“I would love not to speak about Christians and Muslims ever again,” Bishop Angaelos, General Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom, stated at the Hudson Institute on September 30, 2013. Speaking during a luncheon briefing on “Egypt’s Copts during the Current Period of Political Transition,” Angaelos analyzed recent upheavals in his and his church’s native Egypt as well as elements of a more just Egyptian future.
With his Australian-accented English learned from growing up Down Under, the Egyptian-born Angaelos spoke against the backdrop of what the Hudson Institute’s Samuel Tadros had called in the Wall Street Journal the “largest attack on Coptic houses of worship since 1321.” Supporters of the recently deposed Muslim Brotherhood (MB) government of Muhammad Morsi had gone on a nationwide rampage during August 14-16, 2013, following a bloody Egyptian military clearing of MB public square sit-ins in Egypt’s capitol Cairo. About 50 churches along with other Christian institutions were victims of what the briefing invitation called a “horrific instance of scapegoating” of Egypt’s Christians for being responsible for the military’s violence. The Hudson Institute’s Nina Shea at the briefing especially noted that the destruction of Egypt’s historic Church of the Virgin Mary during this pogrom had not received attention comparable to the Taliban’s demolition of Afghanistan’s Bamiyan temple in 2001. Angaelos noted intentions to preserve one of the ruined churches as a monument.
Amidst this “breakdown of human rights,” Angaelos saw reconciliation as the “only way forward.” Angelos in particular rejected any sectarian rule as shown by the MB in power as well as by Egypt’s previous dictators of Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, who incited Islamist antagonisms against Christians as part of a “divide and conquer” strategy. Whereas Muslim attacks against churches might occur covertly under Mubarak, though, under MB rule assailants could use bulldozers for demolitions in broad daylight.
Angaelos recognized that “religion has its place” in society but faith could nonetheless be no excuse for violating human rights. Angaelos sought a “single law” and a “political system that is not affiliated with religion,” factors that would create a “community that is more cohesive.” Noting that the Coptic name of his church actually “just means Egyptian,” Angaelos also rejected calling Christians, estimated by him at about 12-15 million among Egypt’s population of 85 million, a “minority in our own country.”
Angaelos indicated hopes for broad Egyptian support for such an inclusive society. Angaelos a high degree of Egyptian support for the MB government’s removal, saying that “Egypt came out” during the June 30, 2013, mass demonstrations that prompted military intervention. Fundamental for Angaelos in assessing Morsi’s controversial removal by the military is “did the people want it or not?”
Previous Egyptian support for Morsi during elections reflected according to Angaelos vague “pro-religion…pro-Islam…anti-Mubarak,” and “anti-Shafik” sentiments. The latter referenced the Mubarak protégé Ahmed Shafik, a former air force general who ran against Morsi in the presidential race. Such ill-considered voting reflected a “cosmetic uprising” against the Mubarak regime lacking proper leadership. Since MB obtained power, however, Angaelos noted that many Muslims regretted in social media having voted for Morsi, given that Islamists in groups like MB would attack anyone who did not agree with them, more moderate Muslims included.
Angaelos approved as well the restraint shown by the Christian community during the August attacks. That no violence came from Christians in retaliation for Muslim attacks appeared “miraculous” to Angaelos. Such turning of the other cheek was not just principled, but also perhaps pragmatic. Angaelos cited theories of Morsi supporters seeking to provoke Christian violence as a means of justifying his return to power.
Jesus called Christians to be peacemakers, an often lonely task in places like Egypt. Whatever contribution Egyptian Christians can make to their homeland, though, Egypt’s Muslim majority will ultimately decide the fate of this country. Only Egyptian Muslims can create the equality under law for all individuals irrespective of personal background so desired by Angaelos. Yet the empirical evidence of Islam both past and present shows a recurring tendency towards specifically sectarian societies implementing various sharia law norms.
Alternatively, renewed repression by Egypt’s Muslims can only continue the historical decline of Egypt’s Christian community, once the majority in Egypt before the Muslim conquest in 641 A.D. and still today the Middle East’s largest Christian population. For a foreshadowing of what might befall them, Angaelos and other Egyptian Christians need only consider the fate of Egypt’s Jewish community. Following the establishment of Israel in 1948, both private and public sector expressions of anti-Semitism such as government expulsions and property confiscations reduced Egypt’s Jewish population from 75,000 to approximately 100 today. Angaelos may want to leave behind in the past issues of Christian-Muslim relations, but the matter is not his to decide. Angaelos and his brethren will need many prayers.