I have always called for the separation of religion and politics and I have always seen the intervention of religious institutions in politics as a sign of a weak state and a stagnant political scene.
For decades, the state had abandoned several of its basic roles, thus giving the chance for religious powers to gain ground. This explains the growing influence of political Islam as well as the remarkable role played by the church.
In this context, the role of secular Copts, who called for the establishment of a civil state, started receding with some totally withdrawing and others towing the church’s line. The church, thus, because the mouthpiece of Egyptian Copts and the esteem late Pope Shenouda had enjoyed undoubtedly played a major role in making this happen.
Now, Bishop Tawadros has become the pope and it will be very hard to ask him not to be part of the political scene especially in the light of the rise to power of Islamists. And I would not do like a member of the Muslim Brotherhood who asked the new pope to support the application of Islamic laws. I would rather ask him to call upon Copts to take part in the Egyptian political life in order to lay the foundations of the civil state.
We now have Bishop Tawadros at the head of the church on one hand and Islamists at the head of the state on the other hand. We also have a country on the verge of religious confrontation. That is why the new pope could either stand for the creation of a civil state or be part of a conflict between the church and ultra-conservative Islamist powers.
I do realize that the problem does not lie with Bishop Tawadros, yet he seems to be on a patriotic mission: protecting the civil character of the state and protecting the state from a religious conflict. That is why he needs to make sure he is not dragged into insignificant battles with certain factions whose main aim is to sow the seeds of sedition. He also needs to be aware that the Egyptian church is part of the state and has been so since its establishment 2,000 years ago. Throughout most of this time, the church has had peaceful relations with the state and has never been part of the conflict with it.
Egyptian Copts do not need a political leader, but rather a godfather. The role of the church is more than political; it is spiritual and social. The pope also has to start effecting internal reforms in the church and focus on issues like personal status laws, the criteria governing the choice of the pope, and the role of seculars.
On the other hand, civil parties need to make sure Copts do not go back to their isolation like they did before when they were deprived of being active players in the political scene.
The same message should be conveyed to the main Islamic institution in Egypt, al-Azhar and which needs to work hand in hand with the church. Away from formal meetings and publicized speeches, the two religious institutions need to join forces to promote the civil state and defend the country against powers that are trying to thrust it into an unprecedented religious conflict.
If there should be religious institutions that represent the state, then let them be al-Azhar and the church, but also let them stick to their religious roles and which by definition comprises raising awareness. Then let civil and secular parties play their role in politics and counter other powers that raise the banner of religion while doing everything that contradicts it.
(Abdullatif Al-Menawi is the former head of Egyptian Television’s news center. The article was published Nov. 8, 2012)