It didn’t take long for the regime to crack down on Islamist and secular opposition after the military takeover on 3 July 2013. Anyone speaking out against regime injustices was discredited as a Muslim Brotherhood member and loyalist to the deposed president Mohamed Morsi. In a sense, a great opportunity was afforded to Coptic Christians to speak out against regime practices without drawing similar accusations. That opportunity was squandered. Instead of silence, which would have been understandable, the church sided with the regime and actively supported its military-led violations.
Spearheaded by the church, a visible portion of the Coptic community turned a blind eye to the brutal practices of the state, never condemning the conduct of any state institution. Rather than draw attention to the multitude of human rights violations against numerous factions of the Egyptian society, the Coptic pope opted to condemn the discussion of these violations, despite heading a community that experiences discrimination systematically. His clergy followed suit and publicly regaled Abdel Fattah al-Sisi with praises and compliments.
When the security apparatus forcibly dispersed the Rabaa and Al-Nahda sit-ins on 14 August 2013, Coptic churches and homes bore the brunt. Nearly 80 churches were burned along with many Christian shops and homes. They were offered no protection by the state.
It is natural for the Coptic Christian minority to fear for its wellbeing in light of a long history of discriminatory practices adopted by the Egyptian state. It was therefore understandable that church leaders sought the state’s protection. Reducing the state’s inactions when sectarian tensions arise can be construed as protection.
Yet the manner with which the new church leadership chose to lobby for protection was, at best, politically inexperienced. At a time when its constituency had a sizeable effect on the legitimacy of the new regime, the Church did not wait for concessions by the state in order to support it. Long standing issues, such as the freedom to build churches, were deferred and the position of Copts in Egypt did not improve. The voting block required by the regime to endorse Al-Sisi and his parliament was given freely, and thus, the role of Copts in establishing the regime was fulfilled and consequently shrunk.
The predicament of the Coptic Church is understandable, but the compromise is unforgivable. Instead of siding with imprisoned activists who have called for justice and equality for all, the Coptic pope chose to praise Al-Sisi and all but condemn discussions about human rights violations. Not only did Pope Tawadros throw other mistreated Egyptians under the bus, but when prompted about the Coptic victims of Maspero, many of whom were run over by army APCs in October 2011, he distorted history by blaming the Muslim Brotherhood for that horrible day.
It is no wonder now that sectarian tensions are on the rise. The recent attacks in Minya and Beni Suef are emblematic of the return of the old ways where Copts are scapegoated. Some have even speculating that increased tensions are the regime’s punitive response to when Anba Makarious, Bishop of Minya and Abu Qurqas, demanded that the law be applied to perpetrators, rather than sweep it under the rug, as has become customary.
The government is adamant about not applying the law when it comes to sectarian incidents, and instead resorts to informal reconciliation sessions without bringing various perpetrators to justice. Thus, we’ve come full circle to something similar or perhaps worse than the era of former president Hosni Mubarak. With constant sectarian incidents largely ignored by the state, lack of punitive action against perpetrators is perhaps even implicitly encouraging.
The church placed a bet to cater to the regime’s wishes in return for protection. This Faustian bargain comes at the expense of Christian values. Instead of relying on fearlessness in the face of injustice, constantly preached to its congregation, the church cowered behind authorities who do Coptic Christians no justice. Now the church is reliant solely on state directives.
Today, the church stands naked without protection and without adhering to values it once boasted. In effect, the church has lost its wager to find protection after its constituency gave consent to the new political order. As sectarian tensions rise once again, Coptic Christians are filled with anger and despair and unsure of how to move forward.
Many questions arise as the country plummets, not only into an abyss of sectarianism, but of economic and judicial failures as well. The Coptic church and its congregation must be frustrated to be treated once again as second class citizens, even after all support given to Al-Sisi’s regime and a much celebrated visit from Al-Sisi to the cathedral.
There is a verse in the bible that comes to mind: “You are the salt of the earth.”
This verse is repeated by the Coptic church, and what it means is that the Coptic community should be a beacon of justice and values. The verse goes on to say: “But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.”
I do not know if the Coptic church has indeed lost its saltiness as it trampled justice underfoot and excused the regime’s brutal practices. I do not know if the Coptic church has lost its soul in its Faustian bargain with the regime. I only have hope that the Coptic church, and indeed the rest of the Egyptian society, remembers that a soul seeking truth and justice is worth more than one scurrying away from them towards fleeting promises of protection… at least in the long run.
Wael Eskandar is an independent journalist and blogger based in Cairo. He is a frequent commentator on Egyptian politics and has written for Ahram Online, Egypt Independent, Counterpunch, and Jadaliyya, among others. He blogs at notesfromtheunderground.net.