If religion or religious institutions play a direct role in politics, that will lead to a disaster for democracy in Egypt
Pope Tawadros II commented on the constitution-drafting body, saying that he hoped that the Constituent Assembly can write a constitution that unites all Egyptians. He also supported Article 2 of the 1971 constitution, which states that the principles of Islamic sharia are the main source of legislation.
He added that “a constitution that hints at imposing a religious state in Egypt is absolutely rejected.” At the same time, Tawadros has stressed that the church has “no political role,” because that is the job of the political parties. He said in several interviews that he would focus on spiritual and social issues.
It seems that there is a contradiction in the pope’s remarks. There is no difference between the church and the Pope. If he says something, it means the church has the same opinion and plays politics. It is obvious that his comments are political ones. So should he be directly engaged in politics or leave it for politicians? What about Copts who are new to political participation? Who can guide them in this transitional period? What is the line between playing politics from one side and protecting the interests of Copts?
I argue that the Pope should play an indirect political role and not be directly involved in politics. He should encourage the participation of Christians in political life. He should support the citizenship committees in churches that educate Copts to be actively involved in political parties and other political avenues.
The church should open its doors to non-Christians in order to break the rumors surrounding churches that they store weapons. I told young Copts at a church in Egypt few weeks ago to open their arms to their fellow Muslims and receive them in churches. This step could strengthen the relationship between the two sides during this critical moment of suspicion and transition.
Pope Tawadros should negotiate with the government on several problems faced by Christians, such as building churches and the Coptic era in the history curricula. He should defend the right of Copts to practice their religion.
For example, he was right to say that “the state should protect all of its citizens, Christian and Muslim alike,” with regard to the forced displacement of Copts from some villages. He should amend the church's controversial 1957 bylaws which regulate papal elections.
He should not directly interfere in politics. He should not repeat what his predecessor did. He should not replace Copts but support them in making their voice heard. He should not guide Copts to vote towards specific political directions. He should avoid making political statements that might backfire against Christians.
He was wrong to say that “the church will oppose any constitutional article that only takes into account the interests of the Muslim majority.”
The March 2011 amendments of the Constitution were an example of the negative consequences of the church’s direct involvement in politics. Some churches encouraged Copts to vote no because of Article 2 of the constitution. The reaction of Islamic groups was to call on their supporters to vote yes in order to establish an Islamic state and the application of sharia. It was a mistake by some churches.
The new Pope should not repeat those mistakes. Religion and religious institutions should neither govern nor play a direct role in politics. It will lead to a disaster to the democratic future of Egypt.
Finally, it is a complicated process, especially in the current circumstances in Egypt, to advise the Pope to be cautious in his statements. However it is crucial for the new Pope to defend the religious rights of Copts as he is the head of church and not to turn the church into a political apparatus. His main job is a spiritual and social one and not political. He is entitled to play an indirect political role in a sense of encouraging and supporting Christians to play active political role.
(Said Shehata is a writer for Ahram Online where this article was published on Nov. 22, 2012)