Pope Shenouda III has passed away, having led the largest Christian denomination in the Arab world for four decades. He deservedly received widespread tributes from across Egypt, with the exception of the unexpected conduct of some MPs affiliated to the Salafist al-Nour party who chose not to attend a People’s Assembly session, in order to avoid participating in a minute’s silence for the deceased, whilst another group refused to stand for the minute’s silence, instead remaining in their seats, prompting widespread arguments among Egyptians and others. These acts, and the controversy that accompanied them, reflect a major problem that Egypt, and even the region, will face in the days to come. This is a problem concerning the status of Christians in the Arab world and the underlying concerns with the rise to power of political Islamist movements in a belt extending from Morocco, Tunisia, Libya and Sudan to Egypt. This area has the greatest population density in the Arab world, and could extend towards the Levant. There are those who believe that a change is inevitably coming in Syria and the Islamists will come to power there, with reference to the presence of Hamas in power in Gaza, the activity of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, and the Islah bloc in Yemen.
On the opposite side there is the growing influence of Hezbollah in Lebanon, the presence of Islamist parties in power in Iraq, and the Sunni-Shiite conflicts that are increasing sectarian tensions and becoming one of the greatest threats to regional security and stability. This means that the issue is not only about Christians in the region, but all religious and ethnic minorities, and it revolves around the themes of coexistence, equal rights and the concept of citizenship.
It is certainly not helpful to deny the existence of a problem relating to coexistence and tolerance, and instead resort to repeating the words that people have coexisted for hundreds, and in some cases thousands of years, and that the current tensions are the result of foreign conspiracies and hidden hands at work fueling sectarianism and minorities’ concerns. The truth is that the issue relates to an absence of democracy and the existence of authoritarian regimes ruling in many of our countries with tyranny, repression and intimidation, in addition to the absence of frank and open dialogue. All this has led, in many cases, to widespread neglect for minorities’ issues, along with their equal rights and full citizenship. At other times, minorities have been used as a trump card for certain political circumstances, which has exacerbated the problem and contributed to the tensions that exist below the surface.
Many would testify that Pope Shenouda III was an advocate of dialogue and tolerance, just as he was also a supporter of national unity and coexistence in his country, rejecting calls from some expatriate Copts for international intervention in Egypt under the pretext of protecting the Christians, who make up around 10 percent of Egypt’s population of roughly 85 million. The man also opposed the establishment of political parties based on religion, and rejected the call from some Copts in the late 1980s to establish a political party for Christians. It is true that he had his critics, claiming he was too conservative and prevented many changes in the Coptic Church to address the problems of personal status, that he was close to the regime of former President Hosni Mubarak, and that there was no announcement of the Church’s support for the Egyptian revolution, although many Copts actively participated in it and some of them even had a major role in movements such as “Kefaya” and the “April 6 Youth Movement”, which were fundamental in creating the revolutionary atmosphere. Yet all of this does not detract from the fact that Pope Shenouda III had a strong sense of nationalism and great awareness that enabled him to steer the Coptic Church away from many pitfalls, and play a substantial role in helping to quell attempts to ignite sectarian strife in Egypt, most notably in recent years, as well as the accompanying calls from some radical voices demanding foreign intervention to protect the Christians.
Pope Shenouda’s position seems remarkable if we compare it to that of the Maronite Patriarch in Lebanon, Bechara al-Rahi, who issued more than one statement controversial statement expressing his concerns about the “Arab Spring” and the repercussions of the fall of the al-Assad regime, saying that the Christians in the Levant will pay the price, on the basis that any future alliance between the Sunnis of Syria and the Sunnis of Lebanon would upset the balance in Lebanon and exacerbate tensions with the Shiites. The problem with the Patriarch’s remarks are that they suggest that the Christians’ fate is linked to authoritarian regimes and oppressive rule, and that it is in their interests for such regimes to continue, in order to protect their rights. The danger of such statements is clear and does not require explanation, and thus many members of the Maronite Church and others leapt to criticize them, reminding Patriarch al-Rahi that the Arab Christians are part of the fabric of their communities and their interests, like all other components of these communities, which are pushing towards democracy as a means of providing rights for all, safeguarding freedoms and ensuring the independence of the judiciary and free expression and belief. Even if there are concerns about political Islamist movements, these concerns do not justify a rejection of democracy and openness, nor do they justify embracing regimes that have been renounced by the people. Rather, it would be more beneficial to work with various currents to fix the imbalance inherent in Arab communities, confront extremism in all its forms, and create a climate of dialogue and moderation, alongside an atmosphere of tolerance and coexistence.
The wisdom that appears to be absent from Patriarch al-Rahi’s controversial remarks is what characterized Pope Shenouda III, and caused him to reject all that could inflame sectarian strife. Hence the al-Azhar institution lamented his death by saying that Egypt has lost Pope Shenouda III at a time of “critical circumstances where the country need the wisdom of the wise, their experience and clarity of mind”. Egypt is going through a difficult period where it needs – in practice and not in words only – wisdom and moderation, to act with a sense of nationalism and not according to partisan or ideological calculations. After the Islamists’ resounding victory – from the Brotherhood to the Salafists to the Jihadists – in the parliamentary elections, attention is now being directed at the presidential election and the new constitution, which has roused much controversy over some of its articles.
What will happen in Egypt over the coming weeks will have repercussions and will send an important signal to many in the region, especially the minorities, about the possibility of spreading an atmosphere of tolerance and coexistence and establishing the concepts of equal rights and full citizenship, so that the Arab nations can accommodate everyone.
The writer is Asharq al-Awsat's Senior Editor-at-Large. The article was published in the London-based newspaper on March 22, 2012