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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 May 2009


Although some contemporary Egyptian studies have broached aspects of the relationship between the Coptic Orthodox Church and the regime, few have examined developments in the political rapport between the two in the last decade. Important studies have touched on the relationship between the state and church during Nasser's regime, the Sadat years, and the early years of the Mubarak regime, up to the first half of the 1990s. However, there is a paucity of literature on the relationship between the Coptic church and the Egyptian state in the past ten years, a lacuna that this study addresses.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2009

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1 See, for example, Youssef, Abu Seif, Al-Aqbat wa-l-Qawmiya al-ʿArabiyya (Copts and Arab Nationalism) (Beirut: Centre for Arab Unity Studies, 1987)Google Scholar; Bahr, Samira, Al-Aqbat fi al-Haya al-Siyasiyya al-Misriyya (Copts in Egyptian Political Life) (Cairo: Anglo-Egyptian Bookshop, 1984)Google Scholar; and Fawzy, Mohammed, Al-Baba Kyrollos wa-ʿAbd al-Nasser (Pope Kyrollos and Nasser) (Cairo: Al-Watan, 1993)Google Scholar.

2 Such as Anwar, Mohammed, Al-Sadat wa-l-Baba (Sadat and the Pope) (Cairo: Dar A. M. Press, 1990)Google Scholar; Heikal, Mohammed Hassanein, Autumn of Fury (London: Andre Deutsch, 1983)Google Scholar; al-Fattah, Nabil ʿAbd, Al-Mushaf wa-l-Sayf (The Qurʾan and the Sword) (Cairo: Madbouli, 1983)Google Scholar; Gouda, Guirgis, Al-Sadat wa-l-Aqbat (Sadat and the Copts) (Los Angeles, Calif.: American Coptic Association Chapter of Southern California, 1981)Google Scholar; and Sabry, Moussa, Al-Sadat: Al-Haqiqa wa-l-Ustura (Sadat: The Truth and the Legend) (Cairo: Al-Ahram, 1985)Google Scholar.

3 An excellent study on the contemporary Copts that touches on state–church relations during all three eras is Hassan's, SanaaChristians versus Muslims in Egypt: The Century-Long Struggle for Coptic Equality (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003)Google Scholar. Also see Van-Doorm-Harder, Nelly and Vogt, Kari, eds., Between Desert and the City: The Coptic Orthodox Church Today (Oslo, Norway: The Institute for Comparative Research in Human Culture, 1997)Google Scholar.

4 These works also tend to be nonscholarly, reflecting a certain ideological position of the author (i.e., Islamist, pro-Coptic Church, etc.). Such works include Habib, Rafiq, Al-Jamaʿa al-Qibtiyya: Bayn al-Indimaj wa-l-Iʿtizal (The Coptic Community: Between Integration and Isolation) (Cairo: Al-Shorouk, 2005)Google Scholar; al-Bishri, Tariq, Al-Jamaʿa al-Wataniyya: Al-ʿUzla wa-l-Indimaj (The National Community: Isolation and Integration) (Cairo: Dar al-Hellal, 2005)Google Scholar; al-ʿAwa, Mohammed, Al-Din wa-l-Watan (Religion and Nation) (Cairo: Nahdat Misr, 2006)Google Scholar; al-Baz, Mohammed, Did al-Baba (Against the Pope) (Cairo: Konooz, 2006)Google Scholar; and Bebawy, Nabil, Al-Baba Shenouda al-Thalith wa-l-Siham al-Taʿyisha al-Muwajjaha li-Siratih (Pope Shenouda III and the Imprudent Arrows Aimed at His Self) (Cairo: Dar al-Saʿada, 2006)Google Scholar.

5 Perhaps the most thorough historical account to date on the relationship between the state and the church in the 19th century and up to the 1950s is Tariq al-Bishri's Al-Muslimun wa-l-Aqbat fi Itar al-Jamaʿa al-Wataniyya (Muslims and Copts in the Framework of the National Community) (Cairo: General Egyptian Organization for Books, 1981). Additional excellent articles containing relevant information include Fiona McCallum, “The Political Role of the Patriarch in the Contemporary Middle East,” Middle Eastern Studies 43 (2007): 923–40, and Paul Sedra, “Class Cleavages and Ethnic Conflict: Coptic Christian Communities in Modern Egyptian Politics,” Islam and Christian–Muslim Relations 10 (1999): 213–36.

6 Al-ʿAwa, Al-Din wa-l-Watan.

7 For example, the church can be particularly beneficial in instilling positive attitudes among the Copts vis-à-vis good citizenship, that is to say, calling upon Copts to participate in union and syndicate elections, and so forth.

8 The number of Copts in Egypt has always been a highly contested issue. By one estimate they comprise about 11.6 percent of the Egyptian population. This estimate was quoted by Heikal (Autumn of Fury, 19) almost twenty years ago. The controversy over numbers was recently revived, with Abou al-Ella Mady, founder of the outlawed moderate Islamist al-Wassat party arguing that Copts do not exceed six percent. See Abou al-Ella Mady, Al-Karama, 6 November 2007. In response to his statement, Bishop Marcos, spokesman for the Coptic Church, announced that the number of Copts ranges between ten to twelve million, about 15 percent of the Egyptian population (Nahdat Misr, 12–13 July 2007). The Egyptian government has long avoided making any public announcements regarding the percentage of Copts.

9 Hassan, Christians versus Muslims in Egypt, 58.

10 See, for example, Iris Habib al-Masri's excellent study on relations between the clergy and the laity in The Story of the Copts, vol. 3 (Barstow, Calif: St Anthony's Coptic Orthodox Monastery Publications, 1982).

11 Al-Bishri, Al-Muslimun wa-l-Aqbat fi Itar al-Jamaʿa al-Wataniyya, 457.

12 Hassan, Christians versus Muslims in Egypt, 103.

13 Al-Bishri, Al-Muslimun wa-l-Aqbat, 456.

14 Hassan, Christians versus Muslims in Egypt, 103.

15 See, for example, al-Bishri, Al-Muslimun wa-l-Aqbat, and Karima Kamal, “Al-Kanisa al-Qubtiyya al-Urthudhuksiyya wa-l-Dawla al-Misriyya” (The Coptic Church and the Egyptian State), paper presented at the 1st Lay Conference, Cairo, Egypt, November 2006.

16 In this article the titles of pope and patriarch are used interchangeably as they are in Egyptian and Coptic literature and press.

17 Mohammed Hassanein Heikal, a former editor in chief of Al-Ahram newspaper, was a close confidant of Nasser and highly skeptical of Sadat's policies. He was imprisoned by Sadat in the wave of mass arrests that took place on 3 September 1981. Guirgis Gouda, at the time of the writing of his book Sadat and the Copts, was the president of the American Coptic Association of Southern California and a strong lobbyist on behalf of Coptic rights. He was also a strong supporter of Pope Shenouda and fiercely opposed to the papal committee established to take over the pope's responsibilities when Sadat put him under house arrest. Gouda was one of the activists who lobbied Copts living in the American diaspora not to cooperate with the papal committee.

18 Heikal, Autumn of Fury, 158.

19 Hassan, Christians versus Muslims in Egypt, 104.

20 Gouda, Al-Sadat wa-l-Aqbat, 82.

21 Kamal, “Al-Kanisa al-Qubtiyya.”

22 Heikal, Autumn of Fury, 155.

23 He was also the editor in chief of the government mouthpiece Al-Jumhuriyya. Sabry, who was a Copt Orthodox, had very strained relations with the church.

24 Sabry, Al-Sadat, 133.

25 Ibid., 140; Heikal, Autumn of Fury, 163.

26 See earlier references on the Sadat–Shenouda crisis.

27 The truth commission (a description rather than its formal name) is composed of members of the People's Assembly to investigate what happened on the ground and report back to the full assembly. Such commissions are usually assigned for incidents where there is more than one perspective/reading of reality.

28 The construction, repair, and maintenance of churches was historically regulated by an Ottoman decree dating to 1854, commonly known as al-khat al-hamayūnī (Farag Foda, Y. Labib, and K. ʿAbd al-Kareem, Al-Taʾifiya .–.–. ila Ayna? (Sectarianism .–.–. Whither?) (Cairo: Dar al Misri al-Jadid il-l-Nashr, 1987), 53). Ten conditions laid out by the government in 1934 are considered highly restrictive and discriminatory. See Bebawy, Nabil, Mashakil al-Aqbat fi Misr wa-Ahwaluha (The Problems of Copts in Egypt and Their Solutions) (Cairo: Al-Ahram Press, 2001)Google Scholar.

29 According to the church mouthpiece, Al-Kiraza, the Holy Synod unanimously agreed to cancel all Easter celebrations that year and endorsed the retreat of all metropolitans and bishops to the monasteries. The pope retreated to the monastery, and the cathedral where he resided was closed. Al-Kiraza, 4 April 1980.

30 Mayo, 9 July 1981.

31 Heikal, Autumn of Fury, 221.

32 (accessed February 2007).

33 As a form of resistance to the proposed legislative changes, there was a call for fasting for three days from 31 January to 2 February to call upon God to bestow “his people with unity of heart and peace to the nation and wisdom and success to its leaders.” This fast, although a religious act, was also a symbolic form of open and covert political resistance. The executive recommendations and conference document are available in ʿAbd al-Fattah, Mushaf wa-l-Sayf, 101, 227.

34 Ibid.; Heikel, Autumn of Fury, 219.

35 Sabry, Al-Sadat, 150.

36 Ibid., 160.

37 Consider, for example, Bishop Athanasious's rapport with the authorities in Bani Suef, which was considered highly amicable.

38 Gouda, Al-Sadat wa-l-Aqbat, 245–46.

39 Ibid., 253.

40 Pope Shenouda's change of policy and tactic are discussed in the next part of the article. However, it is noteworthy that immediately upon the termination of his house arrest, Shenouda espoused a highly conciliatory tone, as is evident from the letter he sent to Mubarak thanking him for his message of good wishes for Christmas and emphasizing that “Christians and Muslims in Egypt look forward to a bright future under the great leadership of President Mubarak.” Al-Dustur, 4 January 2007.

41 For example, when Pope Shenouda cancelled Easter mass in 1980, a church delegation approached Vice President Mubarak in hopes that he would act as mediator between Sadat and the patriarch, possibly arranging a meeting between the two to restore dialogue and ease tensions. Accounts indicate that Mubarak rejected the idea and expressed his extreme anger at the pope's actions, which he insisted were orchestrated to undermine Sadat's planned visit to the United States. An account of this meeting was published in Al-Dustur, 4 January 2007.

42 ʿAbd al-Fattah, Mushaf wa-l-Sayf.

43 See, for example, Hassan, Christians versus Muslims in Egypt.

44 al-Fattah, Nabil ʿAbd, ed., The Religious Condition in Egypt (Cairo: Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, 1995), 94Google Scholar.

45 This report, the first of its kind, provided a rigorous analysis of the various religious movements, organizations, and institutions in Egypt, as well as their rapport with each other and with the government, in historical and contemporary contexts. It was published by one of Egypt's leading think tanks, Al-Ahram Centre for Strategic and Political Studies, which released two reports on the subject, after which publication ceased.

46 ʿAbd al-Fattah, ed., The Religious Condition in Egypt, 94.

47 This does not, however, suggest that they will necessarily follow suit blindly, although given the impact of the clergy on Copts, its impact cannot be underestimated.

48 For example, when a bishop visits one of the churches in his archdiocese or at the occasion of a funeral.

49 It is significant that Pope Kyrollos also gave instructions to all the churches to ring their bells to celebrate Nasser's retraction from his decision to resign as president. Ruz al-Yusuf, 4 October 2007.

50 A liberal party that is an offshoot of the famous Wafd Party.

51 Father Philopateer was also vocal in his criticism of the manner in which the government handled the sectarian incidents that erupted in December 2005 in Alexandria. It is significant that his “sentence” would have been three years had the pope not granted him clemency in June 2007. The pope's decision may be interpreted as a political message to the government that the church leadership is no longer supporting the NDP at all costs, as it did then. The toleration for antigovernment elements within its ranks is an overt policy indicative of heightened tensions. Al-Dustur, 16 June 2006; Al-Misry al-Yawm, 16 June 2007.

52 Al-ʿArabi, 1 April 2007.

53 Al-Ahram, 27 May 2007.

54 Al-Fajr, 20 August 2005.

55 Al-Misry al-Yawm, 23 May 2007.

56 Ruz al-Yusuf, 14 April 2007.

57 Al-Misry al-Yawm, 19 January 2007.

58 It is ironic that a few days prior to Pope Shenouda's announcement of his support of the current wording of Article 2, his official spokesman, Bishop Marcos, requested the revision of the article so that the Islamic shariʿa is a source of legislation but not the principle source. He also emphasized that Copts in Egypt do want to see this article revised so that the Islamic shariʿa does not take precedence over other sources of legislation. Later, shortly after Pope Shenouda's pro-Article 2 position, Bishop Marcos somewhat retracted on his earlier statement, claiming in another press interview that in the light of the current leadership/regime, Copts do not have reservations on the current wording. Ruz al-Yusuf, 15 February 2007.

59 The movement known as al-Haraka al-ʿIlmaniyya has held two conferences. The first, in November 2006, discussed lay visions of priorities for church reform; the second, in April 2007, discussed church trials as well as Coptic engagement in civil society.

60 American-Coptic statement issued 20 March 2007, (accessed 14 October 2007).

61 Nahdat Misr, 13 July 2007.

62 See the following for details.

63 According to Bebawy, she and the bishops reached an agreement in which she would remain a Christian but be separated from her husband (Al-Baba Shenouda, 49). It was also agreed that she would live at one of the monasteries at Wadi al-Natrun.

64 For newspaper coverage of events from a Coptic perspective, see Watani, 12 December 2004, in which there is a detailed account of how the state security apparatus failed to keep its part of the deal in resolving the crisis.

65 Maximos had filed a lawsuit against the Ministry of Interior for not recognizing its official seal/stamp. The court ruling denied Maximos's appeal and justified its decision on the grounds that there is only one patriarch for the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt, Pope Shenouda, and that Maximos's church has not fulfilled the legal requirements for establishing a new denomination according to Egyptian law. The details of the ruling are presented in Sawt al-Umma, 31 December 2008.

66 A rank in the ecclesiastical order of the Coptic Orthodox Church lower than priest.

67 As recounted by Max Michel in an interview published in Nahdat Misr, 13 July 2006.

68 Al-Muwjaz, 24 July 2007.

69 These rumors featured widely in the Egyptian press; see, for example, Al-Wafd, 8 July 2006.

70 Al-Fajr, 17 July 2006.

71 Al-Misry al-Yawm, 8 July 2006.

72 Al-Ahram, 7 July 2006.

73 Al-Misry al-Yawm, 11 July 2006.

74 Al-Ahram, 12 July 2006.

75 Al-Midan, 13 July 2006.

76 Heard on television.

77 Sawt al-Umma, 14 May 2007.