of the Egyptian Church chaired by Pope Tawadros concluded with several decisions and recommendations, most notably the election of Bishop Rafael as secretary to the Holy Synod and secretariats Bishop Thomas of Al-Qosiya and Mir, Bishop Youssef of South America and Bishop Apollo of South Sinai for another three years.
The Holy Synod also recognised the Monastery of the Martyred St Dimyana and Bishop Moisis for nuns in Balyana Diocese. Also, recognition of the Virgin Mary Monastery and Martyr Dimyana in Downsville in Atlanta, Georgia; the South America Diocese; and the Monastery of the Great Saint Bishop Moussa on Al-Alamein highway.

Also, there was a review of all church counselling centres to standardise their approach and identify church-certified centres for issuing marriage licenses which will become mandatory on 1 July 2017.

Another key event after an absence of eight centuries was the appointment of Bishop Baqtar to the New Valley Diocese on 23 June at the Virgin Mary Church in the city of Al-Kharja.
The church has other plans underway, including training 1,000 seminary teachers to improve Christian education at churches across the country.

The church was also active on the cultural front. St Macarius of Sheheat (Scetis) supervised the production of a film about the “49 Martyrs” known as the Elders of Scetis who are buried at the monastery. The film was shown at a special viewing attended by the pope and several media and film figures, as well as MPs.

The film is set in the fifth century where the 49 Martyrs elders of Scetis lived. They were monks at St Macarius Monastery in Scetis and during a Berber raid in 444 they refused to save themselves and take refuge in the fort with other monks. They were slaughtered by the Berbers.

Meanwhile, the Youth Diocese performed eight times at Al-Hanager Theatre at the Opera House in Zamalek, attended by Youth Bishop Moussa, Bishop Rafael of Central Cairo Churches, and several ministers and thespians. These performances, titled “theatrical innovations” were in partnership between the Youth Diocese and Ministry of Youth to encourage and tap into young talent and energy, and benefit from them in building society.

For the Catholic Church, there was a historic meeting after a long hiatus. Pope Francis of the Vatican met the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar Ahmed Al-Tayeb for 30 minutes at the Apostolic Palace. The pope and grand sheikh agreed to turn a new page in relations between the Catholic Church and Al-Azhar University, the largest Sunni university in the world. They discussed combatting terrorism, world peace, the status of Christians in the Middle East and how to protect them.

Meanwhile, the Protestant Church in Egypt was given a boost after the ascension of Father Andrea Zaki to its helm. “The Protestant Church is drafting a law on ‘personal status’ and will present it to the state,” Zaki said. “If the state asks for a unified law, then we will hold consultations.”

He added: “The interests of Protestants are my priority and I will not interfere in the law. But I have already declared that I do not approve of civil marriage. My position is demographic and political before being religious because it will not contribute to social peace. I am glad everyone accepted the decision open-heartedly.”

He further noted that the Protestant Church added two clauses: Equating the inheritance rights of males and females, and adoption to allow Christians to adopt Christians.
Zaki asserted that divorce for Protestants is limited to adultery, religious conversion and 10 standing reasons.

On the day of the Cairo blast, the furthest thing from the minds of Christians was a personal status law. Even though the suicide bomber was identified – by none other than Al-Sisi himself – and although the president vowed that while the attack “caused a great pain it will never break us”, Egypt’s Coptic Christians could not help but review a fairly good year that did not have a happy ending.