Will we listen to the new Coptic Pope?

Pope Tawadros, and the flock he leads, need the support of his co-religionists and human rights activists in the West. Will he get it?

Pope Tawadros II
Dexter Van Zile
On 7 February 2013 09:17

For many years, Pope Shenouda of the Coptic Orthodox Church was reluctant to speak publicly about the suffering endured by his flock, which represented approximately 10 percent of Egypt’s population of 80 million people.

He had his reasons.

During his tenure, which began in 1971 and ended with his death in 2012, Pope Shenouda was, for a time, banished to an isolated monastery by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. After Sadat’s death, Pope Shenouda was allowed to go free by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak but the lesson was learned – Egypt was not a free place and Copts were not equal.

Pope Shenouda’s tenure was also marked by numerous massacres and attacks against Egypt’s Copts. Even in the face of these attacks Shenouda was relatively silent about the failure of religious and political leaders in Egypt to protect the rights of Coptic Christians in their homeland. Apparently, Pope Shenouda concluded that complaining too loudly about the suffering endured by Coptic Christians would only incite more hostility and violence.

Coptic clergy in the United States were a bit more vocal about the suffering endured by their co-religionists in Egypt. Nevertheless, they have always been somewhat circumspect because if they complain too loudly and attract too much attention, there was a chance that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak would haul Pope Shenouda into his office and punish him for what Coptic clergy was saying in the United States.

Sadly, other institutions such as the National Council of Churches (NCC) remained silent on the suffering of Coptic Christians in Egypt. When a group of Coptic Christian clergy approached the NCC in the late 1970s, they were rebuffed by officials who were intent on maintaining their focus on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Veteran human rights activists warn that ignoring such pleas for help is exactly the wrong response to oppression in totalitarian societies. Outsiders must complain – and complain loudly – about the abuse of people in oppressive societies. This now-forgotten lesson informed the strategy embraced by the Helsinki Watch Group, which pressed for the rights of dissidents in Soviet jails and prisons throughout Eastern Europe during the Cold War.

With the ascension of Tawadros II as Pope Shenouda’s replacement in November 2012, it appears that the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt is speaking more vocally about events in Egypt.

In a widely broadcast interview with journalists from the Associated Press, Tawadros condemned Egypt’s recently approved constitution which many believe will be used as a tool to justify the oppression of Coptic Christians and women in the Arab world’s most populous country. He also criticized Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi for failing to protect the rights of Coptic Christians.

The report also indicates that Pope Tawadros II will “not engage in media events to project false harmony between the leaderships of the Muslim and Christian communities.” Tawadros was quoted as saying, “Realistically, we want actions not words. We don’t want a show. Egypt has changed, we live in a new Egypt now.”

Will human rights activists follow Pope Tawadros’s lead, or will they continue to abandon Coptic Christians to their oppressors, as they did in the 70s?

It’s an important question, particularly for two boys in Egypt who stand accused of insulting the Quran. An article recently published by the Christian Post provides some detail:

Attorney Karam Gabriel said anti-Christian hostilities in the restive country are getting worse as the two boys are to be tried in a court in Beni Suef – the same city where a mother and her seven children were convicted last month for reconverting to Christianity – for showing "contempt to Islamic religion and insulting the Koran."

The accusation against Nabil Naji Rizq and Mina Atallah (identified in some press reports as Mina Nadi Faraj), who were 10 and 9 years old respectively at the time of their arrest in late September, of insulting the Koran made headlines throughout the country after a man saw them playing in rubbish that he claimed included pages from the Koran. Accusing them of tearing pages of Islam's holy book – a later version of the story had them allegedly urinating on it – he filed a report that led to the arrest of the two children. They were released in early October.

Angry protestors from Beni Suef reportedly intimidated Christian residents of the nearby village of Ezbat Marco at that time and prevented them from going to work.

"They are just small children, and they don't really understand what all the fuss is about – they can't even tell the difference between the Koran, the Bible or any other holy book," Gabriel said.

Then there is a family of eight that have been sentenced to 15 years in prison for converting from Islam to Christianity. The Christian Post reports that “Leaving Islam is punishable by death in the traditional view of sharia that most Muslim scholars uphold, and sharia is cited as a source of law in Egypt's new constitution approved in a December referendum.”

Pope Tawadros, and the flock he leads, need the support of his co-religionists and human rights activists in the West.

Will he get it?

Or will the abandonment continue?

Dexter Van Zile is the Christian Media Analyst for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA)

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